|Director John Ford (left) on the set|
|The ensemble cast|
|setting up a scene|
|Ford out for a stroll|
STAGECOACH B USA (96 mi) 1939 d: John Ford
There are some things a man just can’t run away from. —Ringo Kid (John Wayne)
Perhaps the best thing one can say about this film is that it caught the attention of a young 25-year old Orson Welles obsessed with creating cinematic history, watching this film repeatedly before shooting CITIZEN KANE (1941), inspired by the pace and direction, spending hours studying the film. Yet John Ford is an overrated director, not that he isn’t one of the best who ever did it, but he is overrated largely because of his vile and cantankerous personality, a terrible alcoholic for most of his life, egotistical and tyrannical on the set, displaying an overt meanness and contemptible intolerance of others, notorious throughout his career for bullying and mistreating actors, from big name actors like John Wayne to Henry Fonda, but also lesser known names like Andy Devine and Thomas Mitchell in this film, even getting physically rough with Wayne, his proverbial whipping boy, grabbing him by his chin and shaking him, or later punching Henry Fonda in the jaw for criticizing his handling of a scene on the set of MISTER ROBERTS (1955), where he was viewed as merciless with certain actors, often driving them to the brink, while he was also a lifelong racist, where that inhumanity is transferred onto the screen, which is filled with white supremacist views, most egregiously displayed in his view of Indians. What’s truly memorable in John Ford films, initially seen in STAGECOACH (1939), is his unique screen portrayal of Indians shot down in droves, where whites not only shoot the Indians, but also their horses out from under them - - all in a single shot. One shot even takes out two Indians. This is utter lunacy, yet it is the key to understanding John Ford’s mythical creation of a continually escalating visceral thrill onscreen, where the camera is placed low to the ground looking up at the Indian on the horse as they both die, falling simultaneously to the ground, all from a single bullet. This happens repeatedly, as the fast-paced movement actually creates tension and drives the action. They actually used wires to trip the horses, causing many to be killed outright or having to be destroyed because of broken limbs incurred during the falls, a repugnant practice that was barred after this film (Indians riding those horses fell extremely hard as well, but had the ability to anticipate the fall), so mistreatment of animals can be added to his resume, which also includes playing a Klansman in D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), one of the most abhorrent films ever made, yet highly influential in its cultural impact of normalizing malicious racial stereotypes. Why so few critics have questioned this despicable lack of empathy, myopic worldview, and outrageously racist depictions are beyond me, as whites are always depicted as not only militarily, but morally and intellectually superior, as if this is a known and undisputed fact, continually portraying Indians as disposable savages and never as the culturally developed people that they were, who did not ravage and destroy the earth, understanding they were dependent upon it to survive. These images degrade the viewer’s understanding and appreciation for Indians and their place in American history, as they were more often the victim of genocide and untold atrocities by the U.S. Cavalry and Defense Department that attempted to wipe them off the face of the earth in order to make way for the white settlers. It is this fictitious and mythical view of supposed white superiority, as projected in the movies, that continues to plague this nation, reflected by the equally hostile and racist attitudes of many police officers and misinformed American soldiers when they are sent off to battle in foreign lands, often exhibiting a Manifest Destiny superiority complex that persists throughout the works of Ford.
By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of 80 appearances in bit parts and B-movies. Making a big budget western that remains at heart a B-movie, this is notably John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, listed at #9 on AFI’s greatest westerns, AFI's 10 TOP 10 | American Film Institute, selected by the Vatican in the “art” category for its list of greatest films, The Vatican Film List - Decent Films, his first movie filmed in Monument Valley during a time when location shooting was rare (Behind the Scenes in Monument Valley | Travel | Smithsonian ...), his first sound western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne, with this film making him a major star. For years westerns had been devalued as the lowest form of entertainment, avoided by major studios, yet this film breathed life back into a derided genre, exuding intelligence, great drama, art, and gobs of entertainment while also making a tidy profit. Filmed in black and white by Bert Glennon, the iconic image of the film is watching a stagecoach traverse the giant panoramic vistas of Monument Valley on the Navajo lands in northern Arizona, nowhere near the Apache land near the Mexican border, so it’s a magical achievement obtained by a geographic sleight of hand. Apache Indians have been shown in more movies than all the other Indian tribes combined, more than 600 titles, yet it’s extremely rare for them to actually be shown in their own habitat. Local Navajo Indians played the Apaches, hiring more than 200, a huge economic boost to their impoverished population, while Yakima Canutt, a champion rodeo rider, is the renowned stuntman. Described as the most esteemed director of the Western genre, Ford took great artistic license, fixated on the beadwork, buckskin, and feather headdress of the Plains Indians in his visual aesthetic of Apaches, while at the same time proudly proclaiming himself capturing the flavor of the Old West with unparalleled authenticity. Indians are always depicted as the villains, like taking a trip into the “heart of darkness,” with Ford continuing to project the same racist stereotype of “Indians as murderous savages,” which allowed them to be shot down at will, cheered on by movie audiences, never once revealing that it was white men who invaded their land, actually stealing it out from under them by use of force, then forcing them onto overly restrictive reservations, denied citizenship and the right to vote until The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, though a vast majority still couldn’t vote (governed by State laws) until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, where in a long line of massacres and atrocities perhaps the most starkly egregious offense is The Cherokee Trail of Tears. In this film Ford prolongs the Apache appearance, creating a certain amount of anticipation and dread, using a horror technique devised in filming monster movies, making their inhumane appearance that much more monstrous and horrifying when they finally materialize onscreen. Consider an early D.W. Griffith film, THE BATTLE OF ELDERBUSH GULCH (1913), which contains a vile strain of racist myth that suggests Indians have a primitive urge to rape and ravage white women, in this case Lillian Gish, described as a “fate worse than death” in the hands of savages, where one common train of thought was to save the last bullet for such circumstances. A similar view was also held about black men, leading to the horrific practice of lynching, particularly in the South, commonly used in protection of white women to supposedly prevent that savage act of rape from occurring. What compelled them to leap to that conclusion, fabricating and exaggerating beastly behavior when there was actually none to be seen, more likely offense was taken by something they said. It’s a dangerous and slippery slope to stitch together such outlandish lies that they ultimately generate a lynch mob mentality (Mr. Trump and the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol anyone?). Ford, however, reintroduces that same heinous brand of thinking here, simply reintroducing that last bullet syndrome, a recurring theme with Ford, repeating the indoctrinated white supremacist rhetoric that was primarily advocated by the Ku Klux Klan. He was far from the only one, as endless other westerns did the same, becoming part and parcel with the genre itself, but Ford’s prominent status as one of the premier directors in American history suggests that while he was technically masterful, he was also morally deficient, notoriously peddling white supremacism.
With Dudley Nichols adapting a short story by Ernest Haycox that appeared in Collier’s magazine, this populist drama offers its own commentary on the makeup of the West and the forging of a community, offering insight into an eclectic group of complex characters, a collection of social outcasts and elitist respectability that reflects a dividing line of existing class struggles, from the aristocratic and privileged to the disreputable and powerless, making a treacherous journey through hostile Apache country in an attempt to reach civilization in Lordsburg, where many are avoiding their troubled pasts and are trying to make a new start, where these misfits comprise the core of a new nation. The conflict beteen characters inside the coach actually gives the film a claustrophobic feel of being penned in, which is in stark contrast to the vast panoramic view outside that all but engulfs them, dwarfed by the immensity of the terrain, where the unsurpassed beauty of Monument Valley provides the essential character that defines the film, with Ford eventually making nine movies there. Roads were not yet built and travel was rare during the Great Depression, so viewers were positively enchanted by something they had never seen before. Set in the 1880’s, the passengers consist of Ringo Kid (John Wayne), an escaped convict who was framed by the three Plummer brothers who murdered his brother and father, seeking revenge in Lordsburg, Dallas (Claire Trevor), a saloon girl prostitute who is being run out of town by the morally virtuous yet sour-faced women’s Law and Order League (representing the tyranny of the majority), Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), a verbose alcoholic who is also being evicted for non-payment of rent, claiming he and Dallas can’t live in peace because the morally upstanding women in town are “scouring out the dregs of the town,” Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), snobbish and overly indifferent, the pampered and pregnant Virginian wife of a cavalry army officer who hopes to reunite with her husband, Hatfield (John Carradine), a professional gambler and Southern gentleman who served in the Confederate Army under Mallory’s father’s command, offering the lady his protection, Peacock (Donald Meek), a nondescript little man, an overly timid whiskey salesman who has, of course, been befriended by Doc Boone, drinking all his samples throughout the journey, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a corrupt banker fleeing town with a stolen $50,000 payroll in tow, something of a pompous windbag whose bellicose, self-serving rants are uttered nonstop, and the stage driver Buck (the always lovable Andy Devine), who chatters endlessly to his team of six horses the entire way, accompanied by Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft, who acted in the silent Tom Mix pictures) riding shotgun, who has taken Ringo into custody, expecting to return him back to jail for his own good. Early on the cavalry announces that Geronimo is on the warpath, having “jumped the reservation” and cut the telegraph wires, so they escort the stage for part of the way, but must depart midway due to Indians waging war with white settlers, leaving this ragtag group on their own. Unaware of her past, Ringo falls for Dallas, even asking her to marry him and come live on his ranch south of the border once his business is settled in Lordsburg, while she is otherwise shunned by Mrs. Mallory, who refuses to sit with her, as she is not fit company. She changes her tune, however, when Dallas provides her full support when it comes to delivering her baby under extremely difficult circumstances, quickly sobering up Doc Boone, with Dallas proudly holding the baby aloft afterwards for all to admire, the promise of a new beginning, while also protecting the baby in her arms during the Apache attack,. Along the way they encounter a Mexican innkeeper, Chris (Chris-Pin Martin) and his Apache wife, Yakima (Elvira Ríos), who is immediately identified as a “savage,” with Geronimo described as a “butcher.” Yet Yakima sings a sultry ballad while sitting around waiting for the baby to be born, only to make her escape back to the Apaches, with the musician vaqueros escaping as well, taking the spare horses, STAGECOACH | Give Me Black Coffee! / Yakima Sings YouTube (4:31). The stage avoids the presence of the Apaches nearly the entire way, but is subject to a bow and arrow and rifle attack on horseback near the end, a thrilling, full-throttle scene filmed at breakneck speed, ultimately running out of ammunition, where Hatfield has saved his final bullet for Mrs. Mallory, holding a gun to her head as she is seen praying, as he would rather kill her than allow her to be subjected to what he thinks the Indians will savagely do to her, only to be saved by the cavalry at the last moment, Stagecoach horse chase YouTube (8:22). While there are casualties on both sides, the film only concerns itself with the whites, seen unloading bodies in Lordsburg, some only wounded, but Ford saves the final shootout for the finale, given considerably more set-up time, becoming a story of redemption, with Curley rewarding Ringo for his efforts with free passage to Mexico where he can build a new life with Dallas.
The western is one of America’s greatest inventions, alongside jazz and the blues, providing definitive aspects of the national character and sensibility, where the open frontier has always provided the drama between individual freedom and community development, self-interest and social responsibility, innocence and corruption, tradition against change, where a wide range of characters has allowed plenty of exploration of the human condition, from gunslingers, lawmen, outlaws, ranchers, cattle wranglers, fallen women, ministers, barkeeps, newspaper editors, tinhorns trying to make a new start, eccentrics at their wits end, many living on the margins, and families trying to hold it together after suffering their share of disasters, all are somehow thrown into the mix creating a cornucopia of possibilities. Westerns have been fodder for entertainment, often viewed as an exploration of masculinity, like war movies, but set in a different plateau, extremely popular both in movie theaters and on television, probably reaching its peak during the 1950’s, showing a decline in the 70’s, yet showing great resilience through the years. The western was deemed all but extinct by the time STAR WARS (1977) was released, basically a western in outer space, attracting a new generation of film goers, yet using the new landscape to emphasize what is essentially a morality tale, which has always been at the heart of westerns, often pitting good versus evil. Modern westerns tend to emphasize lone, existential anti-heroes, and are perhaps more contemplative, often using a bleak emptiness in landscapes to explore the boundaries of an everchanging morality. Earlier westerns like this one focus on the white male as an embodiment of Manifest Destiny, while more recent films provide a wider range of diversity, attempting to rectify the wrongs that were done through sheer oversight and racial blindness, along with a willful omission of history. Westward expansion becomes a metaphor for America’s sudden rise to an industrialized world power, where traditionalists are often at odds with those challenging the norms, breaking down barriers, and demanding more out of a genre than normalizing the status quo. Westerns are more than gunfights and poker games, cattle drives and buffalo stampedes, or Indian wars and cavalry rescues, where if traditionalists had their way we would still be stuck in time, yet the sum total of the experience seems to collectively inspire a newly developing mindset and consciousness that ushers in the future. Westerns evolve just like any other aspect of society, where in this film it’s a mix of road movie, a melodrama, and a disaster movie. In Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962), for instance, Randolph Scott has spent the long ride up the mountains trying to convince his old sidekick Joel McCrea to abscond with the gold they are transporting, suggesting it is their just reward for spending a lifetime fending off bad guys. But McCrea sings a different tune, “All I want is to enter my house justified.” As they walk into yet another ambush it occurs to them that a quick draw is substantially less important than virtue, maturity, and wisdom, an indication that as life progresses spiritual matters carry a greater weight.
Ford was in his 70’s by the time revisionist attitudes towards race became more prevalent in the 60’s, hearing large-scale criticism for his venal racial depictions of Indians, too late, really, to change his ways. It’s important to consider that when Ford made this film and received all the accolades, no one was holding his feet to the fire, instead the near universal praise was coming from writers of a certain age, a certain background, and a certain race, all with similar education, and that uniformity accurately describes who was writing about the film industry. In addition, there have been a fair share of Ford apologists through the years. It wasn’t until the late 60’s that journalists and authors writing about films represented greater diversity, taking issue with Ford’s portrayal, including Chicago newspaper critic Roger Ebert who wrote “The film’s attitudes toward Native Americans are unenlightened. The Apaches are seen simply as murderous savages; there is no suggestion the white men have invaded their land. Ford shared that simple view with countless other makers of Westerns, and if it was crude in 1939 it was even more so as late as ‘The Searchers’ (1956), the greatest Ford/Wayne collaboration. Only in his final film, ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ (1964) did he come around to more humane ideas,” Stagecoach movie review & film summary (1939) | Roger Ebert, 2011, or filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was quoted in an interview, “One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity — and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the ‘30s and ‘40s — it’s still there. And even in the ‘50s,” Tarantino 'Unchained,' Part 1, 2012. The antidote to racial prejudice is certainly harder to achieve after generations of unchecked bigotry. Social change doesn’t happen immediately, but through incremental changes of clearly indicated tolerance that step by step build a new understanding and awareness. In the end, you’ve got to treat everybody the same, that’s what really matters. The ultimate question one might ask is what is the face of America? In pre-war 1939 when this film was made it would have been largely male and exclusively white. That same question asked today would have to include more female representation, a larger racial dynamic, and a more international mix, reflecting a multitude of cultures that are all blended into one melting pot. That amalgamated collective has truly become the face of America, though many small towns and major institutions are slow to acknowledge the rapidity of the changes taking place. In that regard, STAGECOACH represents not only a world that no longer exists, but one that never existed at all, as it was a skewed projection, relying heavily on generic conventions. That’s not to say we shouldn’t analyze and evaluate the film, as it’s one of the most studied films in cinema history, or minimize its worth, only that we shouldn’t view it without acknowledging the traumatizing effects of extreme degrees of bigotry and prejudice that poisoned the perspectives of generations to come before finally being held accountable.