on February 21, 2013
Anyone who has ever watched "The Searchers" knows that this is one of the greatest westerns ever made and most would agree that John Wayne probably did his best acting in this movie even though it is not the movie for which he received his Academy Award.
This book tells the inside story of the making of that movie in Monument Valley, AZ along with the stories of the actors and the great director John Ford. That story alone would make this a magnificent book with an insider's look at a classic film, great actors and a classic movie backdrop. The story surrounding this movie is well told and some of the things we learn about Ford, Wayne and movie making during the 1950's are extremely interesting.
However, Frankel takes this one step further and tells us about the real life Cynthia Parker who was kidnapped by the Comanche Indians in the 1830's in what was still truly the Wild West. His story of her 20+ years with the Indians who kidnapped her and the story of Quanah and the other Indians is just magnificent and enlightening about life as an Indian or as a pioneer during that time. The story of Parker is very interesting as well as what happened after she was "rescued".
Frankel also gives us a look into the novel by Alan Lemay that was loosely based on Parker's story and inspired this great movie.
The authors insight on what this event and movie tells us about the American story is what turns a really good book into a great one. This is history, biography and pop culture all in a single fascinating book.
Frankel is expert at telling all of these stories and meshing them into a book that both lovers of history and Hollywood should truly enjoy. Readers of this book are truly in for a treat. I can't say enough to recommend it totally.
on February 21, 2013
There is a fiercely ambitious scope at work in Glenn Frankel's remarkable The Searchers. Not content to just explore and consider the epic western by the same name, Frankel looks at the film as the final installment in this Russian doll of a book. Instead, we start 120 years earlier with the true roots of John Ford's film. In an astonishing display of reporting and researching, Frankel deftly paints a portrait of the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker, which will set off all the events to follow--and make all the characters in his book searchers of one kind or another. In Frankel's hands, the history of the Comanches and the searing aftermath that ensues from the kidnapping make for searing reading.
Frankel tells the story of the U.S. Calvary's and Texas Rangers' efforts to find Parker like a great novelist, and that alone could have made for a terrific book. But then we move on to writer Alan LeMay, who hits on the idea to build a novel around the facts of Cynthia Ann's life. When Frankel gets to the Hollywood part of the saga, he presents John Wayne and John Ford in all their full-figured complexity--Wayne, with a surprising vulnerability, and Ford, often merciless in his quest to make a film for the ages. In these passages, Frankel writes like an assured film historian, offering plenty of nuanced and convincing insights into Ford's methods while also chronicling the toll for everyone involved.
Everyone is searching in this book--for justice, their identity, for their place in the world. By the book's conclusion, you're in awe of Frankel's vision for how all these stories connected and resonated with each other. John Ford's "The Searchers" is a classic film for many reasons, and now, so many decades later, Glenn Frankel has delivered a true classic of his own.
on August 13, 2013
I would love to give this book five stars, partially to poke a finger in the eye of the one-star reviewers who want their history black and white. Many of the one-star reviews, aside from those offended by Frankel not being goodthinkful, seem to have missed the point. This is not a book about The Searchers, it's a book about the idea of The Searchers. That is why Frankel spends many pages on Texas history, discusses Alan LeMay in context, and concludes with the countermythologies of Quanah Parker. The idea that the Anglo West was NOT racist (a prevailing one-star view) is a compound of silliness and ignorance that it's hard to take seriously. Frankel tries carefully to balance the racist bombast of white Texas history (Did 19C Texas have a single governor who didn't need to be whipped and tossed down a well?) with the stark (but apparently deniable) savagery of the free range Comanche, which of course offends the black and whities of both sides. He has done a good job of putting together the best of information, but this is not a book about information, it's an interpretation, and a good one.
If you are haunted by the moral ambiguities of The Searchers, that great and profoundly racist film peppered with embarrassing slapstick and yet stark in its moments of honesty, you will enjoy this book. Frankel is examining the American soul and Ford, a sentimental bully and great artist, is as close to that soul as any of our filmmakers. Frankel weighs the pontificating against The Fate Worse Than Death against the reality of colliding and merging cultures; and he reminds us that the one thing worse that being captured by Indians was being rescued. He spends what might seem a long peripheral section on Quanah Parker, the Comanche leader who brilliantly navigated White America's schizoid attitude toward "the Indian." He traces the racist thread of The Searchers from the book (written by a man who had written sympathetic novels about Indians but consciously and deliberately chose this time to "tell the Texan side") through the development of the film and then full-length into the film's reception. It's an ambitious undertaking, and the resulting book is a great read.
So why only three stars? Well, for starters, it is not "magnificent prose." Frankel is a journeyman writer. Barry Lopez, Larry McMurtry and Timothy Egan write "magnificent prose;" Frankel gets the words on the page, sometimes repetitively, seldom memorably. It is also true that Frankel can't be entirely relied on for accuracy (he does indeed put the Navajo reservation in northWEST Arizona, and I think he offers two different "translations" of Palo Duro, for example), and that taints the reliability of his original research (primarily on Cynthia Ann Parker). He spends far too much time lingering over the story of Parker. I've read a great deal about both her and her son Quanah (including Lucia St. Clair Robson's wonderfully evocative novel, Ride the Wind), and their story can be told more precisely and succinctly than Frankel does.
Finally, the three stars are about a frustration other readers may not share. The most unknown and unexplored piece of the terrain Frankel is navigating is the transition from LeMay's novel to Ford's film, and this is the least informative section of the book. I read The Searchers more than 20 years ago, in the context of the film, and I remember how huge the gap seemed to me, between the novel and film. One solid spot in that gap is Frank Nugent's screenplay, which Frankel barely mentions, aside from reminding us that the screenplay is the recipe, the director is the cook. I read the screenplay (yesterday, in fact), and the gap between Nugent and the film is more than half the space. I wish Frankel had spared us some of the repetition in the first section and used the space to tell us, for example, if the emphasis on Martie's "Indian instincts," completely cut from the film, was part of Nugent's contribution or sourced from LeMay's original. In a word, the screenplay is considerably more racist (by which I mean inaccurately derogatory to Indians) than the film. I remember the novel that way, and I'm looking forward to reading it again in the context of Frankel's research and opinions. (Ironically, there is an essay on precisely this subject easily available in university libraries, by Arthur M. Eckstein.)
In summary, this is a book I'm glad to have. I don't have the time or energy to research Ford or John Wayne, nor really much interest in them. Frankel gives me a reliable grasp of who they were in the context of this great film. I would not have hunted down the screenplay or read the novel again, if Frankel had not intrigued me with his own views. Like it or not, The Searchers is one of the greatest films ever made (in the view of critics), one of the ten great westerns (in the view of Western scholars and buffs), a casebook of American racism (in the view of American Indian critics, artists, and scholars), and a powerful indictment (because of Ford's essential humanism) of "Indian hating." This book is a fine way to meditate on those contradictions.
On second thought, four stars.
After writing this review, I obtained a copy of The Searchers and I can offer a few useful pieces of information. First and foremost, Marty is not "part Indian" in the book. On the contrary, the narrator makes a big point of his white parents, describing his father as a dark Welshman with blue eyes and his mother as a stunning, probably Irish, redhead. LeMay makes the three families (the Mathisons [Jorgensons in the film], the Pauleys, and the Edwards) pretty typical Scots-Irish of the era. So the whole trope of Martin's Indian blood was invented by Nugent (with whatever nudging from Ford) and then dialed back and modulated very carefully during the creation of the film.
Some other important elements: (1) Amos (Ethan in the film) is not a rabid racist in the novel, just a man with a very dangerous temper and (2) he is killed before rescuing Debbie. (3) Martin does not spend the entire seven years of the search in a kind of perpetual post-adolescence. He sleeps with the tavern dancer and Laurie marries Charlie. (4) The strongest racist statement in the novel is made by Laurie, essentially her "and Martha would want him to" speech, but it is not in the context of desperately trying to change Marty's mind, is it, so to speak, in cold blood. (5) While the Comanches are not painted favorably in the novel, their motivations and culture are described with some empathy. Ironically, the embarrassingly racist element of the novel is LeMay's ugly attitude toward the Spanish.
I haven't gone back to compare Frankel's discussion with my own observations, but I remain disappointed that he did not take the time to do more thoroughly what I have done in the paragraphs above.
on February 28, 2014
We get two stories here. We get the real story of the capturing of white settlers by Indians and the efforts to get them back.
And we get the story of the making of The Searchers, using those historical events to make a movie. I thought the history
was interesting if a little thickly written and too long. I thought the making of the movie showed excellent research and smoother writing and had me almost offering a fourth star.
on February 26, 2013
Always loved the movie so I got this book and I couldn't put it down. I read it in 3 days - Great for history buffs.
on March 8, 2013
I love movies, Hollywood, history, biographies, and especially, truth behind legend. Mr. Frankel fed it all to me in a narrative so compelling that I found interruptions to the feast intolerable. He writes in my favorite style, reaching deep into the history, evolution, and substance of each character and scene. He brings it all together in a magnificent composite of the sensibilities and reality of the American West and the American fifties. Breathless!
on March 13, 2013
Glenn Frankel has come up with an entirely original take on John Ford's movie "The Searchers." Frankel goes back to one of the earliest genres of American literature, the captivity narrative, and, with many fascinating events along the way, moves forward to Alan Le May's novel and then the movie.
Among the many captivity stories of White women who lived with Native Americans, whether willingly or unwillingly, Frankel focuses on the most important story underlying "The Searchers," both novel and movie, which is the story of Cynthia Ann Parker's abduction by the Comanches in Texas in 1836. He relates her subsequent story and the stories of her families, both White and Comanche, and tries to separate facts from lies and myths.
One of the most intriguing and important aspects discussed by Frankel is how the traditional captivity story that focused on the girls and women, Cynthia Ann Parker in particular, changed focus when made into the novel and movie -- the focus became the search by the crazed, racist uncle, played by John Wayne in the movie. The captive shifted into the background as a maguffin.
The book has unfortunate signs of poor editing and proofreading, such as missing words, particularly prepositions. The obvious errors include that on pages 94-95 Weckeah is Quanah Parker's first wife, but on page 143 she is his second wife. On page 112 Frankel says a man was born in West Virginia in 1850 -- western Virginia existed then, but the state of West Virginia did not exist until the Civil War. He also refers to the Monument Valley being located "where southeast Utah rubs shoulders with northwest (sic) Arizona," page 267. Frankel's language also shows the occasional sign of a tin ear, such as at page 261, where he says that "Ford could have cared less" that Robert Wagner was one of Hollywood's young princes -- of course, Frankel meant the opposite.
on November 4, 2014
When I first heard of this book, I focused on key words in the title and sub-title: "Searchers", "The Making of...." I checked the cover. A nice shot of John Way in cowboy gear in the upper left corner, an old out of focus snap of a very plain woman in the upper right. But most stunningly, a shot from the movie of a band of Indians riding single file through Monument Valley. I was sold. I had just viewed "The Searchers" (made in 1956) and I enjoyed it thoroughly, so much so that I bought both a DVD and streamed version of the movie. I expected the book would be a detailed description of the making of the movie, from book to screenplay to pre-production meetings, etc., etc. I decided to get the hard back edition and not my usual Kindle version in the expectation that there would be lots of photos of movie scenes, production crew, etc. My expectations were way off.
The book is about 340 pages long. Pages 11-181 are about the life of Cynthia Ann Parker. Some descriptions of "The Searchers" claim that her history is the basic story of "Searchers". I think that is a real stretch. Parker was kidnapped by Indians in 1824 at the age of 9. She was rescued in 1860, then the mother of three children. There were many, many kidnappings on the Plains in those years. There are two things that make the Parker story really unusual. First is that she was rescued, even though it was so many years later, and secondly that one of her sons became Quanah, one of the most powerful war chiefs of the Commanches, perhaps the most powerful tribe at the time. The story of "The Searchers" is only remotely close to the Cynthia Ann history. Debbie is kidnapped as a young girl, and Uncle Ethan (John Wayne) rescues her 4-5 years later. In Alan LeMay's novel, Uncle Ethan is Uncle Amos and he is killed - in the movie he survives; I forget what happened to Parker's uncle but I believe he died long before her rescue. I had already read "Empire of the Summer Moon" by S. C. Gwynne, an excellent bio of Quanah and had no need to plow the same ground again.
So I read about half of Frankel's book, skipping the Parker material. What is there is good. I particularly liked some of the stories about Monument Valley in those days, and the difficulty of just getting to the place from Flagstaff, AZ on unpaved roads. But it doesn't make for a great "Making of" book in the traditional sense because there is just not enough there. Due to the way that director John Ford worked, there is very little documentation that exists today, and after all it is more than 50 years since the movie's original release date. Most of the principals are deceased. Ford did not keep extra footage around after a movie's completion because he did not want studio bosses editing his stuff and replacing it with cutting floor clips. Ford did not use storyboards. And he often made up dialog irrespective of the script. Copies of the screenplay are available but they are very different from what is on the screen. He was famous as a one-take director so there are few outtakes. It seems to me Frankel just didn't have enough material. I wish he had expanded his scope and wrote about Ford's other great Westerns as well, e.g., the Cavalry trilogy, instead of stuffing this book with the Parker detail.
on December 30, 2014
This was a fascinating read for me and so much more than the making of an American Legend.
The first part of the book goes into the history of the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker and her family. James, her uncle looked for her for years without any luck and finally gave up. She is finally abducted a second time by the whites who take her back to civilization and away from her Comanche family after 24 years. She has her young daughter Prairie Flower with her but misses her two older sons and their father. She never adjusts to her "new" life.
The next part deals with Quannah her oldest son who went on to do good things for his tribe and tries to help assimilate them to the white man's world so they may live in peace. It was very interesting to learn from both perspectives. Why Indians were so feared and hated and why the white men wanted them contained. Quannah was quite smart and adapted to what was happening.
The 3rd part of the book deals with "The Searchers" book by Alan LeMay. It tells the story that he wrote and how it differs from the movie that John Ford made, which is a favorite of mine.
The final part is a short biography of John Ford who was a cruel but talented man. It also tells how John Wayne came from being a boy doing odd jobs on the back lot to becoming a star. It goes into a lot of detail about filming the movie and the Navajo extras etc.
I rated this book a 4 because after Frankel finished up with the filming, he went into student film makers and other people psychoanalyzing the finished product. I found this part a bit tedious but the rest of the book was very good.
on April 19, 2013
This is a truly fine book. Glenn Frankel has expertly blended the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker's abduction in 19th Century Texas with the eventual novel based on the event, and then through the making of one of cinema's true masterpieces. Frankel gives a detailed history lesson of the harsh realities of pioneer Texans, the plight and demise of the American Indian, and the myth makers of Hollywood--namely masterful director John Ford and his close protege' John Wayne. Frankel gives us a beautiful three act play--Cynthia Ann and the Comanches, Alan Lemay and his wonderful novel "The Searchers", and The Story On Film. Each of the three parts could stand alone as an entertaining read--but here he gives the reader all three stories interwoven into one masterful volume. This is non-fiction storytelling at its best. One of the best books I have read in some time.