Investigating an epic war of populations

by Melissa Hart

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend
Glenn Frankel
405 pages,
hardcover: $28.
Bloomsbury, 2013.

In a memorable scene in John Ford's 1956 Western, The Searchers, gun-toting cowboys ride through Utah's stark red landscape, flanked by war-painted Native Americans. "At the heart of the matter … was land," writes Glenn Frankel, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Austin, in his perceptive new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.

Frankel first saw Ford's epic -- based on the actual abduction of pioneer girl Cynthia Ann Parker from a Texas stockade -- as a boy in the 1960s. Later, as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post, he recognized a similar "intimate war of populations … in which only one could triumph and the loser must be exterminated physically or culturally or both."

His book spans 120 years, beginning with Parker's 1836 kidnapping by Comanches and examining the fictionalized accounts it inspired, including the film's source, Alan LeMay's 1954 novel, The Searchers. "While critics celebrated Ford's cinematic mastery," writes Frankel, "what struck me as an even greater achievement was his ability to weave myth and truth into a seamless fabric."

Land-ownership struggles beg for mythologizing, whether they happen in today's Middle East or America's Old West. Audiences want good guys and bad guys, and the facts often suffer in the process. Frankel's research ranges across the Southwest, from revisionist accounts of Comanche-colonist relations to stories of John Wayne's ironic position as a film star belittled by an abusive director.

He describes the grisly attack on the stockade and Cynthia Ann's uncle's quest for his niece. She gives birth to a half-Comanche son, who becomes Chief Quanah Parker, a diplomat who negotiates the "war of populations" and successfully retains land for his people. Frankel describes other Parker descendants as well, some of whom saw their ancestor as a tragic heroine, and others who simply sought to avoid cultural extermination. A final striking photo shows the Parkers' Comanche descendants at a powwow -- a procession of shawl-wrapped women dancing, not outdoors amid sagebrush, but along the floor of a stark, generic school gymnasium.

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