Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
Interview with Glenn Frankel
Published: April 10, 2013
Let’s move forward into how the narratives of these stories were recounted, and how did Alan LeMay (the author) get into writing Westerns, and decide to adapt this story into a novel?
Well I was very happy that I was able to write about Alan LeMay. He’s kind of an overlooked figure. There isn’t even a photo of him on the Internet anywhere. I went and found 23 boxes of his files at the UCLA archives, [and] I met his son Dan, who was very helpful. Alan began as a novelist. He was out to make money, and he saw Westerns as a pretty lucrative way to cash in as writer. He wrote a lot of short stories, and then he [went] to Hollywood, because he figured there’s even more money to be made there, and he became a sort of itinerant screenwriter. He’s making a ‘B’ Western in the Texas panhandle when he hears this story about Cynthia Ann and her Comanche son, Quanah. He journeys to East Texas and meets members of the Parker family—but he’s really interested in the Uncle [James Parker], more than he is the captive. He’s interested in the impact of the family that’s left behind, if you will. That’s where his focus is, and so he creates these two wonderful searchers. One is an uncle, in the book he’s called Amos Edwards...modeled a bit on James Parker. An Indian hater, and Indian fighter, and yet someone who knows Indian lore and who the Comanche are. And then another fictional character, an adopted younger brother he calls Mart Pauley, and these to guys search in the novel for seven years for the character, and it really focuses on this quest—and the quest is another great literary genre or theme. It goes back to The Odyssey. And so they’re on a quest to find this little girl, and it takes them through the dying days of Comanche power. It’s a wonderful novel—kind of grim—but beautifully written.
In the picture, Amos has become Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, and in the movie, he really hates the Comanche. There’s a lot of critical writing since The Searchers came out that explicitly talks about his racial hatred of the Comanche. What are the differences between James Parker, the uncle of Cynthia Ann Parker, Amos Edwards in the novel, and the way it eventually became Ethan Edwards, really the role of John Wayne’s career, a terrific role?
Yes, I agree with you, it really is an amazing role. Anyone that thinks that John Wayne wasn’t an actor, I would ask you to watch The Searchers and then see if you still have the same opinion. Well, you know, it begins with James Parker, who is sort of a devout religious person, but at the same time, turns out to be a kind of heavy drinker. He’s a bit of an outlaw. He says he knows Indian lore, but he’s very unsuccessful, and the narrative he leaves behind is very self-pitying. We move on to the novel and the film, and what the film does is take this man, and raises him to the surface. He becomes the most powerful figure in the movie because he’s played by John Wayne, but he’s a very dark figure. What happens over the course of the movie that’s so fascinating is that he starts out trying to rescue his nine-year-old niece, but as time goes on, she grows from being a little girl to being a young woman over the seven years, and she becomes grown, and becomes a Comanche wife. And so she has had sex with the Indians, willingly or not. And so his quest over time changes, it morphs. As time goes on, and she’s been ‘polluted’ in this way, he decides he’s going to kill her. And that becomes the narrative tension that drives the movie forward. What’s going to happen when Uncle Ethan finally catches up with this little girl? John Wayne does a beautiful job of capturing all the conflict that’s going on within Ethan Edwards as to what to do. On one level, he’s sure he has to do this terrible deed. He becomes this dark knight, who rather than rescue the damsel, decides he’s going to kill the damsel. At the same time, he’s still John Wayne! He’s very charismatic—we want him to succeed—but at the same time, we recoil from his mission. It’s that tension that really drives the movie forward.