Great American Myth

A new book by Glenn Frankel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning director of UT’s School of Journalism, follows the unbelievable story of Cynthia Ann Parker from East Texas to Hollywood.

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Loosely based on the abduction of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanches in Texas in 1836, John Ford’s 1956 Western masterpiece The Searchers is a fascinating film that critics have admired and puzzled over for decades. At its center is one of John Wayne’s most memorable characters: Ethan Edwards, a dark frontier hero on a very unsettling mission.

In The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend, Glenn Frankel follows the story from its factual beginnings as a family tragedy to its evolution into an American myth and eventually to an unforgettable classic of the silver screen.

In this excerpt, Frankel introduces us to Alan LeMay, a Western author and screenwriter who found his own meaning in Parker’s story and set in motion a chain of events that led to Ford’s iconic film.

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An independent screenwriter in Hollywood in the early 1950s was only as good as his last picture, and Alan LeMay was struggling. He was fed up, disillusioned, and slightly broke. In a moment of uncharacteristic self-pity, he wrote to his father back home in Indiana in July 1952 that although he had directed one movie, produced two, and written 17, “I am now totally unknown and can start over at the bottom.”

His melancholy conclusion: “All I want of this business and this town is out of it.”

It wasn’t long before he found a way. Most likely it was while on a film-shoot in the Texas Panhandle that he heard about the legend of Cynthia Ann Parker. In May 1836, when she was 9 years old, she had been kidnapped by Comanches from her family’s fortified settlement in East Texas during a raid in which they had killed her father, grandfather, and three other men. James Parker, her uncle, had searched for her unsuccessfully for eight years. Meanwhile, she had become assimilated into Comanche life, married a warrior, and had three children. Then in December 1860 at age 34 she had been recaptured in another bloody raid by U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers.

Parker’s story had many of the dramatic elements LeMay was looking for: pioneer families on the brink of danger, Indian raiders, a captive white girl, and the uncle who seeks justice and vengeance. LeMay was interested in all of these themes, but he was especially intrigued by the search to find and restore her to her original family. He was also desperate to stop writing second-tier screenplays and return to a form he knew well, one that he had mastered as a young writer: the Western novel. LeMay had published a dozen Westerns and dozens more short stories before he had turned to screenplay writing in search of bigger paydays. Now he was ready to return.

He rented office space about a mile up the hill from his house in Pacific Palisades, just across West Sunset Boulevard in a corner room behind the House of Lee Chinese restaurant. Its two windows oversaw a rear parking lot, but in the distance the Santa Monica Mountains glowed orange in the sunset. It was there that LeMay set to work writing The Searchers.

LeMay was an energetic buzz-saw of a man—5-foot-6, with a big head, thick chest, and wide shoulders and blunt features: bushy eyebrows, sharp nose and chin, steel gray hair combed back from his forehead. Pugnacious, highly critical of his own work and scathing about other people’s, he couldn’t stop moving even when writing, pacing the floor in his study and fashioning giant chains of paper clips.

Cynthia AnnThe Searchers is a story of courage and endurance, of stubborn people like LeMay himself who refuse to give up even when the odds are ruthlessly stacked against them. It focuses on two men: Amos Edwards, a ranch hand and Civil War veteran in his early 40s, and his adopted nephew, Martin Pauley, a callow teenager. Together they set out to find young Debbie Edwards, who is Amos’ niece and Martin’s adopted sister, who was kidnapped by Comanches. It is a hard, pessimistic book, as unyielding as the landscape it takes place in. In its sense of despair, its emotions echo those of Cynthia Ann Parker after she purportedly was liberated in 1860.

LeMay dedicated the book to his Kansas ancestors. The book jacket, adapted from a letter he wrote his publisher in July 1954, explains: “These people had a kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who simply keep on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.”

In this hard land, the most destructive force is the Comanches themselves. LeMay depicts them as brutal, duplicitous, and merciless. They ruthlessly take advantage of the U.S. government’s naïve peace policy to shelter during the winter in government reservations in Indian territory, then resume raiding and pillaging vulnerable pioneer families in Texas in springtime. They are unstoppable, unappeasable, and fundamentally inhuman. All of their actions and instincts are unpredictable and confounding. “I ain’t larned but one thing about an Indian,” Amos says. “Whatever you know you’d do in his place—he ain’t going to do that.”

Even the gift of language—one of the fundamental attributes of humankind—seems beyond them. “The Comanches themselves seemed unable, or perhaps unwilling, to explain themselves any more exactly,” writes LeMay. “…Nothing else existed but various kinds of enemies which The People had to get rid of. They were working on it now.”

The idealistic young novelist who wrote so sympathetically about the Cheyenne Indians 25 years earlier in his first novel, Painted Ponies, had hardened into the remorseless creator of The Searchers. LeMay himself explained his antipathy to the Comanches as his attempt to even up the literary box score.  “A great deal has been written about historic injustices to the Indian,” he wrote one reader. “I myself once wrote a book highly partisan to the Northern Cheyennes. I thought it was time somebody showed that in the case of the Texans, at least, there were two sides to it, and that the settlers had understandable reasons to be sore.”

Alan LemayBut the real depths of LeMay’s hard-earned pessimism are evident in his portrayal of Laurie Matheson, Martin Pauley’s lost love. In most of LeMay’s novels and screenplays, the hero gets the girl, and vice versa. Not so in The Searchers. Martin loses Laurie for the noble reason that he won’t abandon his sacred mission of finding Debbie for the sake of their personal happiness. Laurie tries to be as virtuous as he is; she waits patiently for years and helps him however she can. But in the end, she surrenders to despair and marries another suitor. Before she does so, she endorses the idea of an honor killing—that because Debbie has been defiled by savages, she must be killed to restore her own purity and her family’s honor. Debbie has “had time to be with half the Comanche bucks in creation by now,” Laurie tells Martin. “… Sold time and again to the highest bidder … got savage brats of her own, most like.”

“Do you know what Amos will do if he finds Deborah Edwards?” she adds. “It will be a right thing, a good thing … He’ll put a bullet in her brain.”

As she speaks these hateful words, Laurie’s beautiful face hardens, and “the eyes were lighted with the same fires of war [Martin] had seen in Amos’ eyes the times he had stomped Comanche scalps into the dirt.”

In most of LeMay’s novels and screenplays, the hero gets the girl, and vice versa. Not so in The Searchers.

Martin refuses to accept Debbie’s death as a just solution. “Only if I’m dead,” he tells Laurie, and leaves her behind one last time in order to rescue his adopted sister. For Martin, kinship is stronger than love or hate.

The Searchers was LeMay’s first serious literary effort in 10 years, and it was a painstaking labor that took him nearly 18 months to write. “In all I wrote about 2,000 pages, mostly no good, to get the 200 pages we used,” he told one letter writer.

LeMay first wrote the novel in five serialized pieces, entitled“The Avenging Texans,” which his New York agent, Max Wilkinson, sold to the Saturday Evening Post for an undisclosed sum. Next, Wilkinson took it around to book publishers. He and Alan settled on Harper & Row and an experienced and empathetic editor named Evan Thomas, who would later become famous for editing John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and William Manchester’s The Death of a President.

In the end The Searchers can be read not just as LeMay’s tribute to his ancestors and his purest and most personal expression of the American Western founding myth, but also as an exploration of his own hardened psyche. He felt he had barely survived Hollywood, hanging on to a piece of his soul in a predatory environment where only the strongest and most cunning could survive. He himself had become a searcher for his own autonomous place in a difficult world. His kinship with his hardy ancestors was not just a blood tie but a link forged by grim experience. In this sense—as with all storytellers—LeMay’s story is about himself.

The book was a critical success. “Its simplicity is one of subtle art,” wrote literary critic Orville Prescott in the New York Times, “suggestive, charged with emotion and the feel of the land and the time.”

The hard-cover book sold more than 14,000 copies, and has continued to sell in various reprints and paperback editions for more than a half-century. It garnered a lot of gratifying attention, which Evan Thomas eagerly reported back to his author. “One of the White House correspondents tells me that Eisenhower is reading the book, with great pleasure,” Thomas wrote to LeMay in February 1955.

Reader’s Digest bought the rights for $50,000, half of which went to LeMay and half to Harpers. But the most important sale was to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, a playboy businessman and heir to the immense Vanderbilt-Whitney fortune. Whitney had just formed a film company and hired Merian C. Cooper as his executive producer. Cooper’s other business partner was famed film director John Ford.

LeMay returned home to Pacific Palisades from two weeks of researching his next novel among the Kiowas in Oklahoma to learn the good news that H.N. Swanson, the legendary Hollywood literary agent who once boasted F. Scott Fitzgerald as a client, had sold the movie rights to C.V. Whitney Productions for $60,000. The amount, “I am told (not too reliably), ties the record for the year,” an ecstatic LeMay wrote to Thomas, “the whole thing being made possible by the rewrite under your coaching.”

The Searchers_HC_catStill, despite his years of experience as a screenwriter—or more likely because of them—LeMay wanted to have nothing to do with the movie. He told his son Dan that he had sold the rights with the stipulation that he would not have to write the screenplay nor even see the film. Having survived working for the autocratic master showman Cecil B. DeMille for a half dozen years, the last thing LeMay wanted was to get involved in making a movie with Ford, who was by reputation another famous tyrant and scourge of screenwriters. LeMay had been in Hollywood long enough to know how Ford liked to work. He would probably use his own in-house screenplay writer, Frank Nugent, and film the picture in Ford’s personal western playground: Monument Valley, the remote but stunningly beautiful Navajo tribal park on the Arizona-Utah border. It was a ridiculous notion to film a story set in the flat, high plains of Texas in the lunar mesa dreamscape of Monument Valley. But when it came to making Westerns, nobody, especially a lowly novelist and screenwriter, could tell Ford what to do. Better, thought LeMay, to get out of the way.

The Searchers was John Ford’s baby now.


Excerpted from The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel. Published in February by Bloomsbury.

Photos, from top:

  • Courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.
  • Cynthia Ann Parker and her daughter, Prairie Flower. Courtesy Research Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
  • Courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.
  • LeMay directing on the set of High Lonesome in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, in 1950. Courtesy Dan LeMay.
  • John Ford surrounded by cast and crew on the set of The Searchers. Courtesy Allen C. Reed.
  • The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel.

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