Once upon a time everybody in Texas knew the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. They learned it along with the stories of the Alamo and Spindletop and the lyrics to “Get Along Little Dogies.” Not so much anymore.

Glenn Frankel’s new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend(Bloomsbury), explores both the Cynthia Ann of history and the distantly related cinematic version in John Ford’s 1956 film of the same title. Frankel’s study follows hard upon Texas Monthly staffer S. C. Gwynne’s best-selling Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History and covers much the same ground. Film enthusiasts be warned: the first half of the book offers a lengthy historical prologue before the main feature begins. Both sections are interesting, but the connection between them is somewhat tenuous. 

First, the history. In 1836 several Parker families and their in-laws were living in a homemade fortress near Groesbeck, about a hundred miles south of Dallas. (Frankel’s book could use a map and better site directions within his narrative.) On May 19 a Comanche raiding party killed five of the clan and took five more captive. One of the captives was a nine-year-old girl, Cynthia Ann. James W. Parker, her scapegrace uncle, made repeated journeys into Comanche country trying to find his niece. Eventually he gave up. Here lie the bones of Ford’s film: a lost child, a searcher.

By the time Cynthia Ann was “rescued” 24 years later, she had borne three children by her husband, the Comanche chief Peta Nocona. Frankel aptly identifies her story as an example of the oldest popular genre in American history, the captivity narrative, which dates to the seventeenth century. In the best known of these, Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, a text often taught in American literature survey courses, the white woman avoids being defiled by Indians and through faith is returned to hearth and home unsullied. The formula, which amounted to a kind of Puritan porn, gave off the salacious whiff of sin as well as evoked the promise of salvation. Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former reporter for the Washington Post who now heads the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin (note: though I teach at UT, we have never met), deals with such matters clearly, without resorting to the sort of academic jargon so common in articles about Rowlandson. “In the original captivity narratives,” he writes, “the white woman captive stood for the values of Christianity and civilization by resisting the threats and depredation of her godless savage captors.” 

Cynthia Ann, however, didn’t want to be restored to her Parker relatives, and she and her daughter, Prairie Flower, never did adjust to being “civilized.” The Parkers had to watch Cynthia Ann every second because she was always trying to escape. Only one time did she seem truly happy, and that was when she and Prairie Flower fell upon a freshly slaughtered cow and gorged themselves on raw, bloody liver and kidneys, then started dancing and singing “in real savage style,” as an uncle recorded. The shocking truth was that Cynthia Ann preferred her life with the Comanche to anything that white civilization had to offer. She died an unhappy woman longing to return to the tribe’s grasslands and canyons. 

Although many moviegoers have seen The Searchers without connecting it to this story, Frankel works hard to tie the Parker narrative to the movie by zeroing in on the film’s source, Alan LeMay’s 1954 novel, The Searchers. A prolific screenwriter and sometime director, the largely forgotten LeMay came to Texas in the late forties to work on a pair of B westerns and while here interviewed 84-year-old Ben Parker, Cynthia Ann’s cousin. To the old man’s surprise, LeMay was more interested in the story of the searcher than that of Cynthia Ann. 

LeMay’s tale gave John Ford the vehicle he needed to return to his favorite locale, Monument Valley, and make his 115th feature film. In addition, he had a stable of familiar actors that he could alternately cajole and bully; a screenwriter, Frank Nugent, who knew what Ford wanted; a cinematographer, Winton Hoch, whom Ford considered fussy but blessed with the eye of a poet; and his own son Patrick, whom he treated abominably all his life but kept on as an associate producer. Best of all, he had John Wayne, star, pal, and butt of Ford’s steady sarcasm and abuse. Ford often treated those he was close to with derision, and in the case of actors he liked, he needled them, partly to create tension and thereby heighten a scene and partly because it gave him pleasure. He routinely insulted and mocked Wayne for not having fought in World War II, for the “fairy” way he walked, and for the way he rode a horse. Wayne took it because he loved Ford, who, he believed, always got the best performances out of him. 

As Frankel demonstrates, in making The Searchers Ford reached deep into his understanding of American racial history. Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a much darker and even more obsessed character than Amos Edwards, the novel’s thinly veiled version of James Parker. LeMay’s Amos simply wants to save his niece Debbie and ends up killed by a Comanche woman whom he mistakes for her. Ethan, by contrast, is an unapologetic racist who clearly intends to kill Debbie when he finds her—her presumed defilement by the Indians, he believes, would have irredeemably sullied her.

At home in Monument Valley’s gorgeous landscape of desert and cathedral-like monoliths, Ford shot the film he saw in his head, not the one on the pages of Nugent’s script. This was a wise choice. In the script, when Ethan finally finds Debbie, he aims his pistol at her and says, “I’m sorry, girl. Shut your eyes.” But then, after a moment, he says, “You sure do favor your mother,” and they head for home. Ford reduced the dialogue to “Let’s go home, Debbie” and let Wayne’s graceful body and the camera do what spelling everything out would have spoiled.

Ford’s thematic emphasis on racism and miscegenation—subjects as old as America itself—would not be carried out to its logical end. Instead he backed away from his protagonist’s racism and delivered Debbie, and the narrative, into the redemptive closure prescribed by the captivity formula, the one that in real life Cynthia Ann had so decisively repudiated. Unlike her historical counterpart, Debbie was happy to be back in the arms of her family. And teenage Debbie (played fetchingly by Natalie Wood) looked nothing like the stocky Cynthia Ann who was photographed in 1861, nursing her infant. 

Why did Ford change LeMay’s ending? According to Frankel, he wasn’t going to kill off American icon John Wayne (though Wayne’s character had been killed at the end of Allan Dwan’s 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima), and he wasn’t going to have American icon John Wayne murder his niece. Ford chose to let the powerful moment of saving Debbie play out in the audience’s mind as a drama of familial love overcoming racial hatred. 

Most viewers and some reviewers at the time regarded the film as simply a typical John Wayne western and felt there was nothing special about it. But latter-day filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese—especially Scorsese—hold the film in cultlike awe, and over the years its reputation has continued to grow. 

Frankel, who certainly belongs in the camp of admirers, writes well, and he has done a good deal of original research, in regard to both the Cynthia Ann Parker story and the making of the film. But he seems uninterested in the flaws that impede the movie’s greatness. The Searchers is stately—another word for slow—and it contains an overabundance of a typical Ford weakness, country bumpkin humor. No matter how many critics justify these lapses into farce as “Shakespearean,” it doesn’t make them any easier to sit through. 

Ultimately it’s hard to suss out, precisely, what Frankel’s admiration for The Searchers is based on. He makes a great deal of hay out of the film’s racial subtexts, but after all his labors he arrives at a vague conclusion: “Like the generation that first dismissed [The Searchers] as just another Hollywood western, we think we know what it is about, but its relentless ambiguity defeats us. We honor its ambition and its artistry. But we have no firm sense of what it means nor how truly great and disturbing it is.” And so I leave the theater of his interesting book a bit puzzled.