If you're embittered Civil War veteran John Wayne and Indians kill your brother's family, burn down the family farm and abduct your cute 8-year-old niece (who might actually be your biological daughter), naturally you have to set out on an obsessive quest to rescue her and bring her back to white man's civilization.
But if you're John Wayne and seven years of futile searching pass while your niece blossoms into a teenage Natalie Wood with all the shimmering, fertile fecundity that VistaVision could bring to the giant screens of the 1950s, well, then your mission changes: Now you have to find her to kill her because she has had sex with savages.
That's the radical premise of 1956's The Searchers, which Wayne himself cited as his greatest film. But it's also director John Ford's greatest film, and he deserves far more credit than Wayne for its belated acclaim. It's a masterpiece in which Ford used Wayne's character to subtly put American racism under the cinematic microscope, at a time when the nation wasn't ready to confront its ugly past head-on.
That is just one of many insights contained in Glenn Frankel's spectacular new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, released last week. “That was the beauty of Ford,” Frankel tells the Weekly. “He gives you the typical John Wayne character on the surface, but he subtly undermines the myth as you begin to realize our great hero is also a psychopath.”
Wayne, a toupee-wearing, American flag–waving, draft-dodging fake war hero who basically played one role over and over again — John Wayne — never shed his racism toward Native Americans, telling Playboy in 1971: “I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
But Ford, a six-time Oscar winner who made more than 140 films, had good reason to finally re-examine his own and his country's racism: By 1956 he had made dozens of Westerns, and in almost all of them Indians were portrayed as The Other, murderous savages who had to be exterminated or at least neutralized to allow civilization to take root in the vast American frontier.
Ford is no saint in Frankel's telling. He is portrayed as a drunk, a tyrant and a bully who delighted in abusing those under him. His No. 1 target: Wayne himself, even after he became a superstar. “Wayne took the abuse because he was a loyal guy, because Ford gave him his breakthrough role in Stagecoach in 1939, and because he knew Ford would make him look good. Ford was a frustrated, troubled man,” Frankel says in a phone interview. “But you can't separate his tyrannical nature from his genius.”
While illuminating the legend of the deliberately mysterious Ford, Frankel also weaves in the origins of The Searchers — the Indian abduction of young Cynthia Ann Parker in Texas in 1836, and her rescue 20 years later. He brings to life two forgotten men without whom the great film would not have been possible: novelist Alan LeMay, who wrote the 1954 book after researching the Parker case and the captivity narrative that runs throughout American literary history, and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, who felt he never got the credit he deserved.
Although The Searchers did well at the box office, it was marketed to the public as just another John Wayne film. Its examination of the psychosexual underpinnings of racism went right over the 1950s audience's head. Only after it began to be cited as an influence by directors like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas in the '70s did it start to show up on lists of Hollywood's best films.
“The audience of the '50s missed the racism and sexual themes that Ford raised, the idea that for white women to have sex with savages was a fate worse than death,” Frankel says. “That's why Wayne's mission gradually changes from rescuing his niece to killing her. It becomes an honor killing because she slept with Indians.”
Employing his stock company of actors — including Wayne and Ward Bond, both former USC football players, as well as Harry Carey Jr., who died just two months ago — Ford pulled off a cinematic miracle: He directed a racist film that is also a film about racism.
If it had been made today, it would have swept the Academy Awards.
In 1956 it was shut out.
Glenn Frankel will be at Book Soup at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, to discuss and sign his book.