The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend

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I used to live in the Washington DC area. Although I was a poor graduate student at the time, there was a great source of cheap entertainment back then: the American Film Institute Theater, nestled in a corner of the Kennedy Center. It was a great way for a wannabe film buff to see definitive versions of old movies on the big screen. And it was there that I saw The Searchers, one of the best Westerns (some say the best) ever.

It was kinda-sorta based on a true story: the abduction by Comanches of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker from a Texas settlement in 1836, where most of the rest of her family was killed. Her uncle James spent fruitless years trying to find her. But Cynthia Ann became one of the wives of a Comanche chief, and lived with the tribe until 1860, when she and her infant daughter Prairie Flower were "rescued" in another massacre, this one by Texas Rangers, perpetrated on mostly women and children.

Glenn Frankel does something kind of neat in this book: exploring not only the true story of Cynthia Ann, but also the entire sweep of subsequent events, up to the present day. He is a meticulous researcher. The original story is far too grim and bloodsoaked to make a popular movie. Admirable characters were thin on the ground of mid-19th century Texas. (One decent guy appears, only to be shot in the back later that same paragraph.)

Cynthia Ann died only a few years after returning to the white world, probably spurred by the illness and death of Prarie Flower. All indications were that she was miserable the entire time.

But her older son, Quanah Parker, went on to become a Comanche chief himself. Although he probably killed his share of white people as a youngster, he eventually grew to become an advocate of peace. Although this was probably because he could see any other path was hopeless. He grew to (relative) fame and fortune, entertaining Teddy Roosevelt at his home.

Cynthia Ann's story was heavily mutated/adapted into the novel The Searchers, by Alan LeMay. And that book was (after much more tinkering) used as the source for the movie by the (um) colorful director John Ford, starring John Wayne as the uncle in search of the kidnapped child.

Frankel makes all this fascinating, equally at ease describing the mutual atrocities in 1836 Texas and the petty tyrannical genius of John Ford. Thankfully, he spares us any grand theorizing about What It All Means About America. In an epilogue, he describes how the remnants of the Parker clan, both red and white, celebrate their ancestors' lives. And it's very touching.