“The Searchers” is a memorable movie. The first time I saw it was in a second run theater in Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid-1950s. I guess the film made an impression on me, but I can’t for the life of me remember how often I have seen it since. Some critics see the character of Ethan Edwards, who spends seven years searching for a girl who was kidnapped by a Comanche war party, as John Wayne’s finest role. “The Searchers” began as a serial in popular magazine by Alan Le May, later he published it as novel, then it was made into a motion picture by John Ford, and finally, it is the subject of a book by Glenn Frankel.
Debbie Edwards, the young girl who Wayne’s character searches for, was based on the historical figure of Cynthia Parker, who was kidnapped by Comanches in 1830, lived with them for 24 years before being “rescued” by cavalry and Texas Rangers. While living with the Comanches, she had three sons, one of whom was the famous chief Quanah Parker. Parenthetically, Parker was the subject of a recent best selling book, Empire of the summer moon : Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history .
LeMay’s novel and the script of the movie deviated from the real story on a number of points. The book and the movie were both set after the Civil War, while Cynthia was kidnapped in 1836. Where the Parkers actually lived in a fortified settlement, the movie ranch seems isolated. The men of the settlement were farming about a mile from the fort instead of hunting for stolen stock when the Comanches attacked. Additionally, Frankel points out LeMay focuses his story on the pursuers instead of the kidnapped. Finally, Debbie, in the movie seems glad to be re-united with her relatives. Cynthia, who did not want to be reunited with her white family, died of a broken heart after being removed from her children and their Comanche relatives. Ironically, her oldest son, Quanah Parker, became the Comanche chief who led the tribe to peace with white America. Additionally, Frankel notes that descendants of the two families still send representatives to each other’s family re-unions.
The cruelty on both sides is manifest in the novel, the film, and Frankel’s book. The Edwards family in the novel and the film are slaughtered with the exception of their daughters. Ultimately, Debbie is only who survives because her older sister Lucy is later found raped and murdered. The two men kill and scalp Debbie’s husband, the fictional Comanche warrior Scar.
The chronicle of the making of the film is almost as interesting as the story itself. Harry Caray, Jr., wrote a forward that appeared to the last two paperback editions of LeMay’s novel, describing his experience acting in Ford’s production. Frankel also devotes a good part of his book to the making of the movie, including mini-biographies of John Ford and John Wayne.
To see the film’s trailer go here.