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Book of the week: The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers “has always been more than just a John Wayne movie.”

(Bloomsbury, $28)

John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers “has always been more than just a John Wayne movie,” said Douglass K. Daniel in the Associated Press. Yet in this new book about the deeper story behind the film, journalist Glenn Frankel has found layers of significance that make must-reading for anyone interested in the myths that America chooses to tell itself. Ford, after all, didn’t snatch the movie’s plot from thin air. He was adapting a 1954 best seller based on a Texan’s actual years-long search for a niece who’d been abducted at age 9 during an 1836 Comanche raid. When Cynthia Ann Parker was “rescued” from the tribe 24 years later, she was regarded by some as a heroic survivor, by others as a white savage. In Ford’s rendering, she simply became a secondary figure.

Frankel has made Cynthia Ann’s actual experience quite vivid, said Don Graham in Texas Monthly. Rather than being grateful for being returned to white society, she longed to be reunited with the Comanche sons she’d raised and the Comanche culture she’d adopted. In fact, the only time she seemed truly happy after her re-abduction was on a day when a cow was slaughtered and she and her young Comanche daughter were allowed to gorge themselves on raw kidneys and liver. Frankel, “without resorting to academic jargon,” reminds readers that Americans had been gobbling up “captive narratives” long before they’d even heard of Cynthia Ann Parker. Most every one subjected a white woman to potential defilement by her Indian captors only to return her safely home. The formula, in fact, “amounted to a kind of Puritan porn.”

Ford clearly understood that dynamic, said Stephen Whitty in the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger. He took Wayne, one of cinema’s biggest stars, and had him play a very odd hero—a man so offended by the idea of interracial rape that he decides he must kill the niece he set out to save. That plot choice marks The Searchers as “the most radical Western ever made,” said J. Hoberman in The New York Times. “No American movie has ever so directly addressed the psychosexual underpinnings of racism” or so daringly challenged the myths of the West’s conquest. Frankel asks us to see Cynthia Ann Parker’s story as having made an epic journey of its own, recast by each era for new purposes. His “revelatory” work brings that larger drama to life.

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