Den Of Geek Book Club: The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend

Glenn Frankel's exploration of famous John Ford's Western, The Searchers, is our Den Of Geek Book Club non-fiction choice this month...

John Ford’s The Searchers is a film that has had many interpretations placed upon it since it was released in 1956. Some would say it’s a plea for tolerance. Others would point out that some scenes contain a less forgiving message. The key element of Glenn Frankel’s book takes a different stance. It starts with surprising fact – that The Searchers is, in fact, based on a true story, taking its inspiration from events that played a huge part in the way settlers viewed Native Americans in the nineteenth century, and beyond.  

The Making Of An American Legend charts the way that truth can become legend, and legend can become film. Of course, John Ford loved these sorts of distinctions; ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ – is the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford took pleasure in even mythologising himself at times as the Man Who Shot Film of The Battle of Midway. Glenn Frankel’s book reprints the legend here; for an interesting counterpoint to this version of Ford’s career during World War II try Five Came Back by Mark Harris. It’s definitely worth a read, if Ford is the main draw for you.

What really amazed me was how quickly the fact could become legend. It took only a few years for the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a homesteader girl in Texas who was captured by a Comanche raiding party and recovered 24 years later, to sweep the continent and become the leading narrative of a new nation. You can see it in books such as The Last Of The Mohicans – the threat to white women that was worse than death. And yet Cynthia Ann’s son, Quanah Parker, was raised as Comanche and is one of the very few, perhaps the only, Native Americans to find a way to live by bridging both worlds. He negotiated for his people while wearing a suit and tie, and a Native American headdress. His story alone is fascinating enough to make this book worth reading.

So, chronologically, the story starts in 1836 with Cynthia Ann’s capture, and continues to the death of Quanah Parker in 1911. Then, less than fifty years later, Alan LeMay wrote a novel based on Cynthia Ann’s abduction, and sold it to John Ford’s production company.

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This is definitely a book of two halves. The second half, which deals specifically with the filming of The Searchers, is, perhaps, an easier read for film-lovers, and is filled with the kind of anecdote that intrigues. Ford was a difficult man. The book paints a picture of someone who had a terrible relationship with his own son but hired the same personal accordion player to accompany him on film shoots for thirty years. He could charm and bully in equal measure, and only shot precisely what he needed to lessen the chance that the studio could take a film away from him and recut it later; there simply wasn’t any extra material to work with. The book gives less time generally to John Wayne, but there is a look at his acting style and how The Searchers was a perfect fit for the character he constantly projected, and made him seem somehow bigger than life.

Personally, I can’t say that I agreed totally with Frankel’s reading of the film, when he touches on how he interprets some of those key concepts of tolerance and forgiveness. But doesn’t that just go to prove how open The Searchers is? It could be viewed as a weakness in the film, perhaps, that so many people can find something different in it. But I like to think that the ambiguity gives The Searchers an enduring appeal. It’s an appeal that has, for me, only been increased by knowing where that story began, and why it taps into a hugely important part of American literature. In the UK we have been revisiting the myth of King Arthur and the bonds of noble brotherhood for centuries. I wonder if the United States will do the same, and continue to project the story of Cynthia Ann Parker in a thousand different ways. Some stories, it seems, are determined to last.

We’d love to read your comments about The Searchers: The Making Of An American Legend below.

At the beginning of April, Kaci will be reading and discussing The Devil’s Intern by Donna Hosie.

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