Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Glenn Frankel’s "The Searchers"

Glenn Frankel is director of the School of Journalism and G.B. Dealey Regents Professor in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a longtime Washington Post reporter, editor and bureau chief in Jerusalem, London and Southern Africa, and he won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for “balanced and sensitive reporting” of Israel and the first Palestinian uprising. He also served as editor of the Washington Post Magazine, deputy national news editor and Richmond, Va., bureau chief. His first book, Beyond the Promised Land: Jews and Arabs on the Hard Road to a New Israel, won the National Jewish Book Award. His second, Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa, was a finalist for the Alan Paton Award, South Africa’s most prestigious literary prize.

Here Frankel shares some ideas for adapting his new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, for the big screen:
My book has an unusual issue when it comes to casting: it’s a non-fiction book about a classic movie, so it’s been cast once already. Truth is, unlike True Grit or 3:10 to Yuma, no one’s ever had the nerve or foolhardiness to try to remake The Searchers. For many cinephiles, it’d be as sacrilegious as rewriting the Bible. The one time anyone tried to remake a John Ford Western, a woebegotten version of Stagecoach, the tragic results merely proved the point.

Still, since we’re having fun--and no Hollywood studio would ever take us seriously--it’s worth a discussion. John Wayne gives one of the most towering performances in the history of cinema as Ethan Edwards, the avenging uncle seeking to reclaim his niece Debbie from the Comanches who abducted her. Ethan is a force of nature--charismatic yet capable of murder. He doesn’t plan to restore his niece to their shattered family, but to kill her because she has grown into a young woman and has been polluted by marrying a Comanche. The actor must make us identify with Ethan yet at the same time reject his hatred.

A number of actors wanted the Wayne role, most notably Kirk Douglas, who lobbied John Ford for the part and certainly would have brought a manic intensity to it. Among modern actors, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Costner and Tom Hanks all have the gravitas, but none of them quite bring the anger. Harrison Ford comes closer (see Cowboys and Aliens). An actor who has all of these qualities in abundance is Denzel Washington. He can play hard and soft in the same character. And what about Brad Pitt? John Wayne was 48 when he took the role, roughly the same age Pitt is now.

The other searcher, Martin Pauley, is a callow youth when the movie begins who grows into the moral center of the quest. On the surface this is an easier part, but the actor has to be able to hold his own against the Wayne character. Jeffrey Hunter did his best in the original--his performance has a rugged realism and aggressive quality that endures despite some flaws. Still, in recent years I’ve wondered if Montgomery Clift, who fought Wayne to a draw in the classic western Red River (1948), would have brought more subtlety to the role.

Fess Parker and Robert Wagner each wanted the part (thank heavens, neither of them got it).

I find it hard to imagine a modern young actor who could handle it. Ryan Gosling’s a bit too old. Taylor Kitsch has the dark features and can play young (see Tim Riggins of Friday Night Lights). But since Martin represents the feminine side that seeks to restore Debbie to her family, why not go all the way in the 2013 version and cast a woman? Jennifer Lawrence would be a natural. The only problem would be in convincing Ethan to take her along on the quest.

As for director, no one alive would be foolish enough to take John Ford’s chair. But my vote would go to Martin Scorsese, who’s already made Taxi Driver, the modern, urban version of The Searchers. He’s got the talent and reverence for the original needed to pull off this impossible remake.
Learn more about the book and author at Glenn Frankel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue