I had no idea.
I've long had a thing for westerns. My mother was a huge fan. Growing up, I had to sit through all of the television westerns, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, even High Chaparral. (Anyone out there remember High Chaparral?) If you're a huge fan of westerns, then it's probably safe to bet that you're also a fan of John Wayne. My mother watched every John Wayne movie both in theatres and on television, some of them again and again. Except the ones he died in--she would never watch those.
So, I've seen The Searchers before. I'm a fan in part as a way to remember my mother, but also because I think it's a terrific movie.
Which is why I went out and bough Glenn Frankel's new book about the making of The Searchers and the true story behind it in hardback at my local bookshop, Bookshop Benicia. (It was a special order.)
Glenn Frankel's book The Searchers is in part about how history becomes myth. The true story behind the movie concerns Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped by Comanche Indians from her East Texas home in 1836 when she was only nine years old. Most of her immediate family was killed in the attack; she never saw her parents or her siblings again. Cynthia Parker was raised by the tribe, became the wife of a warrior leader and became the mother of three children. At age 24, she was essentially kidnapped again by the U.S. Calvery and the Texas Rangers who restored her to her white family. By that time, Cynthia Parker was thoroughly Indian, a foreigner as far as her family was concerned. She never adapted to the white world which viewed her first as a curiosity then as an object lesson.
Though Cynthia never knew it, one of her sons, Quanah Parker, grew up to be among the last Comanche war leaders. An important chief after the Comanche's finally "surrendered", Quanah lived to play himself in early silent movies.
This story becomes the basis for a novel by Alan LeMay who focuses not on Cynthia but on the uncle who spent years searching for her after she was kidnapped. Because Mr. LeMay spent most of his own career writing for Hollywood during it's early days, it's with the novel that Mr. Frankel's book moves from American history to the history of American movies. By the time his novel became a project for famed director John Ford, LeMay had become so disillusioned with Hollywood that he sold the book only on the condition that he have nothing to do with making the movie.
Lucky for him.
The final part of Mr. Frankel's book is about the making of John Ford's movie version of The Searchers which starred John Wayne in one of his best performances. John Ford was a genius, this is clear from Mr. Frankel's account of how he made The Searchers and from any random selection of his better movies, but he was not a man I would have worked for. He was a terror, someone who demanded complete obedience to his every command, someone who mercilessly picked on actors, including John Wayne, and on crew members, and someone who disregarded those who made contributions to his movies by claiming everything as his own idea.
But if you look at the best scenes from his best movies, it's easy to see why so many people would put up with him.
Much of the criticism of westerns in general and of John Ford's westerns in particular regards their racist treatment of Native Americans. Much of the criticism is warranted, probably most of it. However, I've long felt that it was largely misplaced when it comes to The Searchers. It's a product of it's time, after all. Racism directed at Native Americans is one of the themes of The Searchers. The central issue of the movie is racism, whether or not Cynthia Parked has been contaminated by her time with the Comanches, particularly by sex.
Very early in the movie, it becomes clear that the John Wayne character is looking for Cynthia in order to kill her as a way to restore the honor she has lost. That he spends years looking for her seems extreme, but this is part of the historical record-- her real uncle really did devote years to his own search. In the movie, there is a fictional young man who is part Native American accompanying John Wayne both because he sees Cynthia as a sister and because he knows the John Wayne character wants to kill her.
This is a very complex, very dark situation. While largely fictional in John Ford's version of the story, none of this is outside of what people really thought and did at the time. These are sentiments that many of the audience watching the movie in 1950's would have shared or at least sympathized with.
Mr. Frankel does address these issues in his book. While he makes no attempt to excuse the racism in this or in other John Ford movies, his book does serve to put it in context. (The Searchers is not the most grievous example of racism in John Ford's westerns by the way.) It's a difficult problem for movie fans, this question of racism in movies. So many of the great ones, the touchstones, are clearly racist, many of them egregiously so, even when placed in the context of their time. It can make for very uncomfortable viewing.
Before reading Mr. Frankel's book, I did watch The Searchers again. It's a beautiful movie--the bigger the screen you can see it on the better. Much of it was better than I remembered. The Searchers can be viewed as a study of how racism destroys people, but it's really not possible to get completely around the racism in the movie itself. At the end of the day, I'd have to describe it as a racist movie about how bad racism is.
In the movies final scene, when Cynthia Parked is welcomed back into her family's home, all of the characters enter the house for dinner except for the John Wayne character who remains standing outside listening until the moment when he begins to walk away, back into the wilderness. It's an important moment, in the movie and in movie history. Maybe even in American history. But after reading Mr. Frankel's book and after watching the movie again, I'm no longer convinced it's important enough. Mr. Frankel reminds us that John Ford was the staunch anti-communist who made The Grapes of Wrath, the most pro-socialist movie in the history of American film.
He should have done better in The Searchers.
Below is the final scene from The Searchers. I recommend watching it with the sound off and that you imagine you're seeing it in a dark theatre, on a screen that's fifty feet high.