On a May morning in 1836, at a stockade called Parker’s Fort near the Navasota River in Texas, some ninety miles south of present-day Dallas, a nine-year-old girl was taken captive by a Comanche raiding party. At the beginning of March 1955, a famous director at a crisis point in his career began shooting a movie distantly derived from that earlier event. From these separate stories—the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker and its long aftermath, and the making of John Ford’s The Searchers, and its own cultural aftermath as a belatedly acknowledged masterpiece—the veteran journalist Glenn Frankel has constructed a powerfully suggestive book.
In effect it is two books, of roughly equal length. In juxtaposing them Frankel measures the abyss between. Tracing the process by which raw experience is turned into history, and history into found material for art to chop up and rearrange for its own purposes, the book measures the gulf separating what happens from what is finally put in its place as memorial. The more connections Frankel establishes between events that occurred in nineteenth-century Texas and the uses that Ford’s film makes of them, the more layers of uncertainty and disconnection he exposes.
It is all about information being passed along and shared, but by whom, with whom, and toward what end? In laying out the elements of these stories—paying particular and sensitive attention to the personalities, so far as they can be surmised, of the individuals caught up in them—Frankel asserts no resolution beyond a nagging sense of the “relentless ambiguity” embodied by Ford’s movie. An unhealed historical wound finds expression in a film whose extraordinary beauty cannot assuage the contradictory and painful emotions that resonate at its core.
The Searchers is not a work of history but of legend, yet it is not a legend that puts history to rest. Suffused by inherited themes of incursion, massacre, captivity, racial antipathy, protracted cycles of revenge—marked in its opening episodes by a dread no subsequent plot developments can efface—it cannot relegate the past to the past. In its last scene a restored captive enters the dark interior of the home where we want to imagine she will find the warmth of family, while her rescuer, a figure doomed to isolation, walks off into the desert. Restoration is represented by an image of irrevocable separation.
Cynthia Ann Parker too became a restored captive, having surrendered, after twenty-four years with the Comanches, to a force of US troops and Texas Rangers in 1860, at what has been variously called the…
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