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A Great American Myth



Rob Hardy


The classic myth of the captured maiden who must be rescued (from the witch in the Grimm stories, from the dragon in chivalric tales, from Troy in Homer) in its American form had the settler woman needing rescue from Indians. It is important to try to keep myth and reality in their separate realms, but stories of Indians carrying off civilized women were a staple in America. They were told, and retold, and when the movie western came, they were told again in a new way. How Americans merged fiction and fact, print and film, glorious rescues and brutal slaughters is the story in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Bloomsbury) by journalist Glenn Frankel. There were plenty of narratives by and about captured women, and while he mentions other print and film versions of the story, Frankel concentrates on the abduction of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836, and John Ford's 1956 movie on the theme The Searchers. Frankel has obviously done lots of research on both the western frontier and the wilds of Hollywood, and his story of mythmaking is detailed and fascinating in both arenas. 




Cynthia Ann Parker's was far from the first story of abduction by Indians. Frankel writes, "The captivity narrative was the country's first indigenous literary genre." There may have been stories before Mary Rowlandson's 1682 narrative of her own abduction, but she was the first to publish such an account, and it was "America's first homegrown bestseller." The stories were all variations on a theme: Indians descended on settlers, killed the men, and took the women and children to undergo years of ordeals during which they never abandoned their Christian faith, and they were eventually rescued and returned home to their welcoming families. The real stories were, of course, messier than the myth, and this is true of Parker's. The child was taken in 1836 when Comanche raiders attacked her family's settlement in East Texas. Parker was one of five captives, and we don't know much about the 24 years she spent in what may have started as captivity but eventually became her own society. She married a Comanche warrior and had three children. One of the reasons that her story has remained alive is her uncle, James Parker. He was an original Texas Ranger, an Indian-hating, hard-drinking flimflam man and would-be preacher. He spent eight years searching for his niece; he never found her, but he made sure that her plight was not forgotten.  




In 1860 there was a bloody battle named for its locale in Texas, the Pease River Massacre, between Texas Rangers and either a large army of Comanches or a small encampment preparing buffalo hides for the upcoming winter (you can imagine which way the Rangers told the tale). One of the Rangers chased down a woman in a buffalo robe and leveled his gun at her. Only when she cried out, "Americano!" did someone point out that she had blue eyes and could not be a Comanche. She wasn't so much as rescued, in Frankel's demonstration of her story; she was abducted again along with her baby daughter, and though she got back to the Parkers, she spent the rest of her life aching for her tribe and the two sons from whom she was taken. (One of those sons was Quanah Parker, who became a Comanche chief and a well-respected champion of peace and justice between Indians and whites.) A cultural oddity, she died in obscurity, sometime after her daughter died, probably of an epidemic brought by the settlers. 




That sad part of the story was mostly ignored, but the abduction and "rescue" got various retellings. Alan LeMay was a novelist who wrote westerns, and according to Frankel, his were among the better ones during the craze for such works. He researched Cynthia Ann Parker's life, but reset the story into northwest Texas in 1869. He also concentrated less on her sad story than on the uncle who (along with an adopted brother) tried to find her. The novel The Searchers became a bestseller in 1954, and was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. President Eisenhower read it.  




John Ford read it, too. Frankel is terrific in explaining about how the film was made and how Ford changed it subtly to make it darker and ambiguous. He has compared the original screenplay to the final film, and exclaims that there is an astonishing fact: "Every time he has the opportunity, Ford chooses to reduce or eliminate altogether the dialogue and exposition, substituting lyrical ambiguity for the prosaic clarity of the script." Ford always opted for fewer words and more visual storytelling. (The masterful final shot, for instance, has the uncle walking away, shown as seen from the inside of a rancher's house, framed in the doorway. "The mission is accomplished, but there is no place for the avenger in the new civilization he has helped forge," writes Frankel.) Ford is shown here as a drunkard and a bully, but also just a brilliant filmmaker. He did not use storyboards because he was able to visualize just what he wanted, and he tended to get what he wanted on the first take. This had the advantage of keeping the actors spontaneous, but it also meant that there was little extra footage for an editor to tinker with once the filming had been done. That's just the way Ford wanted it. 




John Wayne, who is usually not regarded as an actor of subtlety, does a splendid job taking part in Ford's deliberate ambiguity. He plays a loner, a man whose skills at horsemanship and tracking are unsurpassed, but who is also a racist and an Indian-hater. Viewers do not know what he will do when he finds his niece, either restore her into the family or kill her for having gone over to the Comanches. Perhaps, though, Wayne's reputation pigeon-holed the movie as just another Western. Ford had elevated Wayne from minor movies with the great Stagecoach in 1939, and directed him in thirteen more films. The Searchers did adequately at the box office, was nominated for no Oscars, and was treated by most critics at the time as the usual John Wayne shoot-'em-up. That Wayne's character wasn't a white-hatted hero, that he was vengeful, bloodthirsty, and racist went over most peoples' heads when the movie came out. 




The film's stature has grown over the decades, regarded as perhaps the best Western ever made, and influencing the French New Wave as well as American directors such as Martin Scorsese. The story of the movie, however, is only the second half of Frankel's penetrating book, with the first half laying the foundation for the rescue legend (perversely almost changed into an honor killing rather than a rescue in the movie). It isn't just an American theme, but it continues to play out; Frankel rightly sees Taxi Driver (1976) as a modern version. Those interested in a broad view of American mythmaking, as well as taking a deeper view of a particular movie classic, will find Frankel's book irresistible. 




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