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Film Dunce: Stagecoach

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Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

For any fan of the Western or any filmmaker working in the genre, John Ford is unavoidable, looming as large as the formations in his beloved Monument Valley. For an iconic director, Ford is quite entertaining, accessible and populist. Though he is revered as a great film artist, he was refreshingly free of pretentiousness and self-importance, although he could be rather cranky in later interviews. Ford was in actuality an Easterner, born in Maine, but moved West at a young age and began directing in the teens. As a self-respecting cinephile, I’ve seen a handful of his film but have never really approached Ford in any kind of organized manner, catching the occasional classic (The Searchers, The Quiet Man) over the years. Of all the great American directors from the period, he’s the one I’ve had the most trouble getting into. Maybe it’s his reputation and influence, which can be overpowering, maybe it’s his frequent use of John Wayne, maybe it’s the kind of Westerns I prefer.

Stagecoach (1939) was not his first Western or the first in cinema, but, in many ways, it is ground zero for the genre. More than any other film, it proved that the Western could be something other than just a crude, pulpy genre with generic good guys and bad guys shooting each other. In Ford’s hands, the Western was elevated to something grander, more artistic and, especially, more mythic. His ability to infuse a distinctly American form with an epic resonance is one of his most significant contributions to cinema. No less than Jorge Luis Borges said “I think nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the Westerns.”

I have nothing against myth, but I tend to like my Westerns a little bloodier, a little more ambiguous and a little darker (yes, I know The Searchers is all of these things). My favorite western directors are Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Anthony Mann, all of whom both explored the mythic dimensions of the Western and simultaneously tore them down. In some sense, they were all reacting against what Ford had created. Watching say Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch back to back is illuminating: one feels ancient and pure, the other brutal and ugly, but incredibly powerful and relevant.

Although he made some silent westerns, Stagecoach is really when Ford became “John Ford” and the Western became, at least for a while, the quintessential American film genre. Stagecoach contains many of the hallmarks of the genre and will be familiar to anyone who has seen even a few Westerns, yet it doesn’t so much feel as if Ford is inventing as inheriting and shaping archetypes and epic stories. He’s the Homer of the Western. There’s the dusty, small towns, the majestic landscapes (a counterpoint to the man-made structures), the diversity that forms an ad hoc society, the character out for vengeance, the drunken doctor, the corrupt banker, the good hearted showgirl, the flawed but principled hero, the shoot outs and, of course, the cowboys and Indians.

The plot is almost elemental: a group has to cross hostile Apache territory in a stagecoach. Among the passengers are a pregnant woman and a prisoner; the characters don’t always get along, but they have to depend on one another. Based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, it’s tightly plotted and well shot, especially the outdoor scenes, but what most stood out for me were the characters: a stern stagecoach driver, his cowardly assistant, the showgirl, the meek whiskey salesman, the elegant Southern gambler (a precursor to Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday), the genteel pregnant woman, and, in his first major role and first for Ford, John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. His name doesn’t really matter; he’s John Wayne, his persona larger than any character he plays. The performances are uniformly good: Wayne is as young and loose as he’ll ever be on film, Claire Trevor is tough and sympathetic as Dallas, the showgirl, and the drunken doctor (whom you may recognize from It’s a Wonderful Life) is particularly well drawn. Ford, like Renoir, has a great affection for his characters and though the Western is associated with grit and toughness, there’s a surprising tenderness underneath.

The centerpiece of the film, a chase and shoot out with the Apache, would be hugely influential on subsequent Westerns and action movies. It still is exciting and well-staged, obviously influencing Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Road Warrior. However, in 2010, watching a group of anonymous Indians attack a bunch of white people and be shot down doesn’t hold the same appeal as it did then and you may find your enjoyment tempered by distaste. Ford used local Navajos and was apparently quite fond of them, but it wouldn’t be until later films like The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn that he would give Indians a somewhat more complex treatment. This clash between two cultures is one of the more unsettling aspects of the entire genre; particularly since the mistreatment and violence America inflicted on its indigenous people is so often glossed over.

The cavalry does arrive and shows those savages what they get for defending the land that was stolen from them, but the film is not quite over. Once they arrive in town, Wayne has to kill the men who shot his relatives. Along the way he’s developed a rapport with Dallas and she doesn’t want him to go, but, this being a Western, he has to, leading to a tense street showdown in which Wayne emerges from the shadows, hits the dirt and guns down all three men. He returns to Trevor and civilization is resorted. Orson Welles screened this film dozens of times before making Citizen Kane and the creative editing, low angles and cramped indoor scenes with visible ceilings clearly left their mark. But in the age of “Deadwood,” Stagecoach can feel old fashioned, innocent and a little creaky.

by Lukas Sherman

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