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‘The Searchers’ draws line from cinema masterpiece to harsh historical reality

Dennis King Published: September 18, 2013

Most people are probably familiar with the tragic American frontier tale of Cynthia Ann Parker and her abduction by a Comanche war party through director John Ford’s iconic 1956 Western, “The Searchers.”

The film is widely recognized as one of the all-time classic Westerns, the pinnacle of Ford’s career and the vehicle of star John Wayne’s most ambitious and complex role. But there are many more layers to the story – culturally, historically and psychologically – that remain hidden to casual admirers of the movie, and those are exposed and examined with great skill and insight by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel in  ‘’The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend” (Bloomsbury USA, $19).

It’s a wonderful book that begins with a skilled appreciation of the film and works its way back through the real-life event that not only inspired the film and its literary source material, the popular 1953 novel by Alan LeMay, but that also forged much of the quintessential American mythology about relations between plains Indians and white settlers on the Western frontier.

More than a century before LeMay’s adventurous fictional account and Ford’s sweeping cinematic version, an actual tragedy occurred on the hardscrabble East Texas frontier that became the stuff of pioneer legend. In 1836, a band of Comanche raiders attacked a white settlement, killed five people, plundered their belongings and rode away with five captives, including 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker.

As was Comanche custom, Cynthia was absorbed into the tribe and eventually became the wife of a warrior and the mother of three children, including future Comanche chief Quannah Parker.

Not much more is known about Cynthia’s years among the Comanches, but through meticulous research Frankel attempts to fill out a picture of how tough and tenuous life was on the frontier for both white settlers and Indians alike. During that period, the author focuses on the tragedy of Cynthia’s situation – as a young girl ripped from her family and thrust into a harrowing new life, and later as a woman restored to a civilization the hardly knew and regarded with suspicion. Frankel also recounts the role of Cynthia’s uncle, James Parker (Wayne’s hate-driven Ethan Edwards in the film), who never gave up his vengeful search for his lost niece.

In 1860, Cynthia was rescued by Texas Rangers and the U.S. Cavalry and, against her will, reunited with the Parker family. But, as Frankel notes, she “had become a Comanche,” and she never reconciled to the loss of her Indian children and her reluctant return to “civilization,” and she died in unhappiness and obscurity.

But her legend lived on in growing mythology, hazy memory and grand exaggeration. In graceful and compelling prose, Frankel’s fascinating book deftly balances myth and fact, legend and cruel reality, and blends them artfully into a work that underscores the masterpiece status of Ford’s “The Searchers” and connects it with great compassion to an unforgettable chapter in American history.

- Dennis King


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