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Not just another Western!
on 25 April 2014
Written back in 1954, by author and screenwriter Alan LeMay, following scrupulous research into many of the surviving accounts of Indian abductions of white pioneer women and children along the frontier of the South Western expansion of the United States, this is the fictional account of the epic quest of two driven and determined white men, an uncle and an adopted brother (after his own family have been massacred) to find 9 year old Debbie Edwards who has been abducted following a murder raid on the family ranch by a Comanche war party.
The sheer power of the novel was certainly not lost on movie director John Ford, who would make the story the basis of his (belatedly) critically acclaimed film ‘The Searchers’, and this is a power which resonates to the present day. This is not just another dated pulp western novel which belongs to a bye gone age. Rather it is a work of great and enduring quality, which gives the reader a real insight into what it must have been like to have lived along the frontier in those violent and dangerous times, whether they were optimistic white settlers intent on building a better future for their families, and prepared to live with the risks, or angry and threatened Indian tribes, faced with the progressive annexation of their ancestral homelands and the mass slaughter of the buffalo herds, on which so much of their livelihood depended.
Today’s reader is likely to come to LeMay’s book through having discovered and enjoyed Ford’s film, most likely on television, and having noted that this wasn’t ‘just another Western’, and that Wayne’s character, the very disturbed Ethan Edwards, is possibly Wayne’s most accomplished and nuanced role in his long cinematic career.
So how does it differ from the film? Well, part of the power of Ford’s film was that he cleverly chose not to show the violence, leaving the cinemagoer to imagine it for himself. LeMay tells you in exacting detail, based on the historical record, the atrocities committed both by the Indians, and by the white men.
The quest takes place over a period of 5 years, so there is much more in LeMay than makes it through to the film, and the ending is also different, but just as valid as the one chosen by Ford.
John Ford could always spot a good line of dialogue, and, for those familiar with the film, it is these words of LeMays’ that leap out of the printed page, time and again, as the reader progresses through the book, because they are also spoken in the film, word for word, though not necessarily by the same characters as in the original novel.
This is a book well worthy not only of being discovered by today’s readers, but also of being re-made as a film, not to eclipse the ‘Fordian interpretation’ that is John Ford’s masterpiece, but to set in modern cinematic terms the sweep, depth and interpretation of the original novel. Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner take note!