The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, Bloomsbury, 405 pages, $28. Even now, when the number of film books is severely reduced from the not-at-all-distant past, one has to admit that there is nothing remotely special anymore about a book about a single cinematic masterpiece. You’d call it the “bread and butter” of film culture, if the world were still a place where people actually ate bread and butter.
Here is an exceptional and extraordinary rarity: a great book about a great American film and the historical circumstances that spawned it. It begins with a drunk John Ford punching Henry Fonda in the mouth during the filming of “Mr. Roberts” and ends in 2011 among the Native American Texas descendants of one of the most troubling American legends. The film is John Ford’s “The Searchers,” by almost universal modern agreement the greatest of all American Westerns and an admitted primary influence on many of the most important of American film directors who came after it (Scorsese, Lucas and Spielberg, just to name three.)
The author is former Washington Post reporter Glenn Frankel, now an academic at the University of Texas but a former foreign bureau chief for the Post and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1989. Previous Frankel books have been about Jews and Arabs and South Africa.
What distinguishes “The Searchers” is its stark portrait of the main character, played by John Wayne, who was for so long American cinematic heroism incarnate. Ethan Edwards is a violent, murderous racist motivated by revenge for his family’s senseless slaughter to spend years searching for his family’s killers and for his niece, whom they kidnapped and raised as a Comanche. He intends to kill her rather than permit any further despoilment by “savages.” The film’s ending is one of the great primal moments in American movies, notwithstanding Ford’s partiality to musical corn.
Frankel counterpoints Ford’s haunting film with the real 19th century Texas that inspired Alan LeMay’s original novel. It is, in fact, a sophisticated journalist’s elegant counterpoint to Ford’s dictum in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “When a man becomes a legend, print the legend.” – Jeff Simon