Like many men of his generation, my dad is a huge John Wayne fan. He has seen every single one of the Duke’s films more times than either of us can remember, and if he happens to stumble upon one while channel-surfing, he’ll sit through it again, even if he’d originally planned to watch something else. When I went back to school for my library degree, Dad took great pleasure in calling me up and asking me obscure bits of John Wayne trivia, which I would dutifully research, then report back in a follow-up phone call. This led to a prolonged period of conversations in which we debated how many times a John Wayne character died in a film, because of the circumstances surrounding The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance , The Sea Chase, and Central Airport*
Glenn Frankel’s new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, unpacks the history and mythology behind a film Dad and I watched together many, many times. Depending on your point of view, the film is either a horribly racist reminder of an ugly period in American history, or a redemptive narrative in which a bitter, shortsighted man allows the power of love to change him (albeit quietly, and without a lot of fanfare). You can probably tell which interpretation I prefer just from reading the previous sentence, but Frankel explains it better, drawing from a resource list whose length, breadth, and depth are impressive by anyone’s standards, but especially by those of reference librarians (we’re kind of picky about that stuff).
Frankel begins with the historical record of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted by Comanche in 1836, at the age of nine. Because Parker left no written record of her life experiences, much of what happened to her during her captivity and subsequent “rescue” by Texas Rangers in 1860 is shrouded in legend, hearsay, and secondhand reports; Frankel deftly sifts through to demonstrate how historical events assume layers of mythic meaning over time. Cynthia Ann’s story becomes that of her son, Quanah, who assumed his mother’s name and adapted her legend to suit his own purposes, the most important of which was survival in the face of cultural annihalation. Frankel then tackles the Western novel genre, and, more specifically, the work of Alan Le May, who drew upon the Parkers’ story to write his own novel, The Searchers. Last, but certainly not least, the reader learns how legendary director John Ford became aware of Le May’s book and used it as the basis for his own interpretation of the American West, a myth colored by Ford’s own personal difficulties and internal struggles.
Notice how Cynthia Ann Parker is never the owner or author of her own narrative. This would be depressing if it were not counterbalanced by Frankel’s detailed critical analysis of the film, in which the female/feminine characters are the true hero(ine)s of The Searchers, in a quiet, coded way. It is an interpretation that is sure to make film buffs rejoice, but will the average John Wayne fan buy it? Can there ever be a sense of “truth” when we talk about the history of the American west, and the fiction and films it has spawned? Can The Searchers and its bloody, complicated narrative history be redeemed to spark necessary conversations about racism in America? I honestly don’t know the answers, but I love the way in which Frankel raises the questions. And if you’re a fan of film, storytelling, women’s history, social justice, or the nature of truth, I’m betting you will, too.
I may ask Dad what he thinks about all this at some point, but not over the phone. I’d rather we sat, side by side, in front of the television, stealing snatches of conversation during the commercial breaks, hoping he’ll give me the answers to life, the universe, and everything. If I press too hard for a critical opinion he’s likely to tell me, “It’s only a movie, kid” (a phrase I first heard when I asked one too many uncomfortable questions about West Side Story). But if I stay silent, he may be willing to share stories from his own unwritten narrative about what The Searchers means to him as a product of a specific place and time, in a voice that will, someday, be as lost to me as Cynthia Ann Parker’s is to time and posterity.
Except that we never really stop hearing the voices of the men and women–both famous and obscure–who inspire our own stories and mythologies, do we? Ethan Edwards–and John Wayne–get the last word:
*Wayne’s character is already dead at the beginning of Liberty Valance, and the death is reported, not shown, during the course of the film, leaving room for a long, entertaining argument over drinks. Depending on how much of a romantic ambiguist you are, you could argue that it’s unclear whether or not Wayne goes down with the ship in The Sea Chase. In Central Airport, Wayne’s character is last seen in the ocean after a night-time plane crash and presumed dead. However, I’m of the opinion that unless you see a character die, s/he isn’t dead…and even then, you could be mistaken. John Wayne also played a bit part as a corpse in the 1931 film The Deceiver, but while this is highly amusing, it does not, technically, count as an on-screen death.
Wayne’s characters visibly snuffed it in Reap the Wild Wind (shipwreck-diving accident), The Fighting Seabees, (killed by a sniper), Wake of the Red Witch (another underwater mishap), The Alamo (felled by a Mexican soldier), The Cowboys (killed by Bruce Dern’s character), The Sands of Iwo Jima (another sniper), and The Shootist (good old-fashioned gunfight).