This book traces the evolution of the classic film from the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured and raised by Comanche, ‘rescued’ by Whites after living and raising children among the Indians for over twenty year. The sad story of Cynthia Ann’s return to ‘civilization’ is followed by the story of her son, Qua’nah, first a renegade among the Comanche, then a shrewd politician deftly negotiating his way between the declining Comanche and the ascending White Man. Cynthia Ann’s story is fictionalized by Alan Lemay in his novel The Searchers, which was read and turned into the classic film.
Only about one third of the book deals with John Ford and his film. The arc taking us from the ‘true story’ to the film version is the main event here.
The decline of the Comanche makes for very grim reading.
Frankel’s assessment of the film seems to be the latest installment of critical approach to The Searchers. Upon its original release, it was regarded as little more than a John Wayne Western. The French critics of the Cahiers du Cinema were really the first to elevate it to masterpiece status. Then came the backlash declaring the film to be racist in its depiction of Native Americans. The next pendulum swing seems to be apologist in rationalizing Ethan Edwards’ hatreds.
It seems that Frankel is voicing the latest and, to me at least, most satisfying view of this film: it is undeniably great, brilliant, breathtaking, etc. but at the same time confounding, ambiguous and unsettling. The same can be said of King Lear. Not bad company to be in.