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In search of 'The Searchers' and the history behind the western

In ''The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,' Glenn Frankel explores the battles behind the John Ford movie but also the broader conflicts between western settlers and Native Americans.

March 01, 2013|By David Kipen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers."
John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers." (Associated Press / Warner…)

The bigger the fight between a screenwriter and a director, the better the picture. It's an arrant generalization but not necessarily an errant one. Look at Budd Schulberg's battles with "On the Waterfront," or Robert Towne's over the ending of "Chinatown," or most if not all the writers on director Otto Preminger's best movies — few if any of whom could stand ever to work with him again.

"The Searchers," which many critics and filmmakers consider the best western ever made, was written by a former film critic named Frank Nugent. According to Nugent's wife, collaborating with director John Ford may just have killed him.

Anybody fascinated by "The Searchers," westerns in general or even by the fraught history of American race relations, should find a lot to savor in Glenn Frankel's new book. In it he does much more than retrace the genesis and evolution of that classic, in which John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran tracking his missing niece and her Comanche abductor, bent on what can only be described as an honor killing. Frankel doesn't even get around to the movie until halfway into his book.

Instead he delves into the historical saga of Cynthia Ann Parker, a Texan girl stolen by Comanches in 1836, doggedly sought by her uncle James, and unhappily restored to civilization — quotation marks optional there — fully 24 years later.

A century on, Parker's half-remembered captivity narrative found purchase in the fertile imagination of a western writer and sometime filmmaker named Alan LeMay. Sick to the gills of Hollywood, LeMay rented an office behind the old House of Lee restaurant in Pacific Palisades and decanted a serialized novel called, in what had to seem like a terrible idea even then, "The Avenging Texans." By the time Harper & Row published it in hardcover, it had become "The Searchers."

Stories like that will prove catnip to certain Angelenos, the ones for whom every new cinema biography is a driving tour waiting to happen. And dedicated students of the American West may well weep at Frankel's account of the American bison's all but genocidal slaughter, or of Teddy Roosevelt restoring a small demonstration herd to Parker's improbably prosperous Comanche son.

The territories of the movie buff and the western aficionado overlap some, but they don't always coincide. Frankel's is a half-breed of a book. Some readers may adore one but barely give the other a look-in. They'll be missing out.

Frankel, a Pulitzer-winning foreign correspondent and editor who's found safe harbor directing the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism, has a fine reporter's eye for just the right image. A day before the fateful Comanche raid, he pauses to get off a typically memorable line about the homestead's "barefoot youngsters with dirty necks."

And he doesn't just write well. Frankel wants to get at larger truths about American mythmaking, about misogyny and miscegenation, and much of the time he finds his mark. He trips up only when he tries too hard to play the film critic. In a 2008 Washington Post magazine article, which probably served as Frankel's back-door book proposal, Frankel lays his cards on the table and calls "The Searchers" "my favorite movie."

Leave aside the unusual, not quite seemly idea of any critic calling a movie his favorite. Over the course of a 300-page book that thoughtfully wrestles with a single great film, it never once occurred to me that "The Searchers" was Frankel's favorite picture. When a writer can't clearly communicate his own enthusiasm — however conflicted — for the film closest to his heart, he may be a great journalist, but a fine critic he's not. When Frankel quotes a few brilliant writers on "The Searchers" (Jonathan Lethem and Gary Arnold, to name two), the shortfall shows.

Frankel also pounds at least one good point right into the ground. Early on, he says of the historical model for Wayne's character that, "Like so many storytellers, the real story James [Parker] was telling was about himself." Farther in he writes of LeMay that, "as with all storytellers — Alan's story is about himself." This great home truth of biographical criticism certainly bears repeating, and anything worth saying is worth saying twice. Just not in the same words.

If storytellers can't help telling the same story, what's Frankel's? To judge by his two previous books — about South Africa and Israel — Frankel remains endlessly fascinated with the bloody toll and unquiet aftermath of asymmetrical warfare. Between Afrikaners and blacks, between Jews and Arabs, and here between settlers and Comanches, this perennial preoccupation shines through, unmistakable. Frankel's book too charts an uneasy equilibrium, in this case between iffy film criticism and impeccable reportage.

To all these fraught standoffs, we might gratefully add "The Searchers"' conflict between its writer and director. Great movies can be born of, and sometimes even dramatize, the showdown between two (or more) strong but unequal imaginations. True to form, Frankel ultimately chronicles not one but two lopsided range wars in his book — the one between overmatched bowmen and armed regulators, the other pitting a lone writer against the man doing the shooting.

Kipen is the author of "The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History."


The Searchers
The Making of an American Legend

Glenn Frankel
Bloomsbury: 416 pp., $28


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