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“Some Day this Country’s Gonna Be a Fine, Good Place to Be”: Reading Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend
I’m dusting this off: a partially completed review of a book I wrote at the beginning of the summer. I wanted to do something more with it, but day job + small baby = no real time. It’s a bit rambling and clearly could use some more fleshing out, but it’s nearly the end of the year and soon this “new book review” will be a “review of book from last year.” Which is all well and good, but, you know, timeliness is nice.
Can we really afford to keep saying “them” instead of “us?” Is it useful to keep looking back at the past, disowning what we don’t like and attributing it to laughably failed versions of our perfectly enlightened selves? Should we really give ourselves the license to remake film history as we would like it to be by eliding certain details and amplifying others…The question is, how do we live with it?
– Kent Jones, “Intolerance”
The easiest way to misread The Searchers is to forget that its title is plural. So iconic is the protagonist of John Ford’s 1956 film – John Wayne’s obsessive, relentless, cruel Ethan Edwards – that the image of him standing in a doorway, clutching his arm before turning and walking away can easily cause us to forget the rest of the film. David Brooks made this error recently when, in an op-ed about the decline of traditional jobs for American men in the new economy, he opens with an extended ode to the film and the values it was lamenting:
The movie’s West was a wild, lawless place, requiring a certain sort of person to tame it. As the University of Virginia literary critic Paul Cantor has pointed out, that person had prepolitical virtues, a willingness to seek revenge, to mete out justice on his own. That kind of person, the hero of most westerns, is hard, confrontational, raw and tough to control.
But, as this sort of classic western hero tames the West, he makes himself obsolete. Once the western towns have been pacified, there’s no need for his capacity for violence, nor his righteous fury.
What Brooks doesn’t mention, but which is explicit in the title of the film, is that Wayne is not a solo actor. Brooks mentions offhand that “new sorts of people” will populate the west, but fails to note that these people are already there in the film. There is the extended network of homesteaders, Texas Rangers, U.S. Cavalry troops, Mexican trackers, and of course Comanche Indians that make up the post-Civil War Texas of the film’s setting, and there is even the second searcher of the title. Martin Pauley (Jeffrey Hunter) could, as easily as Ethan, hold the mantle as the symbolic representation of the white settlers of the Texas frontier. Of course Wayne is the center of the action, the looming presence anchoring the whole story, but he is also a man set apart from a complex society largely ambivalent about Ethan’s obsessions. The Searchers shows us the Wayne archetype as just one part of a social fabric, and ultimately perhaps not an important one.
If we are to better understand The Searchers, then it is essential to get a fuller picture of the people and communities that the characters travel through. These are the places the part-Cherokee Martin comes from, where Debbie moves between, from which Ethan is ultimately excluded. Glenn Frankel’s new book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Bloomsbury) does a lot of work in sketching out the historical antecedents of the film’s fictionalized portrayal of this land. The book is a history not only of the production of the film, but also of the long and fascinating pre-history of the real-life inspiration for it. Most of the book is about Cynthia Ann Parker, a girl abducted in Texas by Comanches in 1836; her uncle who spent eight years searching for her; and her Comanche son Quanah who went on to become chief of the Comanches in the late 19th-century. Only in the book’s final third does Frankel move onto a history of the film itself, but his historical framing sheds some interesting extra-textual light on Ford’s work and in how we can better understand it and its legacy.
Though The Searchers continues to sit high on the list of canonical American films, its very success at dramatizing the moral costs of Westward expansion means that it can often come under criticism. Last year, director Quentin Tarantino lashed out at Ford and his entire oeuvre. The immediate reason was that Ford had acted as a Ku Klux Klan extra in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, but also because, “It really is people like [Ford] that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity — and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms.”
Ford wasn’t a great artist in spite of the contradictory imperatives of his films but because of them. His films don’t live apart from the shifts in American culture and the demands of the film industry, but in dialogue with them. Do those films provide the models of racial enlightenment that we expect today? Of course they don’t. On the other hand, they are far more nuanced and sophisticated in this regard than the streamlined commentaries that one reads about them, behaviorally, historically, and cinematically speaking…Maybe it’s time to stop searching for moral perfection in artists.
It’s wrong to say that The Searchers is not racist; doing so would be whitewashing its own peculiar attitude toward Native Americans. The film’s central tension – that the protection and rescue of white settlers is necessary and important, but that there was something damaging about fulfilling that mission – is what makes it work, and its what makes John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards such a fascinating and complicated figure.
You don’t have to agree with Ford’s (admittedly complex) politics to engage with the film. As the story of Cynthia Ann Parker shows, the film is, in fact, densely metatextual. It’s a quality Tarantino should appreciate, of course. His most recent film, Django Unchained, is about our perception of a certain time in American history, our own need to mythologize it and the damage that myth has wreaked on our national consciousness. Whether Tarantino is entirely successful is, I think, still an open question, but it’s not a vastly different project from The Searchers itself. Indeed, American history – especially the history shaped by myth and legend – is an essential component of Ford’s entire filmography.
This historical engagement continues to make The Searchers such a captivating experience, even if you manage to distance yourself from the images and the sheer magnificence of the craft. Ford looks at a central component of the American mythos and finds it lacking. There is no justification for Ethan Edwards, just as there is, truly, no justification for the genocide of the Native Americans.
But despite the essential moral bankruptcy of the cause, Ford and the film maintain its necessity to the very end, even while condemning it. Ethan is a monster, but he’s a necessary monster. Holding these two notions together, uncomfortably and perhaps even unsuccessfully, is the film’s true purpose. The growth of community, the endurance of the frontier spirit, the binding power of family, the successful resolution of trauma and the end of violent conflict: these are all essential to The Searchers and to Ford’s ideology more generally. But they all sit uneasily beside an inescapable truth: that these things exist because others have been destroyed.
Captivity narratives were popular from the early days of European settlement, but Cynthia Ann Parker’s tale, in particular, became a prominent cornerstone of Texas legend. Captured in 1836 following the slaughter of much of her extended family, she lived among the Comanches for a quarter century, marrying into the tribe and giving birth to several children. She was eventually “rescued” as part of a vain public relations stunt on the eve of the Civil War.
Little concrete information about her time with the Comanches exists, but fascination with her life made her, like the Alamo, an important part of a self-fashioned Texan origin myth. Cynthia Ann never wrote down her experiences, but her surviving family members attempted to do so for her, and their memoirs and recollections were published and widely read. Her story had all the hallmarks that made captivity narratives so beloved: the white girl violently snatched from her family at a young age, raised as an Indian, returning years later to her family a different (and no longer virginal) woman unable to cope and survive in “the white man’s world.”
Frankel traces the afterlife of Parker’s story (the remainder of her short life was spent lonely and sad in Texas) through her son Quanah, which seems to have little to do directly with The Searchers. Quanah went on to play a central role in the political life of the Native American reservation in Oklahoma after the end of the Indian Wars. Self-proclaimed “last chief” of the Comanche, Quanah negotiated land rights with cattle ranchers and worked with the federal government on the terms of resettlement. He lead his people, often to the distress and anger of his fellow Comanches, to a way of life – settled, “civilized,” Christianized – approved by the white settlers.
Quanah was, by all accounts, a charming man and gregarious host, but one reason for his successful relationships with white Americans was that he was half-white himself, son of a Comanche father and white mother. Any of the qualities whites admired in him – his intelligence, ambition, willingness to give up the traditional Comanche lifestyle – would always be attributed to this fact. Quanah’s success allowed white people to feel good about themselves and the progress of Indian civilization without ever actually having to revise their own prejudices about Indian society.
The Parker family’s odyssey was a story that took place alongside other key moments of Texan history. Cynthia Ann and Quanah intersect again and again with a large cast of characters, powerful figures from America’s past: Sam Houston, William Tecumseh Sherman, Theodore Roosevelt. The Parker family was already well-known and their story often adapted into various forms before Ford ever came around to it. Embellished through the years, the Parker legend continued to find its way into dime novels, Wild West shows, plays, and operas up through the 1950s, when novelist Alan Le May came upon it and wrote the novel The Searchers. He took the focus off of Cynthia Ann and onto her obsessive, half-mad uncle, James, who had unsuccessfully searched for her in the years immediately following her capture.
This is one reason why Frankel’s book gives so much space to Quanah, who gets written out of Ford’s version of the story. (Though Quanah did make an appearance as the villain in Ford’s 1961 Two Rode Together, played by the same actor who played Chief Scar in The Searchers, Henry Brandon.) It shows the paths not taken, the stories left untold by Le May and Ford’s adaptation. By reorienting the story and refocusing its emotional core not on the captive woman or any of the Comanches themselves, but on her white family and the society left behind, Le May and Ford transform a popular story about the history of the American West into a full-blown mythology of the American West. The Comanches (and by extension, any hypothetical children of Debbie’s) are defeated at the end of the film. Unlike with Quanah, there is little indication that they had a history that would continue into the modern world. The Searchers was exclusively a white man’s tale now.
Today, if people think about Cynthia Ann Parker at all, it is only through the lens of John Ford, John Wayne, and Monument Valley. The Searchers did for the story of the Parker family and Texas what Thomas Malory’s Le Mort Darthur did for King Arthur and Britain: it codified a set of national legends and became the lens through which all future examinations of it would be viewed. You can no longer talk about the history of Cynthia and Quanah in detail without making it, ultimately, about The Searchers, about our representation of American history instead of about American history proper. Her story is a stand-in for American memory, its appropriations by others, and how power rewrites the history of its own transgressions.
The last portion of Frankel’s book contains brief biographies of Ford and Wayne and a summary of the production of the film. There’s little new here to anyone familiar with these two men and their body of work, but Frankel does a good job at sketching them out and outlining a lot of their career-long interests, such as Ford’s relationship to the American immigrant experience or Wayne’s development and finessing of his iconic persona.
It is that persona, of course, which looms so large over the film’s legacy. It is what writers like David Brooks continue to look toward as a model of masculine identity. The figure of Edwards, and Wayne himself, exerts a gravitational pull on the rest of the film. But, as I mentioned at the start, The Searchers is not only Ethan’s story. This is what Brooks misses, and what Frankel’s book reminds us: even as The Searchers becomes centered more and more on the figure of the lone white man, the historical accretion (both in actual history and Hollywood’s invented history of the west) of other lives keeps poking through, keeps interrupting Ethan’s quest and insisting that he take account of where he stands in relation to the rest of human society. And, more importantly, what he stands for, whether it be the purity and virtue of white women or the commitment to supporting and sustaining the communities around him. The whole film rests upon how Ethan ultimately conceives of his moral and ethical duties to other people. The tension of the film’s climax, after all, is whether or not Ethan will kill Debbie. In other words, whether he will continue to adhere to his own bloody moral code or let society work its own way without his input or presence.
What, then, does Cynthia Ann Parker tell us about Ethan Edwards? She tells us that The Searchers remains relevant and important because we have never moved beyond it. We know its politics are bad even while believing them to be, in our collective imagination, somehow true. The history of Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker becomes subsumed by their legend, which in turn is transformed into “a fable” (as Frankel calls the film) not about their actual lives but about what their lives meant to the invading white man, the winner of the conflict and the one who is still writing history.
I have been meaning to write a post about Netflix and how it’s shaping (and possibly distorting) our perception of film history. But Matt singer essentially wrote it anyway, so I would just go read his piece instead. (Especially since he’s much more succinct than I would have been.)
I might have additional thoughts to add at some point. But no promises.
[Breaking Bad spoilers below]
“Ozymandius,” the most recent episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, continued the gut-wrenching, emotional turmoil that’s been the hallmark of nearly every episode this final half-season. The complete dissolution of Walter White’s hopes and dreams finds its ultimate manifestation in the collapse of his family, or at least the family unit as imagined by Walt. His brother-in-law is dead, his surrogate son hauled off to torture, and his wife and son allied against him and his “plans.” The impulsive, sickening decision for Walt to kidnap his daughter, however briefly, marks him as irrevocably out of the family structures that he has professed, since the start of the show, to be so important to him. Even his money his gone, taken from him by the demonic embodiment of all of Walt’s latent racist, patriarchal dreams in the form of Todd, Uncle Jack, and the neo-Nazis (a kind of Bizarro White family, stricken of scruples or conventional morality).
In an episode with maybe a half dozen signature moments – the death of Hank, Walt’s spiteful confession to Jesse about Jane, Flynn learning about his father’s drug business, that final phone call – the most terrifying to me was the knife fight between Walt, Skylar, and Flynn in their living room. Walt tries to force everyone to pack and quickly leave the house, but his powers of persuasion are depleted and his family can only respond to him with fear and mounting anger. (Skylar’s “Where’s Hank?” taking on the familiar anxiety and intensity of that famous scene in The Wire, while Flynn’s “What? Uncle Hank is dead?”, delivered quickly and off-camera, captures the shock and horror upon hearing the unexpected death of a loved one better than any other scene I can recall.) It all culminates with Skylar picking up a knife and attacking Walt. The struggle, which moves back and forth between Walt vs. Skylar and Walt vs. Flynn, ends with Skylar and Flynn allied against Walt and is finally halted with a quickly placed 9/11 call. (“He attacked my mom,” Flynn says to the operator, which is only untrue in the most literal sense.) The whole sequence is shot masterfully by Riann Johnson, with that knife seemingly slashing closer and closer to the camera.
Thinking over the episode today, it struck me that the entire sequence bore a great deal of resemblance to the climax of Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film about dying schoolteacher Ed Avery, played by James Mason, who takes some experimental drugs and transforms into a domestic tyrant. With the exception of taking drugs versus making drugs, that plot description sounds, of course, remarkably like Breaking Bad. In both cases, the story examines a “typical suburban family,” and peels back the layers of patriarchal control that keeps the whole system running to reveal the angry, oppressive core beneath.
Francois Truffaut made the critical point about Bigger Than Life in 1957: “The cortisone [the drug he takes] wasn’t responsible for Avery’s megalomania; it simply revealed it,” and Jonathan Rosenbaum has written that, “The madness of Ed Avery…is the madness of America writ large.” The same has been said of Breaking Bad, despite the objections of fans who think Heisenberg is “badass” and can’t wait for Walt to “win.” Or, if not that stark, to at least “redeem” himself with some last minute heroics and perhaps a final sacrifice. There seems to be an inevitable draw to root for the male protagonist in these types of stories, even if they represent everything wrong about our culture’s social priorities. As Linda Holmes wrote today for NPR, that’s pretty much bullshit:
It’s the hypnotic magic of this show that anybody would sit around parsing the goodness or badness of Walt’s behavior in making that phone call in the same episode in which he sent Jesse off to be tortured and murdered. This, I believe, is the frame. Whether it began this way or not, the frame has become, in part, the what are we doing? of antihero stories. What are we doing? Why are we picking apart how bad, how wrong, how evil is a guy who has killed or caused to be killed all manner of people?
Likewise, when watching Bigger Than Life I become increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect that Avery will be cured of his madness and that the family will be reconciled. After all, if this is who he really is, why would you want to live with this man anymore? The film does end on a note of reconciliation but, like so many films from classical Hollywood that have pat happy endings, it doesn’t leave you feeling very reassured. Avery hugs his wife and son in the hospital room, but what happens when they have to go home again?
Part of that unease comes from the immediately preceding scene, a horrific plunge into the depths of American anger and violence at mid-century. If Bigger Than Life has been described as “Leave It Beaver goes to hell,” this is why. Avery, increasingly frustrated that his son is not living up to his expectations, finally catches the boy attempting to steal his medicine (presumably to destroy it and restore his father to sanity). Avery, who is like Walter White a very smart man who uses his intelligence to twist others to his will, sends his son to his room and then reads his wife the story of Abraham and Isaac. He explains to her that God asked Abraham to murder Isaac, and that this display of justice in the face of presumed disobedience now needs to be re-enacted. The reasonining is totally illogical, but as delivered by Mason there is a seductive persuasiveness to it. Of course, his wife pleads by noting that God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, to which Avery responds, “God was wrong.”
And so the American patriarch becomes the Old Testament diety himself, doling out judgment based on his own whims and sense of indignation. Avery sticks his wife in the closet and rushes up the stairs to murder his son, but fortunately at the final moment their friend and neighbor Wally (Walter Matthau) bursts into the house, and he and Avery have an intense fight on the house’s central staircase, tearing it apart before finally ending with Avery defeated.
The knife fight scene in Breaking Bad and the staircase fight in Bigger Than Life have obvious differences: Walt is attempting to save his family, not destroy it, and the outcome of Breaking Bad‘s fight is the horrific moment when Walt kidnaps his younger daughter. This fight will not lead to Walt’s redemption or rehabiliation. Both scenes, however, use the space of the home as a central feature. In Bigger Than Life, the staircase is the home’s most important element, binding its rooms and the family itself together. Its destruction seems to mark an inevitable break at the very core of the family unit. Walt’s house does not have stairs, but the central hallway operates in a similar way, a location that both connects the family and helps to keep them separated into their private spaces. After all the secrets Walt has kept within that house for so long, it is appropriate that this struggle begins in the physical nexus of those lies. That the fight then spills into the living room (as Avery and Wally’s fight falls off the staircase and into the foyer) brings the conflict out into the open, where its consequences and repercussions will reverberate for another two episodes.
I have no idea whether Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, episode writer Moira Walley-Beckett, or director Riann Johnnson were thinking about Bigger Than Life at all during the production of this episode. I doubt they were, at least explicitly. But it’s still noteworthy how the home in both cases becomes the site of violence, and specifically a violence that exposes the very real patriarchal rage that the family unit is designed to both protect and keep under a semblance of control. What are Walter White and Ed Avery ultimately angry about, after all? In both cases, it’s that the world has not treated them the way they expect, and so they react by doubling down on a sense of aggrieved masculinity they’ve always carried with them anyway. Avery and his family, at least, are allowed the illusion of a return to normalcy. I very much doubt any such domestic fantasy awaits Walt.