Texas History, John Ford, and John Wayne

I didn’t see The Searchers when it was released in 1956.  It wasn’t the sort of Western anyone would take a child to see.  Fess Parker as Davy Crockett was more my speed in those days.  John Wayne was not one of my childhood heroes.  But when I finally did see the film on TV a few years ago, I was fascinated.  I not only bought a DVD copy of the movie, I hunted down and read the novel it was based upon, also called The Searchers, written by Alan LeMay and published in 1954.

Searchers - FrankelI’ve just finished reading Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, which tells the story from the historical background to the making of the movie, with several stops along the way.  The book appealed to my interests in Texas history, movies, and writing, and proved to be both satisfying and entertaining on all counts.

After a brief introduction, Frankel begins with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured by Comanche raiders in 1836 and “rescued” in 1860 after twenty-four years and three children (the youngest of whom, her daughter Prairie Flower, was rescued with her).  Although Cynthia Ann, who never adjusted well to life with her relatives, left no record in her own voice, Frankel found unpublished papers written by her cousin Susan Parker St. John, which filled in many pieces of her story.  The background of The Searchers, however, is not so much Cynthia Ann’s story as it is the tale of those who looked for and eventually found her.

The book continues with a biography of Cynthia Ann’s surviving son, Quanah Parker.  Relatively little is known about Quanah’s youth (or the fate of his brother, Cynthia Ann’s middle child), but Frankel documents his career as the leader of the Comanche during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and his own search for his mother and her family.

Searchers - LeMayFrankel goes on to cover the career of novelist Alan LeMay before he dives into the stories of the men responsible for the movie, director John Ford and actor John Wayne, and the process of turning LeMay’s novel, set thirty years after the historical Parker story, into Ford’s film.  As a writer, and as someone who has both seen the movie and read the novel, I found this section especially interesting.  Some choices were obvious and commercial, while some were based more on the structural differences between written and visual story telling.

The descriptions of filming the story were just as fascinating.  No computers or CGI special effects in the early fifties, and very few roads into Monument Valley (this Texas story was filmed in Utah, as were many of Ford’s Westerns), Searchers - DVDwhere everything had to be brought in by truck and the heat often passed 100 degrees.  Behind the scenes were Ford’s struggles with his financial backers and his rather appalling treatment of his actors and technical people.

Woven through Frankel’s descriptions of history, movies, and the people who made both are the themes of the Western as American Legend: family and bigotry, heroism and violence, the clash of cultures, seen from both sides of the divide between the settlers and the Comanche.

I could hardly put the book down.  Now I want to read the novel and watch the movie again.

The Searchers Revisited

This morning the Houston Chronicle ran an article on a new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel. Long before I’d finished reading, I knew I wanted the book.  A few minutes on line told me that my local Barnes & Noble store had copies, and I reserved one to pick up tonight on my way home from work.

Although this blog is mostly about reading, writing, and the adventures of everyday life, an amazing number of my visitors wander in here looking for something related to the TV show Hell on Wheels, and I don’t think a day passes without at least one reader landing here after searching for Cynthia Ann Parker.  (WordPress keeps track of such things.)

So I know some of you share my interest in Texas history and old movies, and this book deals with both.  Frankel The Searchersopens with the story of Cynthia Ann, taken by the Comanche at the age of nine or ten, living with them for twenty-five years, marrying, and bearing three children.  Forcibly returned to “civilization,” Cynthia Ann died a sad and lonely death but also became a legend.

Part two goes on to tell the story of her son Quanah, the last great Comanche chief, who led his people into the twentieth century.  The third section deals with Alan LeMay and his novel, loosely based on Cynthia Ann’s story, and the fourth on the making of the movie.

I’ve seen The Searchers and have the DVD on my shelf, and I’ve read the original LeMay novel, also on my shelf.  I won’t post spoilers of either, but I will say that while the first half of the movie follows the first half of the book closely, the second halves diverge considerably.  As a writer, I’m interested in that story, too.  Now all I need is a little more time to read . . .

There’s been much discussion lately, in this age of electronic marketing, of the process of book discovery.  How does a reader find new books, new authors?  Are the virtual shelves of Amazon or Barnes & Noble as “browsable” as those of a brick and mortar bookstore?  Interesting question, and one I’ll talk about another time.  But this book I found in my morning newspaper.

Happy reading!

More Hell on Wheels

A number of my recent visitors have landed here after searching for Hell on Wheels, quite a few of them looking for Eva, the “tattooed harlot,” as one of the less savory characters called her before describing her talents in imaginative and largely unrepeatable detail.

The first shot of Eva, as she turned to face the young Irishman (and the camera), shocking him with the tattoos on her face, may have been the moment Hell on Wheels hooked me.  The romantic tale of the white woman captured by Indians, only to be swept off her feet by the handsome and noble warrior, has been a popular one over the years, and as a reader I’ve enjoyed the fantasy.  But as an anthropologist, I know that’s not the way it was.

More than a few white women and girls were indeed taken captive by various Native American tribes, but their stories were rarely if ever romantic.  Teenagers and adult women were generally put to work as slaves, although young children of both sexes might be adopted.  Some captives escaped, some were ransomed, some disappeared from history.

One of the most famous captives was Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken by the Comanche in 1836, when she was nine or ten years old.  Her life with them was by all acounts hard, but she stayed with them for almost twenty-five years, eventually marrying a warrior and bearing three children.  She was forcibly rescued by Texas Rangers when she was thirty-four, along with her two-year-old daughter, who died shortly thereafter.  Cynthia Ann escaped at least once, trying to return to her Comanche family, and never adapted to life among her white relatives.  But her name lived on in her son, Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche, who led his people into the twentieth century.

[A note on Cynthia Ann, added 2/16/14: In researching Cynthia Ann’s story for his book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, Glenn Frankel located unpublished notes left by her relatives, primarily her first cousin Susan Parker St. John.  According to these records, Cynthia Ann’s small daughter Prairie Flower lived to about the age of nine, but the romantic legend that she was sent off to school in New Orleans is probably only a fantasy. As unhappy as Cynthia Ann undoubtedly was, her family denied that she ever “escaped” from them.  She disappeared from history after the census of 1870, probably dying within the next few years, in her mid to late forties.]

Olive Oatman

Olive Oatman‘s story was less romantic.  When I saw Eva’s tattoos I thought immediately of Olive, and she was in fact an inspiration for Eva, or at least for her tattoo.  Olive was taken captive by the Yavapai in 1851, when she was fourteen, and sold a year or so later to the Mohave, who adopted her and tattooed her face.  She was ransomed after about five years and became something of a celebrity, eventually marrying and settling in Texas.

Olive fared better than Cynthia Ann on returning to white society.  Cynthia Ann’s story may have been the inspiration for the John Wayne film The Searchers, which portrayed yet another aspect of the captivity story, the attitude that a girl captured by Indians was better off dead.  The movie (and the novel it was based on, by Alan LeMay) tells of the obsessive search for a stolen girl by her uncle–who would sooner kill her than let her live with the Comanche.

Eva’s fate as a prostitute, scarred for life by her captivity, scorned for her presumed sexual relations with her captors, may not have been typical but it doesn’t seem unreasonable.  Eva, with her jaunty hat, her corsets, and her growing fondness for Elam Ferguson, is a favorite of mine.  Played by Robin McLeavy, an Australian stage actress, Eva is listed as a recurring character on Hell on Wheels.  I hope she sticks around.  I want to know her story.