John Ford’s The Searchers is one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Released in 1956, the film is the tale of Ethan Edwards — a Civil War veteran, played by John Wayne, whose niece is kidnapped during a Comanche raid. Burning with grief, racial hatred, and Old Testament rage, the Duke leads a five-year search to save her and exact revenge on her bloodthirsty captors. Ford, who directed Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, was Hollywood’s most iconic interpreter of the American West.
But the story of The Searchers wasn’t the fabrication of some armchair-cowboy screenwriter sitting in front of an Underwood. It was based on the 1836 kidnapping of a 9-year-old girl in East Texas named Cynthia Ann Parker. In this well-researched dual history, Glenn Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter, attempts to interweave these two stories: the fact and the legend. The fact turns out to be more fascinating. After all, most readers who pick up a book about The Searchers will already know something about the film’s backstory. They may well have an idea about the arduous shoot in Monument Valley and Ford’s prickly reputation as a tyrannical drunk. Frankel doesn’t add much that’s new to that story. Instead, it’s his account of Parker’s abduction and the quarter-century quest to recover her that casts a haunting, harrowing spell. By the time she was finally recaptured in the Battle of Pease River, she was no longer the girl her family remembered and prayed would be returned to them one day. She was fully Comanche — the wife of a warrior and the mother of three Native American children. Her reimmersion into white society against her will and the sad remainder of her days play out like a cruel, heart-wrenching tragedy — the exact opposite of the John Wayne yarn. No wonder Ford went with the legend instead of the fact. B+
”…something about a man riding a horse through a rugged landscape, Ford liked to say…made it the most natural subject for a movie camera.”