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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Book of the film: The Searchers

Alan Le May
(Leisure Books)

Some fifty years after first seeing the movie, I’ve finally read the book that inspired the iconic Ford western film. Apparently, the book has been out of print for decades. Well, it was worth the wait. LeMay is an excellent storyteller, building his characters with deft touches. He employs what is now regarded as the old-fashioned style, the omniscient point of view so we get inside the feelings of more than one character within a particular scene; it works because he never loses control.

Interestingly, the John Wayne character Ethan Edwards is called Amos in the book, and is not the lead. The story is told mainly through the eyes of orphan Martin Pauley, whose father was called Ethan. Surprisingly, perhaps, the film stayed true to the story even though Wayne dominates.

Inevitably, there are grim scenes in the book, but no gratuitous gore. There’s humour too. Amos says he had no book learning. ‘To us, grammar is nothing but grampaw’s wife.’ The old ones are the best. And later, the observation is made about tequila that ‘There is a great independence, and a confident immunity to risk, in all drinks made out of cactus.’

Possibly some people haven’t seen the film. Put simply, the book concerns the Edwards family who are massacred by a Commanche raiding party; the two young daughters are abducted. Amos and Martin set out on a quest to rescue the girls and also avenge the deaths of Amos’s brother and sister-in-law, the woman he loved and lost. They track the Indians until the snows obliterate all trace. Finally, when the snows have gone, Amos and Martin resume their search, persisting for over five years. And all this time Martin fears that Amos is intent on killing his nieces because they were bound to be ‘spoiled’. The book’s ending only slightly differs from the film; both versions are moving and memorable.

The striking cover is not merely a colourful generic image – the silhouette of the tree is significant to Martin’s recurring nightmares.

As a bonus, the book has a special introduction by Andrew J Fenady, who wrote several Wayne westerns and was the actor’s pal; as he says, ‘No man was more a part of the American landscape… He was a man to match the mountains.’

Justifiably, a modern classic western: 5 stars. (Leisure books are bringing out other classic westerns later this year)


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I've got me read this - can't imagine it without the Ethan/Amos character being the main focus. I've got this ordered and your review makes me more eager for that package.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks for the feedback, Gary! I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

David Cranmer said...

I picked this book up as well but have not started it yet. I agree with Archavist that it would seem odd without Ethan as the main character. The film for me is the greatest western hands down.

Nik Morton said...

Yes, for me the film (and now the book) is up there at the top. Yet the movie didn't get any Oscars, losing out to 'Around the World in 80 Days' which had a lot going for it, I guess. But for Wayne to lose out to Yul Brynner (Actor, 'The King and I') was a travesty, I reckon.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

A lot of people think that Wayne's Oscar for True Grit (a great movie but hardly the Wayne performance given in The Searchers) was an aplogy for him not getting best actor for this one.