“The Searchers” is an epic Western movie about an obsessed man named Ethan Edwards who spends seven years searching for his niece. She had been kidnapped by Comanches after they massacred her family.
The film was released in 1956 to mixed reviews. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called it “a rip-snorting Western as brashly entertaining as they come” but Variety deemed it “overlong and repetitious,” and Time magazine found it to be “incoherent.” In general, whether praised or damned, the movie was treated by critics and the public as just one more big Technicolor Western, another horse opera directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, like “Stagecoach” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”
“The Searchers” was not nominated for any Oscars. It did reasonably well at the box office, and then faded from view.
Over time, the film has been reassessed, first by the critics of the French New Wave and their American disciples, later by the generation of filmmakers that includes Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. In 2008, the American Film Institute named “The Searchers” the best Western ever made, and last year Sight & Sound, the authoritative publication of the British Film Institute, ranked “The Searchers” the seventh best movie of all time.
When the movie first came out, writes Glenn Frankel in his absorbing new book, “The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend,” almost no one seemed to recognize that it was “a different kind of Western, something much darker and more disturbing than the usual fare. No one seemed to see Ethan Edwards as anything less than a standard issue John Wayne action hero. Ethan’s racism, his mania, and his bloodlust all passed by without comment.”
“Racism was so endemic in our culture,” John Ford biographer Joseph McBride has remarked, “that people didn’t even notice it. They treated Wayne as a conventional Western hero. Not one person got it.”
In the film, Ethan Edwards is a strong, determined loner, tall in the saddle, as Wayne characters inevitably were, but he also seethes with anger and hatred and bitterness. He is a violent man — the film suggests there are dark deeds hidden in his past — and it becomes clear in the course of the film that his intention is to find his niece and kill her, believing that she has been irrevocably “ruined” by her captivity. (To contemporary ears, Ethan’s mission rings of “honor” killings of women in fundamentalist societies.)
Frankel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Washington Post coverage of the Middle East, begins his book with the actual episode that ultimately inspired the movie. In 1836 in east Texas, Comanche Indians attacked a group of settlers that included the Parker family. They killed five settlers and kidnapped five others, including 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker.
Cynthia’s uncle, James Parker, spent a decade or more searching for her, in vain. Finally, 24 years later, Cynthia Ann was “recaptured” by whites from Indians in what came to be called the Pease River Massacre. She would have been killed by the white attackers if she had not shouted “Americano!” at the last second.
By then, she had become a Comanche, and she spent the rest of her life wishing she could return to her tribe and the two half-Comanche sons she had unwillingly left behind. One of the sons became Quanah Parker, a prominent Comanche chief who was a champion of peace between Indians and whites. (He appeared in his role as a peacemaker at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.)
Frankel devotes almost half of the book to a riveting account of the war for the American West as it was fought in Texas and environs, and he makes it clear that the conflict between whites and Indians was marked by mind-boggling brutality on both sides. He places the story of Cynthia Ann Parker in the tradition of the “captivity narratives” that were an important part of American popular culture for centuries, most prominently in the early 19th-century novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Often, Frankel notes, the narratives had a sexual element.
In “The Searchers,” the kidnapped niece becomes a wife of a warrior named Scar. Some of Scar’s family had been killed in a massacre by whites, making Ethan and Scar, as critics Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington have pointed out, “blood brothers in their commitment to primitive justice.”
The last section of Frankel’s superb book gives a fascinating historical and anecdotal account of how “The Searchers” became a John Ford movie, and he argues that John Wayne was the perfect choice for Ethan Edwards. At the same time, Frankel tells us what happened to the two branches of the Parker family — the descendants of James Parker and the descendants of Quanah Parker now meet at family reunions.
Thus “The Searchers” — the movie and the myth — continues to reveal itself as a story that is central to the creation of America.
Harper Barnes is the author of “Never Been a Time,” a history of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot.