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Updated: Friday, 22 Feb 2013, 6:46 PM CST
Published : Friday, 22 Feb 2013, 6:15 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - It is a book about a legend, about a legend derived from myth, from myth that was created in part by a movie, by a movie that was, itself, based on myriad stories, stories that point to actual events, the exact nature of which, are clouded by the murky mists of barely remembered history.
Writing, “ The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend ,” was Glenn Frankel 's way of diving headlong into those mists in search of the truth about a vulnerable little girl who became what he calls, “the ultimate victim of the Texas-Comanche Wars.”
It was also this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's way of deconstructing the larger-than-life hoopla that often passes for Texas history.
“It's about," said Frankel, “what we know about what happened and it's trying to sort out what we don't know, what we can't know, what we've been told that may not be true.
“So I'm trying to do a little investigative work, but at the same time, separate myth from the little bits of reality we have.”
According to Frankel’s research: On May 19, 1836, a Comanche raiding party attacked a white settlement fort in East Texas, killing five of the settlers and abducting five, including nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker .
Survivors mounted a search that lasted for years, but it was nearly a quarter-of-a-century before Parker was recaptured and returned to her family. By then, she was not only an adult, but the wife of a Comanche brave, having all but forgotten her origins.
“People think of her as another great Texas, you know, woman, you know, tough, hardy, all that,” Frankel said. “And she was all that, I suppose, but she also was the ultimate victim of the Texas-Comanche Wars .
“Twice she was abducted. Twice she watched the people she loved around her being killed by strangers. And twice she was hauled off by men who she thought was going to kill her, as well.”
“And so I tried to get a little closer to that person.”
To do that, Frankel, director of the Journalism School at the University of Texas, dove into the archives of the university's Dolph Briscoe Center for American History . There he found first-person accounts from distant relatives of Parker. There he found recorded notes from people who actually knew her, notes that put to rest the notion that this tormented young girl was some kind of super woman.
“There's a more nuanced version of Cynthia Ann,” he said, “and what her life was like, especially after she was recaptured and restored to her Texas family and how difficult it was to be wrested for yet a second time, wrenched away from her community and her people, in this case, her adopted people, the Comanches and forced back into a white society that she just had no means of understanding and how difficult that was.”
Frankel, though, also turned to the wide variety of popular accounts of the Parker story that were produced over the decades, accounts that often embellished, exaggerated and altered the tale and, in the process, began to create a myth.
It became, he argues, a foundation or creation myth, used by succeeding generations of Texans to set themselves apart, even to set themselves above the rest of their American brothers and sisters.
The only way to get to the truth, he decided, was to dig.
“It's about what we know about what happened here,” said Frankel, “and it's trying to sort of sort out what we don't know, what we can't know, what we've told that may not be true.
“So I'm trying to do a little investigative work, but at the same time separate myth from the little bits of reality we have.”
To do that, Frankel turned back the clock in his own life, to the first time he really absorbed what is now considered one of the giants of American cinema: John Ford’s classic Western, “ The Searchers .”
Based on Alan Le May ’s dark book about two men who went looking for a young girl captured by Indians, the film lightens the mood a bit, but still offers a powerful psychological probe of Ethan Edwards, played by an in-his-prime John Wayne. Edwards is the uncle of the kidnapped child. He is also an angry, Indian-hating racist.
“I do remember being very moved by it, surprised by it,” Frankel recalled. “We weren't all big John Wayne fans in 1969 because of the Vietnam War and because of the position Wayne had taken, and because the Wayne we knew then was the sort of big heavy guy with a Toupée and a little bit of a self-parody.
“So The Searchers was a revelation, both about how beautiful it was (we watched it on big screen), how powerful it was and how wonderful Wayne was.
“And it had an impact on me that has lingered, you know, for forty years more.”
Later, Frankel would be posted, as a foreign correspondent for the “ Washington Post ” to world hot spots like South Africa and the Middle
East. It was during that time that the journalist began to absorb the powerful forces of division that exist between centuries-old tribes. That’s when he started to think about Ford’s movie in a different way.
“It is,” he now argues, “about a terrible struggle between two groups, two entirely different civilizations, and the victims of that and the people who get caught in the middle.
“We talk all the time about the clash of civilizations, between, say, Islam and Christianity. Well, they both worship the same God. They come from the same root, along with Judaism. They have a lot in common.
“Comanches and Texans, they had nothing in common. Their whole view of who they were and who the rest of the world was, was entirely different. So that's a real clash of civilizations.”
And into that clash, steps John Wayne’s character, in all his bravado and meanness. And yet, says, Frankel, this remarkable actor portrays a heart-breaking internal struggle between hate and love.
“He's planning to do an honor killing of this little girl,” notes the journalist, “because she's grown up and become a Comanche wife and she has had sex with Indians, whether voluntarily or not.
“So yes, he's driven by all that but we're not sure what he's going to do. And we find out in the end, that the forces of love, if you will, have somehow worked even on this dark character to the point where he can't do the thing that he's set out to or that he thinks he wants to do.”
And in the end, it is the powerful, behind-the-scenes influence of the women in the story that turn Wayne’s character.
“You know,” Frankel observed, “in warfare, you say, ‘Well, if the women or children are accidentally killed, that's a terrible thing. You know, we regret that but it happens.'
“Well, in these kinds of struggles, it's the women and children who are the targets. It's designed to annihilate the other side's family, the other side's culture. It's a total war in that sense.
“And so, as I've seen “The Searchers,” you know, later in my professional life, it's made sense to me on a whole different level, because I've seen wars like that.”
Such things, though, are not easy to grasp in an intellectual manner and the way Frankel sees it, Ford and Wayne, in weaving their web, leave the hard work of understanding all this to the viewers.
Why, for example, after Ethan Edwards’ long and tortured search and his developing rage at the abducted white girl, does he suddenly cradle her in his arms and take her home?
“When you read the final shooting script,” said Frankel, “before this is filmed, there's more motivation explained there. He points a gun at her head and he looks at her in the eye and he says, 'Boy, you sure look a lot like your mother,' and he pulls the gun up and he takes her home.
“Ford's cut that out and he does that, I should add, throughout the entire movie. He will take things from the shooting script that are expository, where characters are explaining their motives, why they're going to do something, takes it away.
“He leaves it to you to try to decide what happened there, why it happened. You see what happened but you have to figure out why.
“And I would argue that that's actually what makes this film and elevates it from being just a very good western movie to being something, very, very special.”
So, in Frankel’s mind, to see “The Searchers,” is to be bowled over by ground-braking movie-making.
It is also an opportunity to put in perspective the events and tides that informed the filmmaker, an opportunity to begin to discern who we really are and how we became the way we are.
“It's a movie,” Frankel said, “that has all the usual themes and characters of the average western, you know, going back to James Fennimore Cooper: The Man who knows Indians, the Indian hunter, the fate worse than death, which is being forced to be married to an Indian.
“You know, all these things that are the theme of the American West and that have a lot of racial connotations that we find unpleasant.
“But at the same time, it has this sort of marvelous transcendent meaning of who gets to win in the end and why they win and what that's about. That's why it's not simple and that's why it's a work of art.”
And that, perhaps, is also why it is a window into our collective soul.
Editors note: Frankel will appear at a book-signing event at BookPeople at 7:00 PM, Wednesday, February 27.
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