This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Spring 2014, Volume 60, Number 3)

THE SEARCHERS - The Making of an American Legend

By Glenn Frankel. Bloomsbury, 2013. Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography and Index.405pp. $28.00. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-60819-105-5.

Many members would have seen the film subject of this book: The Searchers, and some would have read Alan LeMay’s book of the same title on which the John Ford film was based. This latest book is split into an Introduction followed by four main sections: the first dealing with Cynthia Ann Parker’s capture by Comanches, her life among the Indians and the tragedy after more than twenty years a prisoner; the second with her son, Quanah Parker; a short third on the author and screenwriter Alan LeMay; and the fourth on the film itself.

The actual events surrounding Cynthia Parker occurred decades before they did in either the original book (set in 1868) or the later film. The massacre of her family and her abduction, along with four other youngsters, took place much earlier, in 1836. Her uncle, James Parker searched for her and the other captives for eight years, managing to recover four of them, but not Cynthia. It was not until 1860 that she was released by the U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers, after spending more than two decades among the Indians. She had, however, been reported as being seen during these long years, though none of these sightings led to her release. Also during this period she had at least three children, two boys and a girl, the latter being ‘rescued’ with Cynthia; but the two boys were never seen again by their mother.

One of her sons, Quanah, added to the legend of his mother. Little is known of his early life and much of what he later said about it needs to be taken with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’; he doesn’t appear to be mentioned in any official records before 1875. The author tells of efforts to control the Comanches, with Sherman, Sheridan and Mackenzie, amongst others, pitted against them. Buffalo hunters were another group the Indians had to deal with and a company of them made their way in March 1874 into Indian Territory and set up their enterprise at an old trading post named Adobe Walls, in the heart of the hunting grounds of Quanah and the Quahadis Comanches. Quanah later claimed that the idea of a raid on the post originated with him and in late June an attack duly took place. It resulted in an embarrassing defeat for the attackers, including a medicine man who had foreseen many white deaths. Within a little under a year, Quanah and his followers surrendered at Fort Sill, and he became a go-between to entice other Comanches into the fold, also taking up his mother’s name. In 1884 he was recognised as ‘chief’ of the Comanches and, at an estimated cost of $2,000, had a large house – The Star House - built for him. It was slowly added to, enabling him to house his seven wives and nineteen children; and grand enough to invite Theodore Roosevelt to dine there. By the early 1890s he was presiding judge of the Court of Indian Offenses and had amassed much land, animals and other property. But though he had become a friend to his once white enemies, and in spite of what the Treaty of Medicine Lodge (1867) had said about the ‘ownership’ of the land by the Indians, the whites set about dismantling the Indians’ territory. His one-time diner, Roosevelt, never a lover of Native Americans, gave no backing to his host. Quanah’s softly-softly approach, recognizing the inevitability of the Indians’ losses, and the more belligerent tactics by others, all came to no avail and their land slowly changed hands. He did, however, consent to appear at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, celebrating the American West. In 1910 his mother’s remains were moved from Texas to Oklahoma and reburied there; the following year he died and was buried next to his mother’s grave.

Alan LeMay first began writing fiction in the 1920s basing it on his pioneering family’s heritage, and the struggle between the pioneers and the Indians. After school he had joined the army during World War One, but never left his native land. He entered the University of Chicago in 1919 and his first Western novel, Painted Ponies, was written being published in 1926. His short stories and some novels appeared in some glossy magazines. In the late 1930s he and his second wife moved to Hollywood, where, rightly, he thought the money was for a writer. Brought in as a story consultant, he worked on North West Mounted Police, with Gary Cooper, followed by John Wayne in Reap the Wild Wind. Neither film was favourably received by LeMay. Working as an independent scriptwriter gave him a somewhat fragile life financially but in the early 1950s he could afford a home among the stars. Thinking more money could be made in producing or directing films, he worked on two, The Sundowners and High Lonesome, but neither made any money. Disillusioned he went back to his first love, the Western novel, and The Searchers, his thirteenth novel, was the result. The book did well and, even better, the screen rights were bought for $60,000; with John Ford as the film maker.

Westerns as a film genre dated back to the turn of the century and Quanah Parker had actually appeared in the 1908 The Bank Robbery. Ford’s brother, Francis, who changed his name from Feeney to Ford, helped direct two early Westerns: War on the Plains and Custer’s Last Fight, both from 1912. Joining Francis in California, John had a part in the classic, The Birth of a Nation. It was in Hollywood that John met Harry Carey and the two became firm friends. In 1924, John made The Iron Horse, and by 1927 he had directed some sixty films, with nearly three-quarters of them Westerns. The Oscars won, however, through his films, were non-Westerns. By luck though, his son introduced him to Ernest Haycox’s short story, “Stage to Lordsburg” and Ford got the studio to run with it. His choice for the main male role was hotly disputed but Ford ‘stuck to his guns’ and John Wayne was given the lead in Stagecoach.

Marion Morrison was born in Iowa in 1907 and had starred, as John Wayne, in a number of easily forgettable B Westerns, meeting Ford at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1926. His first big role had been in The Big Trail but this had been a box office flop and for some unnamed reason Ford didn’t speak to him for a couple of years afterwards; this didn’t stop Ford from giving Wayne the plum role in the 1939 film. Wayne continued to star in some good films but he was also still churning out B Westerns. Ford served in the military during World War Two, while Wayne fought the enemy on the silver screen. Red River followed the war, as did Ford’s cavalry trilogy, all starring ‘the Duke’. Wayne was Ford’s choice for The Searchers, though Kirk Douglas had been after the role. At the time, the film received mixed reviews, but it made a reasonable profit. As the years have passed, though, it has gained a reputation as one of the great Westerns, if not the greatest. This book is to be recommended on a series of levels: the Frontier West as it was and portrayed in books and films; John Ford; John Wayne; and, of course, their film, The Searchers. Do buy the book.

Robert J. Wybrow



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