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Classic Hollywood: 'The Searchers' camps for night at Aero

John Ford's classic western starring John Wayne screens. Glenn Frankel will sign his new book about the film and the true story that inspired it.

March 10, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers."
John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers." (Warner Bros. )

On May 19, 1836, a force of Comanche warriors accompanied by their Kiowa and Kochi allies attacked Ft. Parker in central Texas. Besides killing several of the residents of the fort, the Comanches kidnapped five captives, including 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker.

For years, her uncle James Parker tried and ultimately failed to find her. Cynthia Ann stayed with the Comanches for 25 years, marrying a warrior and having three children, including the legendary Quanah Parker, a famed Comanche chief and leader of the Native American Church.

Cynthia Ann was returned to her white family when she was found by the U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers. Thoroughly Comanche at this point, she lived with relatives for a decade but couldn't adjust to the white man's world. She stopped eating and died of influenza in 1870.

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Nearly 120 years after Cynthia Ann's kidnapping, legendary director John Ford returned to his beloved Monument Valley, a location near the Arizona-Utah border that he used in several films including 1939's "Stagecoach," to film his most complex western, "The Searchers." The story was based on the Parker tale.

The 1956 film stars Ford's frequent collaborator John Wayne in one of his most emotionally daring performances, as Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards. Accompanied by his adopted nephew (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan goes on an obsessive search to find his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who had been kidnapped by Indians when they attacked the family's homestead. As the years unfold, the true reason behind Ethan's dogged determination to find Debbie is revealed.

Glenn Frankel's sweeping new book, "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend," explores the story of Cynthia Ann and the classic western. Frankel will be at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre on Monday evening to sign copies of the book before a screening of "The Searchers."

"The Searchers," said Frankel, is a film that "really speaks to me. It is a work of a mature artist."

Though there were many books and stories about women and children who had been captured by Native Americans in the 19th century, Cynthia Ann's tale took on mythic proportions. There were books, one-act plays and even operas written about her life. Western writer Alan Le May revisited her story in the early 1950s, writing the powerful novel on which the Ford film is based.

Frankel's book is a revelation with regard to the relationship between the irascible, alcoholic Ford and Wayne. The Duke became a star in Ford's 1939 seminal western "Stagecoach," and the two collaborated on numerous films through 1962, including "The Quiet Man," "The Horse Soldiers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

But Ford wasn't above berating Wayne, or his other actors and crew.

"He couldn't accept love for what it was," said Frankel of Ford. "He always questioned it. He was a very complex man."

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Wayne took whatever Ford dished out, said Frankel, because he was "an extremely loyal person. He was also a smart guy. He knows when he's working with Ford and Howard Hawks, he was doing enduring work. That is the kind of bargain all of Ford's people ended up striking because some of them just needed the work, but for a lot of them, it is knowing you are going to do great work."

"The Searchers" didn't receive an Oscar nomination, though Ford was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award.

"When the film came out, it was received as a standard oater — that there was nothing special about it," said film historian Nick Redman, who wrote and directed the 1998 documentary "A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and the Searchers." "But subsequent generations have concentrated on the fact that it deals with dark issues."

"The Searchers" was rediscovered by the young filmmakers of the 1970s, including Martin Scorsese, John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader. "That whole group was weaned on this movie and homaged it in their movies several times," said Redman.

Then it fell out of favor. "It must be one of those cyclical movies," said Redman. "It touches a nerve for a specific audience and then it lies fallow. But it's being rediscovered through DVD and Blu-ray."

Are you an aficionado of iconic Hollywood? Like us on Facebook and go to the Classic Hollywood landing page to get more Times coverage.

susan.king@latimes.com

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'The Searchers'

Where: American Cinemathque's Aero Theatre, 328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.; book signing, 6:30 p.m.

Admission: $5 for seniors, $7 for members, $11 for general public

Information: http://www.americancinematheque.com

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