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In 'The Searchers,' A Hunt For The Western Film


It is one of the most iconic American Westerns of all time. "The Searchers," directed by John Ford, hit the big screen in 1956. John Wayne starred in the lead role of the film as Ethan Edwards.


JOHN WAYNE: (as Ethan Edwards) Our turning back don't mean nothing. On the long run, she's alive. She's safe.

MARTIN: Edwards is former confederate soldier in the Civil War who sets out to find his young niece. She has been kidnapped by Comanche Indians. But before "The Searchers" was a blockbuster movie, it was a book. And before it was a book it was part of Texas lore. And before that, it was a true story. Glenn Frankel has traced the evolution of this story from the rugged plains of the American Southwest to Hollywood, and how the story changed along the way. His book is called "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend." And Glenn Frankel joins us from member station KUT in Austin. Glenn, thanks so much for talking with us.

GLENN FRANKEL: Oh, thanks for having me here, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, we just heard a clip of John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in the film "The Searchers." That character, the man who John Wayne plays, is based on a man named James Parker. Who was he, and what was he looking for?

FRANKEL: James Parker was the uncle of a young woman named Cynthia Ann Parker. When Cynthia Ann was nine years old in 1836, she was abducted by Comanche warriors who killed several members of her family and abducted her and several other young people. And James was an uncle who had survived this raid and who set out to find all of these five, including his own daughter. He searched for eight years. He got all of them back except for Cynthia Ann, who spent a good part of her adulthood, from age nine actually until she was 33, with Comanches. So, James is the archetype, if you will. He's an Indian hater. Indians have killed members of his family and he wants revenge, but he also wants to restore his family. And he is the model told and retold and reinterpreted over the years for the John Wayne character in the film.

MARTIN: The crux of the story that you are telling revolves around a kidnapping, the Comanches abducting a few of the younger members of this family. And this was something that you write white settlers were terrified of this.

FRANKEL: Yes, that's right. I mean, the idea of your children being hauled off into the barbarian wilderness into a world where there's no Christianity, where there's no civilization as you know it lost to you forever was a terrifying nightmare. The idea that your daughter might become a Comanche bride, that was considered a fate worse than death. All this becomes part of the rationale for white conquest. We have to defeat these barbarians in order to raise our families and to have a normal life. These folks are beyond the pale. We need to protect our women and our children. And for those who crossed that line, who voluntarily or not, or abducted, or taken over to the Indian side, it's very, very difficult, of course, for them to ever come back, even when Cynthia Ann is finally rescued, if you will - or recaptured - you know, by the U.S. cavalry and Texas rangers in 1860. It's almost impossible for her to readjust to white civilization having spent 24 years as a Comanche.

MARTIN: So, fast forward more than 100 years or so, and a young writer named Alan Le May is in Hollywood looking for inspiration for a book. How does he happen upon the story of Cynthia Ann?

FRANKEL: Well, Alan had been a novelist. He'd written a bunch of very interesting Westerns and then he'd become a Hollywood screenwriter and he wanted to get back to what he knew best and what he had had the most control over, which is to say writing Western novels. So, this seemed like a great story. It was interesting - he was most interested not in Cynthia Ann but in her uncle, James Parker, in that particular story. And Alan took this and wrote a great novel, I think, a very realistic novel, that focused not on Cynthia Ann but on the people who searched for her over that seven- or eight-year period. He created - it's a novel - so, he created some characters, he moved the timeframe of the story from 1836 up to 1868. He availed himself of other captivity narratives of other people who were kidnapped by Comanches and others and smushed some of those facts into it, and he came up with one of the best Western novels of the 1950s. And because Alan had all that screenplay experience and knew how to write a book that Hollywood would be interested in, it sold fairly quickly and for a good sum of money to the folks who worked with John Ford, the great Western director.


HENRY BRANDON: (as Chief Scar) You big shoulders, young one, he who follows.

WAYNE: (as Ethan Edwards) You speak pretty good American for a Comanche.

FRANKEL: The lead character, Ethan Edwards, the uncle, portrayed by Wayne, was an extremely complex figure. On the one hand, he's something of a psychopath, trying to find his niece, trying to restore her. But he's trying to find her not so that he can restore her to the family but he's planning to kill her, because she's grown from a nine-year-old girl to a 15-, 16-year-old wife of a Comanche warrior. She's had sex with Indians, and this was something of an honor killing that he's planning to do. And so this was a very complex, interesting character, yet still the great charisma of John Wayne.


NATALIE WOOD: (as Debbie Edwards) These are my people. (Foreign language spoken) Go, go. Go, Martin, please.

WAYNE: (as Ethan Edwards) Stand aside, Martin.

JEFFREY HUNTER: (as Martin Pawley) No, you don't, Ethan. Ethan, no, you don't.

WAYNE: (as Ethan Edwards) Stand aside.

MARTIN: In the end, this is really what you have done here, retracing the roots of this story. It is a book about the stories that we tell about ourselves, from this true story, how it evolved into myths and how Le May took it and turned it into something else and then John Ford made it into something else. As you put those stories together and made those connections, what did you learn, if anything, about how American culture tells its own story?

FRANKEL: The obvious thing, if you will, is that we will take a bit of information, we will take a story and as each generation will come along and recreate it, embroider it here, change the details, change the basic facts, if necessary, to fit their own needs and sensibilities. We tell stories to explain ourselves to each other. My storytellers, whether it's James Parker, who wrote his own little narrative of his search for Cynthia Ann, or it's Alan Le May or it's John Ford, or for that matter John Wayne - who really is telling a story about a character named John Wayne - all these people are trying to explain themselves through the stories they tell. And at the same time, they are telling the story of America and explaining the United States, explaining the conquest of the West, explaining what we went through and why we were justified in doing some of the things we did. It's all part of that same fabric.

MARTIN: "The Searchers" is the name of the latest book by Glenn Frankel. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin. Glenn, thanks so much for talking with us.

FRANKEL: Rachel, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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