Tag Archives: Westerns

“That’ll Be The Day”: Unpacking The Searchers

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*


Source: Syndetic image from library catalog

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 searchersParker 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:

“That’ll be the day.”

–Leigh Anne

*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).


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I Mean to Kill You in One Minute Ned!

In a passing conversation one of my colleagues had an observation about a not so contemporary screen actor – the late John Wayne.  I forget the wording but the observation and concurrent opinion weren’t complimentary – a circumstance I still need to remedy. I was and remain incensed, and not a little baffled.  Who doesn’t like John Wayne?

Yes he was an unrepentant right-winger with a good heart who covered both himself and the wrongs of the day in a shroud of patriotism that didn’t abide doubts. Somewhere people forgot he was a Hollywood entertainer, not a Washington statesman. I never particularly held his political beliefs in much regard. I like to watch his movies, they entertain me. I don’t watch them to be informed; I go elsewhere for that.

Maybe I’m too much a product of my childhood and its indelible memories – watching the 4:30 movie with one of my brothers; seeing True Grit or Chisum at the Squire or Playhouse theaters when they first came out; going to a John Ford marathon my freshman year of college. I find his pictures or at least the ones I like to be timeless.  I can always watch them; they’re the perfect movies for a rainy day, or a really miserable cold one.

So if I have the blanket, popcorn and the opportunity, what would I watch? Here’s my short list in random order, other than #1, my all-time favorite John Wayne movie.

1. Chisum, 1970. Forrest Tucker, Ben Johnson, Glenn Corbett and Christopher George. A highly fictionalized and entertaining account of the Lincoln Count(New Mexico) Land War. Wayne is John Chisum an established cattleman who has a broad view of the future of the Territory, shares resources with his neighbors, is good to his employees and is ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor.  He’s also nobody’s fool. Forrest Tucker is the Murphy come lately who wants to buy everything up and is bribing the Territorial governor to take army beef contracts from Chisum and use stolen cattle (Chisum’s) to fulfill the contracts.  Among the roles portrayed are those of Pat Garrett and Billy Bonney (Billy the Kid) who were involved in the dispute  both on the “good” side. Chris George gives a great performance as a rattlesnake mean, gimpy bounty hunter turned sheriff who owes his limp to Bonney.

2. El Dorado, 1966. Robert Mitchum and James Caan.  Wayne is Cole Thornton a professional gunfighter who might be hired by the conniving . . . Ed Asner.  Thornton might have to go up against his longtime friend the town sheriff played by Mitchum, who has become a hopeless washed-out drunk.  You have the bad guys, the fewer good guys, each one a little deficient, and a town that’s uninterested or cowed by circumstances.  You learn that gunfighters have ethics and a code of conduct.  Another great supporting role by Christopher George as the other fastest gun.  Conventional views are that El Dorado is Howard Hawks’ remake of his own earlier Duke film Rio Bravo from 1959.  Sort of the same premise though it’s a drunk deputy (Dean Martin,)  and Wayne is the sheriff.  Besides Martin, the cast includes Ward Bond (he’s the cop in It’s a Wonderful Life)  Ricky Nelson (don’t ask, it’s not worth it,) and Angie Dickinson.

3. The Sons of Katie Elder, 1965. Wayne is John Elder the oldest of 4 brothers (Earl Holliman, Dean Martin and Michael Anderson Jr. are the other 3) who come back together to bury their saintly (and destitute) mother in Clearwater, Texas.  John Elder is a professional gunfighter who’s stayed away for many years; mom covering for him with the neighbors.  When the brothers do come back to bury her and settle the estate, the true extent of her poverty surprises them. Turns out they aren’t the best of sons, and . . . their mom was fleeced out of prime real estate by the local tycoon – James Gregory (Barney Miller’s old boss) whose fidgety son is played by a young Dennis Hopper.  Gregory hires George Kennedy (maybe the only other actor with Wayne’s presence and size) to make sure the Elder boys don’t ask too many questions.  Gregory also convinces the law that the Elders are up to no good – he frames them for stealing cattle and murdering the beloved sheriff Billy Watson played beautifully by Paul Fix.  Right prevails, though John Elder shows remarkable restraint until the last 1/3rd of the movie after one of the brothers is killed.  Great performances, great scenery and a great score by Elmer Bernstein.

4. They Were Expendable, 1945. The movie actually stars Robert Montgomery and Wayne is in the supporting role, but it’s a John Wayne movie. It’s based on the actual exploits of a US Navy Torpedo Boat Squadron in the Philippines at the outbreak of WWII, as recounted in the book They Were Expendable. Wayne is Rusty Ryan the Executive Officer of the squadron, chafing at the career opportunities he feels he’s losing in the bathtub navy.  The war breaks out and Ryan reverts to being the loyal and aggressive commander that Montgomery’s John Brickley needs him to be.  Along the way is a very PG romance with a beautiful Donna Reed and backup by one of the best “B” supporting casts in a movie; Ward Bond, Jack Holt, Marshall Thompson, Murray Alper, Jack Pennick (a Wayne regular,) and Harry Tenbrook. The movie does a credible job at showing the frustrations and loneliness of sailoring, the reliance on shipmates, and the inevitability of their situation.  Again, taken from actual events is the role this group of boats played in secreting General MacArthur and his family from Luzon 560 miles to Mindanao in 66ft. plywood boats.

Tossup between Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949 and True Grit, 1969.

5. I have to come down on the side of True Grit; it has a more universal appeal and stands the test of time a little better.  Maybe it’s that he’s just more believable as a cowboy than as a modern soldier or marine.  Wayne is the one-eyed, over-the-hill and under-the-bottle Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal for the Oklahoma Indian Territory.  Cogburn is hired by Maddie Ross (an oddly asexual Kim Darby) to find Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  They are joined by the dapper (and wholly unconvincing) Glenn Campbell as Texas Ranger LaBeauf.  They take off after Chaney who’s taken up with  “Lucky” Ned Pepper, one of Robert Duvall’s best roles – early or otherwise.  The high point is the lone Wayne on horseback facing off against Pepper and 3 of his gang with the action initiated by one of Wayne’s most memorably delivered lines and an equally erudite retort.

Rooster Cogburn: “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?”  

Ned Pepper: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”

There’s good, there’s bad, there’s the grey area between the two that we sometimes hate to acknowledge in our world, and there’s a story-line that’s easy to follow.

I remember both seeing the movie when it came out and reading the Charles Portis novel, and being impressed at how the movie followed the book.  When I saw the 2010 remake with Jeff Bridges I thought it was nothing less than an homage to the original, not a blatant effort to be a better movie.  Having said that, Matt Damon so outdoes Glenn Campbell that the 2010 production is a worthy successor.

There are of course many others, including The Searchers, considered his best critical role, and I may mention them in another posting, but these are my go-to favorites.  Take note, they’re good for the beginner too.

– Richard


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