There are a few Hollywood movies so thematically rich and so historically resonant they may be considered part of American literature. “The Searchers” is one.
In his vivid, revelatory account of John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, Glenn Frankel, whose reporting from the Middle East for The Washington Post won him a Pulitzer Prize, writes that “The Searchers” may be “the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen.” Perhaps that should be “have really seen.” Constantly televised, frequently revived, readily available on DVD, “The Searchers” has never been hard to find; still, the subject this most troubling of movies addresses is an inducement to denial.
Like a modernist drama, “The Searchers” opens on a void, in this case an empty stretch of Texas: an angry loner returns to his family after a long absence. A day or two later, they are massacred by Comanche raiders. He spends the next seven years in dogged pursuit, seeking revenge and the young niece taken captive, but when he realizes the child has come of age as an Indian woman, his objective shifts. He seeks not to rescue her but to murder her. This, briefly, is the plot of what, in its return to the genre’s root issues, is the most radical western ever made.
“The Searchers” was adapted from a novel by Alan LeMay that was inspired by the case of Cynthia Ann Parker; in 1836, she was abducted at age 9 by Comanches who slaughtered her family before her eyes. The underlying story is even older: dating back to the 17th century, memoirs of white women held captive by Indians are the original indigenous American narrative. Frankel notes that the year Cynthia Ann was taken, three of America’s four best-selling novels were by James Fenimore Cooper, with captivity figuring in all; the fourth was the true story of a settler woman who, captured by the Seneca Indians, married into the tribe, had seven children and refused to rejoin white civilization.
Just as relevant, although Frankel doesn’t mention it, was one of the most popular American melodramas of the first half of the 19th century, Robert Bird’s “Nick of the Woods” — published a year after Cynthia Ann disappeared into the wastes of Comancheria. After the hero’s family is massacred, he declares war on all Indians, determined to murder as many as he can. This tenacity is comparable to that of Cynthia Ann’s Indian-hating uncle James Parker, an original Texas Ranger who spent eight years searching for her. Meanwhile, Cynthia Ann became a Comanche bride and gave birth to three children. Twenty-four years after her abduction, she was recaptured along with her infant daughter. The man credited with rescuing her went on to serve two terms as governor of Texas; the captive, however, was unwilling and unable to readjust to white society. Her daughter died of smallpox (though there are differing versions of the story), and longing for her lost sons, Cynthia Ann followed.
Frankel calls the Comanches “the most relentless and feared war machine in the Southwest.” In his graphic account, the atrocity-filled death match between Texan settlers and Indians escalated from disputes over horses and hunting rights into “the most protracted conflict ever waged on American soil, a 40-year blood feud between two alien civilizations” — a struggle that was personified by the twice-abducted and permanently traumatized Cynthia Ann Parker. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, her story became the stuff of operas and melodramas. In 1936, her white relatives and Comanche descendants gathered to re-enact her kidnapping and subsequent recapture.
As detailed by Frankel, Cynthia Ann’s son Quanah was a remarkable figure in his own right. Quanah was a Comanche war chief who, after reaching an accord with the whites, would be “the most important and influential Native American of his generation,” a man whose dinner guests ranged from Geronimo to Theodore Roosevelt. Nevertheless, when LeMay began researching his book, he was less interested in Cynthia Ann (or Quanah) than in the obsessed, long-forgotten uncle who had devoted years to chasing her memory. “The Searchers” (1954), LeMay’s 13th novel, was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and sold more than 14,000 copies in hardcover. President Eisenhower read it; so did John Ford.
Ford, by Frankel’s unsentimental account, was a drunk and a bully, a political opportunist and a genius who, according to his assistant director, “shoots a picture in his mind before he ever turns on a camera.” Before filming began in June 1955, Ford announced that his new western would be a “psychological epic.” Indeed, “The Searchers” is steeped in pathology — not just the director’s, but ours. No American movie has ever so directly addressed the psychosexual underpinnings of racism or advanced a protagonist so consumed by race hatred.
Raising the stakes, Ford’s savagely driven Ethan Edwards was played by Hollywood’s reigning male star and most outspoken anti-Communist, John Wayne. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Ethan takes America’s sins — racism, cruelty, violence, intolerance — onto himself.” He is at once hero and villain, perhaps even a saint in his mad, essentially selfless quest. At least that’s how it looks in retrospect. Ford’s biographer Joseph McBride tells Frankel that when “The Searchers” opened in the spring of 1956, “racism was so endemic in our culture that people didn’t even notice it. They treated Wayne as a conventional western hero.”
However misunderstood, “The Searchers” was hardly unappreciated. The New York Herald Tribune termed the movie “distinguished”; Newsweek deemed it “remarkable.” Look described “The Searchers” as a “Homeric odyssey.” The New York Times praised Wayne’s performance as “uncommonly commanding,” and The Los Angeles Times would note the actor’s unusually favorable reviews in the Eastern press. The movie was a hit, tied with “Rebel Without a Cause” as the year’s 11th top box-office attraction.
Only Ford’s fans were made uneasy by the film’s rambling plot and unpleasant protagonist. Writing in the British journal Sight and Sound, the future director Lindsay Anderson objected to the hero’s character: Ethan Edwards was “an unmistakable neurotic, devoured by an irrational hatred of Indians.” It was another future director, Jean-Luc Godard, who was likely the first to regard “The Searchers” as a masterpiece. In a 1959 Cahiers du Cinéma essay, Godard compared the movie’s ending to “Ulysses being reunited with Telemachus”; in 1963, he called it the fourth-greatest American sound film.
In the United States, the critical re-evaluation of “The Searchers” coincided with America’s Indochinese adventure. A generation, more or less Frankel’s, grew up in a world saturated with westerns, and many took the genre as a metaphor with which to understand the historical and psychological basis of the Vietnam War. (In order to save his despoiled and brainwashed niece, Ethan — or rather John Wayne — believes he must destroy her. Better dead than red.) “The Searchers” would be a touchstone for a new wave of Hollywood directors and can be found refracted in some of the most notable ’70s movies, including “Star Wars” and “Taxi Driver.”
It was around this time that Leslie Fiedler published a slim volume making the case that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Roots” could be read as a single, multimedia “inadvertent epic” — a story about slavery, race and family that America gave to itself. As framed and enriched by Frankel, “The Searchers” is another such epic; recounting the making of what he calls “an American legend,” he has retold it well.
J. Hoberman is the author, most recently, of “Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?”
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The New York Times
By J. HOBERMAN - February 22, 2013