LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Searchers – The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

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This remarkable, unique book (the best nonfiction of this year so far) cannot be solidly categorized: it is a sweeping, historical Western tale of ‘savage’ Indians and ‘new frontier’ homesteaders in the mid-18th century, recounting the eventuality of a nation of Cherokee and other Indian tribes being reduced to near-extinction when refusing to yield the vast prairie lands to these white, brazen settlers intent on eliminating their very way of life and survival. It is an earnest, carefully-researched and vivid true story of a nine-year-old white girl who was abducted by Cherokee Indians in 1836, after the brutal slaughter of her family, and her subsequent life being integrated back into ‘white society’ after years of captivity.

This biography continues, encompassing the life of her son, a pivotal figure in the history of Indian ‘Americanization’, along with a literal history of our country’s “Taming of the West” and its uneasy, violent transition into the 19th century, with a massive Civil War preceding and the migration of millions from East to West following; a hindsight indictment of early America’s intolerance and racism, describing the demise of 30,000 Cherokee Indians as ‘The West Was Won’, their population reduced to less than 2,000 by the late 1870′s, by the ‘progressive’ settling of a civilization completely foreign to and dismissive of them.

It is a chronicle of the overwhelming magnitude of relentless hunting and wholesale slaughter of over six million free-roaming bison throughout the west, buffalo herds that were initially shot down in deliberate and precise fashion for the sole purpose of eliminating the Indians’ principal source of survival in the treeless, rugged and brutal plains throughout Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding territory.

There’s also the life story of an author, Alan LeMay, who writes hugely popular, best-selling Western stories in the new 19th century, utilizing all available documentation and first-hand accounts of the actual (then-recent) histories of Indians and settlers and their violent encounters, including the abduction of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker and the years-long search to rescue her by surviving family members like her uncle – a story that would be reinterpreted, re-invented and, in 1956, dramatized in a big-screen Western film called ‘The Searchers’.

And with the close of this prelude, beginning roughly 200 pages into Frankel’s book, there is an entirely new, freshly-detailed and revealing story of the making of an American motion picture classic, derived from all of the above-mentioned sources the author has coalesced and thoughtfully organized to guide the reader into this penultimate story of legendary, classic ‘Hollywood’ storytelling.

Directed by a veteran ‘Western’ film maker named John Ford, and starring an already-iconic leading man named John Wayne,The Searchers was one of many collaborations between the volatile, racist, misogynist, alcoholic, hot-headed ‘Pappy’ and his ever-loyal muse, a lanky, struggling B-actor born Marion Morrison, later given the more appropriate cinematic handle of ‘John Wayne’. Together, they made some of the best Western movies ever produced for the big screen, such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Red River, and Stagecoach. The author-slash-History teacher unearths the reality of the off-screen ‘Duke’, a constant victim of derision and humiliation by his closest mentor, intimidating director John Ford, a man of unpredictable disposition and generally a bigoted, belligerent dictator on his film sets, where no actor or production member was spared his outrageous and crude insults (he actually punched actress Maureen O’Hara in the face when she made a now-forgotten remark he took offense to).

To read about Ford alone, one might wonder why someone, anyone, didn’t kick this man’s ass out of town before completing his first movie – but Ford was not just a ‘Western film’ maker, as the director would proudly refer to himself otherwise. Considering that Ford made a quartet of classic films in at least as many years (‘Young Mr. Lincoln‘, 1939; ‘The Grapes of Wrath‘, 1940; ‘The Long Voyage Home‘, 1940; and ‘How Green Was My Valley‘, 1941), that were as far removed from the ‘Western’ genre as could be imagined, the man’s genius as a director was undeniable, which in turn afforded him great indulgences, including making stars like John Wayne tremble before him on a movie set. While Ford is certainly not the only ‘auteur’ director who could be absolutely intolerable to work with in their film making process, to read the accounts of his withering criticisms to Wayne the actor, who passively suffered them all and consistently surrendered to Ford’s will, is an extraordinary contrast to how the public perceived this strong, manly symbol of American Patriotism and willful spirit that is so ingrained in cinematic legend. Film directors in Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ were revered and omnipotent throughout the industry, until their creative powers were lost and their films had become tired and unoriginal – even by the mid-fifties, the Western was already being dismissed as an archaic film formula, but Ford’s Westerns were an exception to the rule.

In the years following its not-very-major release and initial underwhelming response, The Searchers has been rediscovered and hailed as a major inspiration to some of the greatest film directors of the latter 20th century, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas; in the years following its release, The Searchers has ultimately achieved the status of the Greatest Western Film ever made, and is in the Top Ten of the 100 Best Films, as designated by the American Film Institute. This dark, rueful movie that stands apart from any other formulaic ‘Western’ film of its time, is a subject of continuing debate regarding its all-too-apparent hatred towards, and outright disdain for an entire nation of Indian people, portraying them in only the most derogatory light possible, and notable for the out-of-place, shocking treatment of a female Indian character, which was Ford’s singular interpretation of ‘humor’, albeit at the expense of an entire race and gender. But a reader doesn’t have to seek out the movie and scrutinize it to fully appreciate the narrative that presents most of the screenplay treatment, with all of the relevant subtext, through its beautifully-written pages.

Author Glenn Frankel’s comprehensive work is simply astonishing. There are at least three full-length books that this one tome manages to condense between the covers to a fully satisfying degree. For one like myself, anxiously starting a new ‘making-of’ classic film story, it was a slow realization that this film ‘story’ had a 200-page background history, starting well before the invention of film itself, much less before production began on the actual movie almost a century later. Frankel writes with the authority of a confident historian, who guides us seamlessly through this saga that ends up as an equally-compelling and authoritative film history. Frankel writes with such an economic ease that the reader doesn’t notice the voluminous information he provides simultaneously with whatever story he is relating throughout.

If the concept of absorbing American history, Western myth versus fact, and the byzantine journey from History lesson to Hollywood film-making seems a bit exhausting, well, it can be, if one is not prepared to follow the unhurried and attention-demanding rhythm of Frankel’s book – he has a story to tell, much more informative and complete than would be expected in any other genre-oriented book focusing on a single time and/or subject – but the sooner this ‘rhythm’ is adopted by the reader, the greater the reward is for those absorbed in its telling will be.

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