Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: THE SEARCHERS--The Making Of An American Legend

THE SEARCHERS, directed by John Ford, happens to be one of my favorite films of all time. So I was certainly interested in reading the book THE SEARCHERS--The Making of an American Legend, written by Glenn Frankel. This is more than the usual "making of" volume--it is really two different books in one.

The first part of the book details the life and history of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker. During a Comanche raid on her family's homestead in 1836, Cynthia Ann was abducted and spent the next several years living among her captors. She married a Comanche warrior and had two sons by him. For years various people searched for Cynthia Ann in the hope of bringing her back to her family. She was found in 1861 and spent the rest of her short life living unhappily with white relatives.

Frankel recounts Cynthia Ann's story, along with her half-Comanche son Quanah (who became something of a celebrity in his own right in the early part of the 20th Century). Some film fans might be dismayed that half of this book is taken up by Cynthia Ann's real-life tale, but any Western expert will know that the lives of Cynthia Ann and Quanah not only influenced THE SEARCHERS, but untold numbers of other Western films and TV shows. The journey of Cynthia Ann reads almost like a fictional narrative--mostly because it reminds one of so many Hollywood Western tales.

Before Frankel gets to the filming of THE SEARCHERS, he examines the life and work of the author Alan LeMay, the man who wrote the novel on which the movie was based. LeMay had been a long-time Hollywood screenwriter and had actually directed a film (facts I did not know). Even so, LeMay wanted nothing to do with John Ford's version of his work because the author knew how difficult it would be to get along with the idiosyncratic director.

Frankel then gets to the film, recounting how important producer Merian C. Cooper was to the project, and how THE SEARCHERS was kind of a "comeback" vehicle for John Ford. Frankel also examines two men who almost never get mentioned in the context of THE SEARCHERS--multi-millionaire C. V. Whitney, who bankrolled the project, and John Ford's son Pat, who was a production assistant on the film.

The location filming of THE SEARCHERS in Monument Valley is covered, along with the relationship between John Ford, John Wayne, and other members of the cast & crew. (John Ford is my favorite film director of all time, and I love watching his films....but I don't think I would have wanted to spend too much time with him.)

Frankel points out that THE SEARCHERS was not a major success, financially or critically, when it was first released. Over the years the film's reputation continued to grow and grow, to the point where it is now universally considered one of the greatest films of all time.

I think the real reason Frankel wrote this book is that he was doing his own "search"--a search for why the legend of Cynthia Ann Parker, and the legend of the film influenced by her, has had such a powerful hold on American culture. Thankfully the author doesn't get too intellectual, or too politically correct--he points out several times how violent and terrible the Comanches could be. The dual nature of this book may hinder one's enjoyment of it--some may wish for less American history and more film history, and some may think the opposite. I happen to be a history buff and a film buff, so I enjoyed this volume.

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