Take 77: Stagecoach

We have finally done it team. We have hit the final Western on the list, and with it, the final John Wayne contribution to this journey. It’s fitting then, that we exit the genre with John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, which feels like the most quintessential Western I have ever seen. Not only is the star, obviously, John Wayne, the enemy is also, obviously, a band of flat, unsubstantial, villains of the frontier. I’m willing to bet that if you created a list of tropes that emerged from the American Western, 99% of your line items would pop up in this film. This film crafted a formula that many of those trite spaghetti Western-round -up pictures would wear threadbare over the coming decades. At first I was feeling myself mentally yawning over this familiar execution, and then I noticed the layers of character work that were slowly revealed over the course of the movie, creating an ever increasing dimension of depth, like a slowly descending elevator into the bowels of a mine shaft.

The movie starts from a literal departure point, as an array of passengers prepare to board a stagecoach in the settlement of Tonto, Arizona. Some are voluntarily climbing aboard, eager to reach the Lordsburg, New Mexico, like Mrs. Lucy Mallory who is meeting her husband, a commander of a cavalry troop in the region. On the other hand, there is the drunk Doctor Boone and his sister of ill-repute, Dallas, who are driven out of town by the “Ladies of the Law and Order League” — hovering in the background of the shot like judgemental vultures, joyless and harsh figures against the dusty landscape. As they are departing, Buck (John Candy’s cousin possibly?) and the Marshall, Curly, receive news that none other than Geronimo and his Apache tribe are lurking along the route, and in the midst of an aggressive offensive attack against colonists in the region. This causes anxiety in Mrs. Mallory, which in turn inspires the effusive gambler, Hatfield, to join the stage in order to offer additional protection. Lastly there is the mincing whiskey salesman, Mr. Peacock, who, along with Buck, provides plenty of comedic fodder that gently ribbons the tension and emotionally laden love vignettes with a hit of much needed levity, as he is repeatedly referred to as Reverend and in turn repeatedly forced to correct poor attempts at recalling his name.

This motley crew is assembled before they even pick up additional passengers: a blowhard businessman (railing against the government and taxation of business) and arguably the hero of the film, Duke himself as The Ringo Kid. Ringo squeezes on to the stage at the behest of Marshall Curly who claims to be taking him into custody. It is widely known that Ringo escaped from prison in order to enact justice against the Plummer brothers who testified against him and also killed his brother and father. Ringo climbs into the coach, sitting on the floor of the stage, his back against the door, perpendicular to the other passengers with his tall knees against his chest. This presents a duality to his character, he is an oddity even amongst the outcasts, and yet he’s also the crossbeam support that joists them all together.

The soul of the film resides in the interactions between this unlikely band of misfits, forced together to travel through extraordinary and trying circumstances. Ringo and Dallas fall in love, in spite of their respective checkered pasts. Their romantic vignette is contrasted by the flirtation and admiration between Hatfield and Mrs. Mallory. Hatfield puts on his best southern gentleman routine and Mrs. Mallory reciprocates with trademark Southern belle snobbishness. This gives the film a bit of a Downton Abbey, upstairs / downstairs quality.

The distinction of class in this case is between the ragtag independents who went West to find refuge in a lawless land, and the former Confederate nobility who still sting from their fall from grace, especially in the face of the repeated arrogance from their Northerner counterparts. There are political veins pulsing throughout the film, although I found it difficult to identify a definitive stance or message that Ford was intent on communicating. Instead, it appears his goal was to emphasize the deep seated commonality across individuals with so much surface level personality clashing. I would argue Wayne is more endearing in this film than any other I’ve seen him in, his steadfast insistence that the passengers treat Dallas with as much dignity as Mrs. Mallory is more affecting than any stony stare from one pole of a duel that I have seen. Ford does an admirable job of showing these disparate souls bonded together as they hustle through the vast open frontier, in fear of an ambush that could be realized at any moment.

This tension is palpable and reminded me of watching Dunkirk or Psycho, the feeling that danger is everywhere, lurking in the shadows. The setting in monument valley works perfectly to evoke both wide open vistas and natural barriers that are ideal for masking quiet, understated, enemies. It is ironic that the Apaches and Geronimo are treated atrociously in a film about accepting individuals so unlike ourselves that they seem dangerous and scary. I questioned Ford’s portrayal of Native Americans in The Searchers, and this film will likely induce similar cringing from a modern audience. It’s possible to view the treatment of the Apaches as a weak spot in an otherwise excellent story about tolerance and forgiveness, to begin to believe that Ford was just unable or unwilling to create tension without reducing the plot to “good guys with guns versus bad guys with bows and arrows”. This read on the antagonists is harder to justify after we see the Mexican characters portrayed with a similar lack of sensitivity, although Ford does tap the Apache character Yakima with one of the most humanizing moments of the film, when she serenades the travelers on their last night together, one fraught with expectation and imminent doom.

Luckily, films who continue to draw inspiration from Stagecoach have realized the limited impact of conflict that is unmotivated, and villains who are wafer thin manifestations of collective stereotyping. It’s fitting that this series was inspired by The Wild Bunch, a film that also follows a band of imperfect characters across a desert landscape, while the final Western on this journey is one which could be credited with laying the foundation for all others that followed. It’s almost as if Ford wove a sandstone canvas, enabling other filmmakers to paint their visions on top of it, using the same props and set pieces to create vastly different emotional narratives. I saw flashes of many other films while watching Stagecoach, some modern Westerns like Godless, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight — which has a symphonic soundtrack and stagecoach setting, and at times read like a direct homage to Ford’s classic. I was also reminded of the early battle scenes in The Revenant, which evoke a similar eeriness of tension. The few scenes filmed indoors had the stark lighting and contrasted staging that Orson Welles mastered in Citizen Kane, and it’s been reported that Welles studied Stagecoach obsessively.

Now, as I’m watching the curtain drop and last embers of the fire snuff out on the Western part of this expedition, I admit I have a new respect for the genre. I may have called it uniquely American at times in this series, but I would like to formally retract that statement. The setting is uniquely American, as it is geographically located in the depths of our massive territory. Yet, a vast unspoiled landscape, which is unforgiving to human existence, is a sandbox in which many international creators have built their masterpieces. It happens that an American fascination with the West coincided with the growth of a medium best suited to visually portray sensationalized myths of pioneers’ forays into a land beyond their own law and order. A land which had otherwise been shepherded and cared for by nations of people who treated the territory with expansive respect. What the West provides Americans is a touch point for our strongest individualistic fantasies, and Ford captures those sentiments when he built this stagecoach that launched a thousand others.

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