Anatomy of a Western: Glenn Frankel on 'The Searchers'

John Wayne in John Ford's classic 1956 western,

John Wayne in John Ford's classic 1956 western, "The Searchers." (Credit: AP Photo Anonymous)

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THE SEARCHERS: The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel. Bloomsbury, 405 pp., $28

A modest hit in 1956, "The Searchers" has grown in stature to become, for many, the greatest Western ever filmed. Yet, it's always been more than just a John Wayne movie about finding a white girl abducted by Comanche Indians. Glenn Frankel's "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend" is a must-read for movie fans and anyone interested in mythmaking and the American West.

In 1836, Comanches kidnapped 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker during a raid on a white settlement in Texas. An uncle searched for her off and on for years. By the time Texas Rangers and others accidentally "rescued" her in 1860 during an attack on a Comanche camp, Cynthia Ann was a wife and mother.

In Cynthia Ann's day, she was a heroine to some, to others merely a white savage. A century later, she was cast as a proto-feminist, the original tough Texas woman.

"The truth was less triumphalist and more poignant," Frankel writes. "Cynthia Ann was . . . the ultimate victim of the Texan-Comanche wars, abducted and traumatized by both sides."

Inspired to some degree by her saga, writer Alan LeMay focused his novel "The Searchers" on an uncle and adopted brother who try to find her. When LeMay sold the film rights, another mythmaker -- director John Ford -- went to work changing the story to fit his own vision.

"The Searchers" was the ninth of the 14 major films in which Ford directed John Wayne. The actor owed his career to Ford -- he plucked Wayne from B movie purgatory to star in "Stagecoach" (1939) -- and Ford never let Wayne forget it. Wayne took as much abuse as anyone from the bullying Ford. While making "The Searchers," Ford screamed at Hollywood's greatest cowboy, "When will you learn to ride a horse?"

Frankel's excellent research, analysis and writing raise the bar for the "making of" film book. His narrative details the life of a modern legend -- in this case, a historical event that sparked a novel that led to a film, each step revealing a different aspect of how we tell our stories and why.

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