The Searchers. But without the riveting real-life story of Ms. Parker, we wouldn't have the legendary John Wayne/John Ford film, often called the greatest western ever filmed.
In his most recent book The Searchers: The Making of a Legend , author Glenn Frankel explores both Parker's story and the Wayne/Ford film. Recently, Frankel appeared at Politics and Prose to talk about his latest work.
"The Searchers is a movie about a legend that in itself has become a legend," Frankel says. "Parker's story has been altered and embroidered through the generations. It's a foundational story about the settling of the American West. Each generation has described the story as they wanted it to be. The myth has been very useful to people over the years."
So what are the facts of the tale? In East Texas in 1836, a group of Comanches raided a white settler community and abducted 5 youngsters, including 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. Her Uncle James Parker spent 8 years searching for his captured niece. In 1860, a group of whites raided a Comanche village and discovered a blue-eyed squaw who turned out to be Cynthia Ann. She was returned to her East Texas home, despite the fact that she had wed an Indian brave and mothered 3 children. A victim of not one, but 2, abductions that completely upended her world, she died in misery and obscurity. "Initially she was something of a celebrity, but here was a woman that for 24 years had worn clothing that didn't have buttons. They called her the White Comanche Princess. Her (white) family didn't condemn her, but they couldn't understand her," Frankel said.
After her death, Parker's story continued to be retold. "It depicted a real clash of civilizations not like the phony one we talk about today between Christians and Muslims," Frankel said. "These people (in Parker's story) shared very little except a desire to wipe each other out."
In the early 1950s, a Hollywood screen writer and author Alan LeMay used it as the basis for a novel entitled The Avenging Texan. In LeMay's novel the avenging uncle became the main character. Director Ford, already firmly established as Hollywood's greatest director of westerns, revised the LeMay version for The Searchers.
"John Ford was the father of the modern western," Frankel said. "The western was at the heart of his identity. He grabbed his drinking buddy and protege John Wayne. Wayne had practically invented the character of the lone laconic gunman. Wayne played Ethan Edwards, a man tainted by racism and crazed by revenge which gave the story more ambiguity."
Instead of filming in East Texas, Ford, as he had so successfully in the past, used Monument Valley in Utah as the site of his movie. "Texas is flat and horizontal. Monument Valley is vertical and looks like Texas should look," Frankel said.
"Ford was the ultimate cinematic myth maker," Frankel said. "He filmed a story about all our western myths. You can ask - what can be more American than The Searchers?"
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
In 1989, The Searchers was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry. The film regularly appears on the best-of-all-time movie lists. For example, the film is ranked 12th on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Films. In 2008, the American Film Institute named The Searchers as the greatest Western of all time. To view the trailer for the legendary classic, click here.
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