Glenn Frankel: In search of “The Searchers”

John Ford is America’s greatest director and “The Searchers” is one of his greatest films. If you’ve ever seen it, you may have asked yourself in wonderment as the credits rolled: “Where did that come from?”

Now Glenn Frankel, G.B. Dealey Regents Professor in Journalism and director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, has answered that question and more in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. The subject of favorable reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, it is one of the books of the season for fans of Ford and film.

Before undertaking his responsibilities at the University of Texas, Professor Frankel was a longtime Washington Post foreign affairs correspondent, editor and bureau chief. At the Post he won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

I invited Professor Frankel to write something that would allow us to draw the book to the attention of our readers. He has graciously responded with a column on Ford, myth and Cold War America:

Abraham Lincoln’s triumph over slavery, a bloody slave revolt in antebellum Mississippi, a daring escape from the ayatollahs, torture and triumph in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and, coming soon to a theater near you, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey singlehandedly defeating segregation and teaching life lessons about dignity and respect on the baseball diamond. There goes Hollywood again, contorting, conflating and mangling American history to serve the imperatives of big-screen storytelling and entertainment and, in the process, creating myths about our nation and our selves.

I’ve been navigating the traffic-laden intersection of history and legend and national character recently while researching a book about director John Ford, Hollywood’s greatest historical mythmaker, and his ultimate cinematic triumph, The Searchers (1956), starring John Wayne. And one of the things I’ve discovered is that Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, Ford’s fabulously wealthy chief backer, had great hopes of turning this Western movie into a patriotic Cold War epic celebrating American values. Ford, himself a true believer in patriotism, went along with the plan in order to get the funding he needed. But the classic movie that emerged is far more complex and unsettling than anything Whitney had in mind.

More than any other Hollywood filmmaker, past or present (although Steven Spielberg is following closely in his footsteps), Ford used historical figures and settings to create a portrait of a nation. From The Iron Horse (1925), his silent-film epic about the building of the transcontinental railroad, to Cheyenne Autumn (1963), his elegiac ode to Native Americans, Ford cast himself as America’s cinematic historian-and-mythmaker-in-residence.

The Western is our most mythic national genre–the narrative may be a tale of good guys and bad guys or cowboys and Indians, but the underlying theme is the taming of the American frontier. And The Searchers is arguably our greatest Western. It’s loosely based on a true story–a bloody Comanche raid on a fortified settlement in East Texas in 1836, the abduction of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker and the eight-year-long unsuccessful search of her uncle to find her. Author and screenwriter Alan LeMay came along in the early 1950s and adapted this story for a novel, changing the names and many of the details and shifting the focus from the girl to the uncle and a fictional adopted brother seeking to find her. Then Ford came along and shifted it even more to accommodate John Wayne as the central character.

Ford craved control over every aspect of his filmmaking–from casting to locations to the final cut–and he hated studio interference. To make The Searchers, he and his business partner Merian C. Cooper (who as the creative force behind King Kong in 1933 was himself a great Hollywood mythmaker) lined up a deal with Sonny Whitney, heir to two great American fortunes. Whitney was keen to get into the movie business, both for the glamor and the potential profits but also because he saw movies as a means of spreading the gospel about free enterprise and democracy in the post-war era when he feared both were under threat from the dark forces of Communism.

Whitney wanted to educate the masses in the glories of the American past in order to mobilize them to fight the Soviet empire. He developed plans to make an American history trilogy, based upon a Saturday Evening Post serial called “The Valiant Virginians” by novelist James Warner Bellah, that would showcase the American Dream to audiences at home and abroad. And who better to serve as director than John Ford? Cooper, who had worked with Whitney at the Pentagon during the war, shared Sonny’s strong sense of patriotism, as did Ford. But before Whitney placed such a large and expensive triple bet, Cooper wanted to ease him into the motion picture business with a sure thing: a John Ford Western.

Whitney went along with the idea, but he wasn’t overjoyed. He wanted something more grandiose than a mere Western, and as the months passed he sought to recast The Searchers as the first of his patriotic trilogy. He told Ford he wanted to “dignify or broaden the story” by adding a didactic prologue and epilogue to put the story in historical context. He even proposed changing the title to The Searchers for Freedom. “Do I make myself clear?” he demanded of Ford in one handwritten letter.

There is no indication in Ford’s or Whitney’s papers that the director ever responded to Whitney’s bombastic pleas, at least not in writing. But Patrick Ford, Ford’s son and associate producer who was deeply involved in conceptualizing the movie and planning the arduous film shoot, later said of Whitney: “He’d come around and he’d want certain things done on pictures, and Ford would just con him out of it, and resented it. Resented having to do it.”

Ford considered himself an American patriot with a great fondness for the military and liberal political views. Before the war, he won an Academy Award for best director for what was probably mainstream Hollywood’s most unabashedly left-wing movie, The Grapes of Wrath (1940). During World War Two he commanded the U.S. Navy’s Field Photographic Branch, produced two Oscar-winning documentary films and worked closely with Wild Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA. Although he was good friends with Wayne and Ward Bond–two of the leaders of the anti-Communist blacklist campaign—Ford was no red baiter. He helped defeat an effort by Cecil B. DeMille and other conservatives in 1950 to oust Joseph Mankiewicz as president of the Directors Guild because of Mankiewicz’s purported leftist views.

Ford’s Westerns celebrated the settlement of the frontier as the triumph of an exceptional nation and its frontier values. But as Ford grew older and more complex, he loved to undermine those values as well, reaffirming the audience’s deepest conventional wisdom and then gently shattering it. In The Searchers he takes John Wayne’s character–the traditional charismatic action hero and Indian fighter—and turns him into something morally ambiguous.

As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Ethan Edwards is not searching for his niece to restore her to their shattered family but to kill her because she has grown into a young woman and Comanche consort who, willingly or not, has had sex with Indians. And the tension that holds the narrative as taut as a hangman’s rope is the uncertainty over what he will do when he finds her. This hero is a dark knight determined to kill the damsel and anyone who stands in his way. Still, because he is played by John Wayne, we identify with Ethan’s quest even as we recoil from his purpose. His charisma draws us in, making us complicit in his terrible vendetta.

None of this could have sat too well with Sonny Whitney, who was looking for something more straightforward and patriotic. Still, he had little choice but to go along. “Whether you take any of my ideas or not,” Whitney wrote Ford, “I know you will make a fine picture, and I will also know that you gave the ideas consideration, and then acted according to your best judgment.”

Which is exactly what Ford did. “My husband admired Ford so much, just loved his pictures, loved the man,” Marylou Whitney, who became Sonny’s fourth wife, later told an interviewer. “Sonny would never want to get into a fight with someone like Ford.”

The Searchers is a great American film, a critical triumph for Ford, Wayne and all of those associated with it, including C.V. Whitney, without whom it never could have been made. It’s not a Cold War epic, but something far more ambiguous, unsettling and enduring.

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