Tom Hanks stars! The story behind News of the World!

News of the World—More Than Just “The Searchers 2”
by Henry C. Parke

News of the World is one of the finest Western movies in twenty years, so it’s infuriating how few people saw it in theaters. Though in a way, it’s lucky anyone saw it at all.

In an interview with Paulette Jiles, author of the novel upon which the movie is based, Jiles said she didn’t get to visit the set because “They were pretty [far] into COVID. Lockdowns were on the horizon, so they were not inviting people to the set.”

Even though it opened in 1,900 theatres, most of the country’s theaters were still closed [due to the pandemic], and most of the open ones weren’t allowing more than 40% capacity.

Ironically, The Searchers, although a box-office success, was largely a critical flop. One of John Ford’s finest films, one of John Wayne’s finest performances, named Greatest American Western by The American Film Institute—in its time, The Searchers was often dismissed as “another John Ford and John Wayne oater,” and received a whopping zero Oscar nominations.

While News of the World is not a sequel to The Searchers in a formal sense, in many ways the new film follows the old. In broad strokes, in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) spend years searching for Edwards’ niece Debbie, played by Lana Wood as a child, and by Natalie Wood as a teenager, whose family has been slaughtered by Comanches who have taken her captive. The story ends when she’s rescued. News of the World begins when Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) has the responsibility of a child, Johanna, (Helena Zengel), a former Kiowa captive, thrust upon him by circumstance, and endeavors to return her to her family.

Lest there be any doubt that Australian News of the World screenwriter Luke Davies, and British co-writer and director Paul Greengrass, were aware of the John Ford film, there is the News screenplay itself; on page 94, as Kidd and Johanna near a cabin, it’s written: “Close on the shack as they approach. Everything about this—the wide-open space, the sky—reminds us of something. Something deeply rooted in our imagination. The opening of The Searchers.”

John Wayne and Tom Hanks may not be obviously similar types, but both are playing former Confederate officers who have been drifting for years since the war ended, both without homes, each with a broken heart because of losing their true loves, although in different ways. In Searchers, Edwards must track the band led by Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), fighting not only natives but white men who put themselves in his way for financial gain. Ironically, while Kidd doesn’t need to fight the Kiowa, who are no longer a threat, he must fight not only the same sort of opportunists as Edwards did, but men not unlike Edwards himself, with an abiding hate for all Indians.

Like News of the World, The Searchers began as literature, specifically a novel by Alan LeMay serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. But who was the real-life inspiration for Ethan Edwards? “Britt Johnson was the African American frontiersman that The Searchers story was based on,” Jiles says, “only they changed it to a white guy, which would be John Wayne. His wife and two children were taken by a joint raiding force of the Kiowa and Comanche. They split them up, and Britt Johnson went alone into Indian Territory and got them back. It was the most amazing thing.”

Surprisingly, in Glenn Frankel’s excellent book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, half the book is devoted to the movie, half to the events that inspired it—but Britt Johnson is never mentioned. Frankel makes a compelling case that the inspiration for The Searchers was the Comanche abduction of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. She was rescued by Texas Rangers led by Lawrence Sullivan Ross; but unlike the captives in the two movies, she was, by then, the adult wife of a Comanche chief, with a son, and no recollection of her white family. Barbara Stanwyck would play a fictionalized version of Parker in 1957’s Trooper Hook, which could be considered the third film of the saga. And yet, the most remarkable part of the story of Cynthia Ann Parker is not mentioned in any filmed version: her son grew up to be Quanah Parker, the last Comanche War Chief!

So, who was the true inspiration for The Searchers? Presumably, Johnson and Ross both were; they were both famous in their time, and elements of both stories are found in the movie. The fact is that, along with the killing of adults, such child abductions by Comanche and Kiowa were common in late 1800s Texas, and the children were raised as members of the tribe. One theory is that the Comanche had a low birth-rate, and simply needed more members.

The life of a freed hostage was rarely easy. “What suggested the story to me was my research into captives,” Jiles recalls, “and what happened to them after they returned. So many captives, when taken young, did not want to come back. A young girl named Babb was taken from a community in the hill country and had spent only a year with the Kiowa. Her grandfather went to the Indian agency in Fort Sill and had a very hard time convincing her to come back. He brought her a doll [Note: as seen in both movies], and he brought her many things, and he waited for weeks till she finally decided to come home with him. There were some successful returns, but only in children who were much older when they were taken and remembered more of their former life.”

A unique aspect of News of the World is Kidd’s profession, which has never been portrayed in a film before. A newspaper publisher before the war, he is now a news presenter: he travels from town to town with a sheaf of newspapers from around the country and world, and for the cost of a dime, you can sit in a rented hall and listen while he reads interesting news stories. Was this profession an invention of Jiles? “No, I have some good friends, the Chisums, and when we were having dinner together, Wayne Chisum mentioned that his great-grandfather was a traveling newsreader. I said, that is fascinating, and he told me that his name was Cornelius Kidd. So, I changed his name of course. And when the book first came out, I got an email from another Texan who said his great-grandfather also had been a newsreader who would aggregate entertaining bits of news and travel around, reading them. So, there’s at least two examples.”

About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, published by TwoDot, is now available. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.