Tuesday, March 26, 2013

John Ford's The Searchers: A new book about the making of the legend

John Ford's epic movie The Searchers is a film classic, often cited as one of the greatest and most influential western movies of all time.  

Ford's film is dark and complex and explores themes of racism, male emotionality, violence, individualism, family relationships, relationships between Indians and white settlers, the American character, and the opposition between the forces of progress and civilization and the frontier wilderness.

Ford's film tells the story of former Civil War veteran Ethan Hawke (played by John Wayne) who returns to Texas in mysterious circumstances. Within days of his return Hawke's brother, wife and children are killed by a roving Indian band who abduct Hawke's youngest niece.  Hawke and his adoptive part-Indian nephew spend years searching for his abducted niece

 For me The Searchers ranks as one of the greatest films of all time.

So I was particularly interested to read Brian McFarlane's review How the west was begun in the Melbourne Age of a new book about Ford's film titled The Searchers: The Making of an America Legend by Glenn Frankel (and interview with Glenn Frankel is here).

On Frankel's book McFarlane writes:

The Searchers is a film of peerless visual beauty and enormous emotional complexity. It both celebrates and interrogates the mythic qualities that had developed around America's romance with opening up the land, and scrutinises those who took it up and those they took it from. It's a film about loss and finding, and then loss again. Even the majestic setting (Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border, standing in for Texas because it was Ford's favourite location) sears the eye with its beauty, and inspires a kind of terror as well.

Glenn Frankel's book tells the enthralling story that gave rise to this film. Half the book is given to exploring the daunting and often tragic history of the settlement of Texas; the other half covers Alan LeMay's 1954 novel, The Searchers, and the magisterial film that makes something new of the novel, but remains true to its core. Frankel, a journalist and editor, emerges here as an exemplary historian. He treats what is clearly contentious material, in matters of race and gender, with precision and even-handedness. 

He is impressively thorough in his research, but doesn't let it clutter his narrative. The evidence for his data is there if you want to read it, but you can trust it and simply surrender to its absorbing and terrible story.


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