Conversation: Glenn Frankel’s ‘The Searchers’

BY Jeffrey Brown  March 8, 2013 at 12:09 PM EDT

Glenn Frankel's 'The Searchers'

“The Searchers” is, of course, the name of director John Ford’s famous 1956 Western starring John Wayne. But it’s also part of a much bigger American story, steeped in myth, told and re-told in different forms. It’s now at the heart of a new book titled “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.”

Author Glenn Frankel was a longtime reporter and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. He’s now director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. I spoke to him by phone earlier Friday about his book and its inspiration:


Read a transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you.

GLENN FRANKEL: Well thanks, Jeff, nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: First go back in time a little bit to tell us the beginnings of this story, an 1836 kidnapping in Texas.

GLENN FRANKEL: That’s right, May 1836. There’s a sort of fortified pioneer settlement in Eastern Texas. It’s called Parker’s Fort. And one day while they are planting corn for the harvest, Comanches and Kiowa warriors swooped down. They kill five men there and they kidnap five young people, including a nine-year-old girl name Cynthia Ann Parker. Her uncle James goes searching for her over an eight-year period. He manages to ransom back or find the four others, but Cynthia Ann isn’t found and spends 24 years with the Comanches, grows into a young woman, marries a warrior, has three children. And then in 1860, a group of Texas Rangers and U.S. Calvary attack a small Indian encampment in north Texas. They kill a number of people. They find a woman with blue eyes so they don’t kill her and they take her back to her family. Her uncle comes and identifies her and she’s restored to her white family. So you could imagine what an amazing story this was for Texans in that time period. The only problem was that when Cynthia Ann was restored, she wasn’t happy to back with her Texas family. She missed her Comanche family, her two sons, her husband, the community they had built up. She really was culturally a Comanche. At first she was a celebrity. They showed her off, they took her to the state legislature, but eventually she became an embarrassment. And so she dies in obscurity. There isn’t even an obituary to mark the passing of her time. Because we know so little of her time when she was a Comanche, and because, as I said, she went back to obscurity rather quickly, it leaves a lot of room for people to imagine who she was and what happened to her.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, did you start with this foundational story? Did you know that story or did you start with the movie? What drew you to the whole story?

GLENN FRANKEL: I went backwards. I started with the movie. You know, if you are born and raised in Texas, you learn the story of Cynthia Ann Parker in elementary school. But if you are born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., maybe in the 1950s, what you first heard was “The Searchers.” And “Searchers” is a great John Wayne movie, directed by John Ford. And that’s where I started. I always was entranced by that film, always felt like I might want to write about it someday. And then when I started to look into it in 2006, 2007, I quickly came across the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. I mean, I knew I was always going to have to write something about captivity narratives, because “The Searchers,” the film, is about an uncle and a fictional brother searching for seven years to find a young girl who’s been kidnapped. And I knew those kidnapping stories not just in Texas, but even earlier in New England, were really our first American literary genres. So I knew I’d have to write something about them, but I had no idea that “The Searchers” was loosely based on this very dramatic story and once I started to go there, I realized my book was much bigger than I originally thought.

JEFFREY BROWN: This 1836 event, as you say, sort of morphed into legend in Texas, it was told in different ways, it became the stuff of all kinds of myth. What jumped out at you about how it was told and retold?

GLENN FRANKEL: Well, there are certain myths and sort of iconic troupes, if you will. One for example, the notion of a fate worse than death, that it would be better to be killed than to be married to an Indian and have sex with an Indian, be forced to have sex with an Indian. This whole psycho-sexual element of being carried off by barbarians into the wilderness. That’s always part of the story when they retell it. It’s Cynthia Ann and women like her were somehow polluted or altered or damaged in some huge way. This is what one of the things that made it so difficult for them to be reabsorbed. So telling the story of how the white Comanche princess was treated became very much part of the fantasy, if you will, of the myth as it developed. Also what I found when I looked at Cynthia Ann’s life, is there was sort of the official Texas history version of her life and time, which made up the way she was treated and how she resisted and how what a brave, romantic story it was somehow. But then when you went into the archives say at the University of Texas, you could find other less official versions, if you will, of people who had gone back, really family members writing family histories, who discovered just how unhappy she was when she came back to white society, what a difficult adjustment it was and how tragic to have lost her children and end up in the situation she was in.

JEFFREY BROWN: So part of this for you was that, kind of, well, I mean it’s reporting which you’ve done all your life, but part of it was that kind of digging in the archives?

GLENN FRANKEL: Yes, exactly. There are lots of archives all scattered through North Texas and Oklahoma, where the Comanches were eventually settled, and Austin. It was a really wonderful process of looking for little clues, little bits of information. And I had great time tromping through them. But also because I was writing about the movie and finally because Cynthia Ann’s family still exists. There is a white side to the family, there is a Comanche side. They each hold annual family reunions and they send emissaries to each other’s reunions each year. So there was a whole bunch of folks out there who had a great interest in this subject who could also help along the way. So it was a bit of history and a bit of reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: The movie, of course, has its own legend and legends: John Ford, John Wayne, as you said. You started there, then you went back to the actual story. Did it tell the actual story? Did it deviate? Tell me a little bit about what you saw in the film once you knew the facts.

GLENN FRANKEL: Well it deviated quite a bit. First of all, the movie’s based on a 1954 novel by Alan Le May, who himself had been a Hollywood screenwriter and a western writer. And he went and researched Cynthia Ann’s story and other captivity stories from Texas, but he changed a bunch of things. He moved it forward in time. Mostly, though, he turned the focus away from Cynthia Ann, away from the victim, if you will, to the family that searched for her, to the searchers. It was sort of a reverse captivity narrative. And he was interested in the impact of traumatic events on the survivors, on the people left behind. And so when John Ford and John Wayne come along, they of course focus on that as well. And what they do is, they make the uncle the chief character because John Wayne plays him and he becomes the dominant figure. And so the story shifts to this quest by this very charismatic western hero, and it’s all about western heroes. But at the same time, because John Ford is, to put it bluntly, an artist, he’s interested in giving us this iconic gunfighter, Indian-fighter, this hero, this charismatic leader. And yet at the same time he’s undermining that myth all the way through. The psycho-sexual tension that I mentioned earlier is taken right to the surface in “The Searchers” because, you know, over the course of the seven-year hunt, the little girl they’ve gone to look for has changed from a nine-year-old girl to a Comanche wife, and the John Wayne character is searching for her, not to restore her to their family, but he’s planning to kill her because she’s had sex with the Comanches.

JEFFREY BROWN: The western as a genre and “The Searchers,” you know, one of the most important of them all, also became part of the myth-making of the west — for good and bad, I guess — in how we saw what happened out there.

GLENN FRANKEL: Well Ford didn’t invent the western, but he really was the master of the western. Still to this day, I think, anyone in Hollywood would recognize John Ford as the leader in all that. And he was very much about creating myths, starting with “The Iron Horse,” starting with a movie called “Straight Shooting,” actually in the early ’20s. He was all about creating myths. He started his work, you know, in the 1920s and continued until the 1960s, so he actually met some of the original cowboys. He met Wyatt Earp for example, who was hanging around in Hollywood

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really, I didn’t know that, wow.

GLENN FRANKEL: Yeah, so he begins early on, but he’s very much the myth-maker about the U.S. Calvary, about cowboys, about Native Americans, “Stagecoach,” all these great films. He used to go to Monument Valley to make these films. Monument Valley looks nothing like most of the west. It certainly doesn’t look like Texas in the 1860s, and yet that’s his stage. Like Shakespeare had the Globe Theater, John Ford uses Monument Valley. So “The Searchers,” you are right, has become a legend in and of itself, both because John Wayne gives such an amazing performance. Because John Ford is really at the height of his creative powers when he makes it. And because it’s such a complex and unsettling movie, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know what John Wayne’s going to find when he catches up to his niece and because of these sort as I say psycho-sexual elements, because Ford is constantly undermining this myth at the same time he’s presenting it to us. And so, over the years, people like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, who saw this film also when they were young, have quoted from it, have praised it, have remade bits of it. And so it, itself, has become a real legend.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, well, the new book is called “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.” Author Glenn Frankel, thanks so much for talking to us.

GLENN FRANKEL: Thanks for having me, Jeff.