THE SEARCHERS (1956) is a classic Western loosely based on the story of Cynthia Parker, a white girl kidnapped by the Comanches who chose to remain with them (she was eventually taken in a raid and brought back to the white world). Unlike previous accounts, the central character here (following the Alan Le May novel it’s based on) is her uncle, elevated from a shady schemer to Ethan, a stalwart never-surrendered Confederate played by John Wayne. When his kin are killed and his niece (Natalie Wood) taken by the Comanche, Ethan sets out on a five-year odyssey to find her. He’s accompanied by Jeffrey Hunter as the girl’s foster brother who, knowing if Wood is alive she’s undoubtedly a Comanche wife, worries Ethan will carry out an honor killing as soon as he finds her. I’m not a Western fan, so the fact I’ve watched this one twice is to its credit; however, I’m baffled why this particular Western has had so much impact on so many filmmakers (including Spielberg and Scorsese, as Susan Faludi notes in The Terror Dream). And the ending doesn’t work well: Wood goes from wanting to stay to wanting to leave and Ethan’s sudden compassion doesn’t convince me either. “We’ve been going steady since we were two years old—about time you found out about it.”
THE SEARCHERS: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel does an impressive job telling the story of Cynthia Parker and her family (including her son Quanah, who eventually became the Comanche leader after their surrender), and then following into myth to the point Le May, then Ford set their hands on it. A very good job, discussing everything from Parker family reunions to the making of the movie and Ford and Wayne’s awkward relationship (Ford had a nasty penchant for verbally abusing people) and the later influence on Hollywood. I do disagree with Frankel on one point though, when argues Faludi gets the movie completely wrong and doesn’t see how strong the female characters are. The most strength they’re allowed is for Hunter’s girlfriend to go off and marry someone else when he refuses to stop searching (ultimately he gets her anyway), and Wood doesn’t get a lot of agency either. It’s in the traditional template of strong women who sit and suffer or grumble while the men go off and to the heroics.