John Ford's Stagecoach responded to socialist spirit of 30s America, pitted outcasts against the respectable
As with any story of people confined in a space, Stagecoach depicts the changing group dynamics, shifting allegiances and the formation of a chain of command among the passengers. In their own way, the nine represent a microcosm of America, their eventual cooperation demonstrating that it takes all kinds to make a world | Srikanth Srinivasan in this edition of 'At the Movies'
'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
In a meeting of the members of the Screen Directors Guild in 1950, one filmmaker introduced himself thus: “My name is John Ford. I make Westerns.” This extreme understatement, coming from a director who had already won three Academy Awards, also aptly describes Ford’s modest, pragmatic filmmaking style. Despite making over a hundred films in a variety of genres, John Ford is most remembered as the maker of Western pictures, especially ones starring John Wayne.
Made in 1939, Stagecoach was not just Ford’s first talking Western, but also his first prominent collaboration with Wayne and his first film shot in the Monument Valley, an iconic location in Southwest America that will feature regularly in the director’s future work. In fact, the film begins with shots of the Monument Valley in which a group of cavalrymen ride towards the camera. They inform the commander at their outpost that Geronimo, a notorious Apache figure intent on burning white settler ranches, is on the loose. Meanwhile, a public stagecoach carrying nine people makes its way to Lordsburg through Apache territory.
The literary quality of this simple premise — a group of people move from point A to B under great risk — is reinforced by the trope-like characters. The nine people aboard the stagecoach are all broadly outlined: the bumbling driver Buck (Andy Devine), the marshal Curley (George Bancroft) who has the authority to call the shots, the perpetually-drunk doctor Boone (Thomas Mitchell) who has hidden profundities, the timid whisky salesman Peacock (Donald Meek) who struggles in vain to protect his liquor from the doc, Dallas (Claire Trevor) the hooker with the heart of gold, Mrs Mallory (Louise Platt) the wife of an army officer who is dismayed by the idea of traveling with Dallas, the suave gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) who has unclear designs involving Mrs Mallory, and the scheming banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) who has embezzled a large sum of money from miners. They are joined en route by a sharpshooter Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has broken out of jail, seeking to avenge his murdered brother.
As with any story of people confined in a space, Stagecoach depicts the changing group dynamics, shifting allegiances and the formation of a chain of command among the passengers. In their own way, the nine represent a microcosm of America, their eventual cooperation demonstrating that it takes all kinds to make a world. In one early scene, the upper-class Hatfield, Gatewood and Mrs Mallory are shocked at having to share a table with the likes of Dallas, who was thrown out by the respectable people of her town for her loose morals. The morally upright Ringo, on the other hand, constantly accords her equal respect and stands in for Ford, for whom the shared dinner is a vital sign of the community.
Stagecoach is set somewhere in the aftermath of the American Civil War. A former soldier in the Union army, the doctor is a man with forward-looking ideals. His ideas run up against Hatfield the gambler, a true-blue Southerner and a major in the Confederate army still hurting from the loss of the war. He even tries to kill Mrs Mallory to save her honour when he suspects the Apache will lay their hands on her.
But Stagecoach is a film reacting to its own times as well. Ford was not a committed progressive, but he is responding here to the socialist spirit of the New Deal in the air. This is most apparent in the character of the banker, a figure looked down upon in the 30s as one of the factors behind the Great Depression. Gatewood is a libertarian railing against government intrusion into business and auditing of banks. “What’s good for the banks is good for the country," he declares. While all the other characters have redeeming qualities about them, Gatewood, with his interminable whining and hypocrisy, never appeals to our sympathy.
The film is adapted from a short story by Ernest Haycox, but there’s something European, particularly French, about its suspicion of mainstream society. It might have to do with the fact that Stagecoach traces its lineage partly to Guy de Maupassant’s short story 'Boule de Suif'. Ford’s cinema isn’t particularly known for its affection for outsider figures, but Stagecoach exhibits a deep affinity for outcasts and deadbeats, conventionally unsuccessful characters who are “victims of social prejudice”. Perhaps Ford the Catholic saw in Dallas the fallen woman, Ringo the orphan, Boone the drunk and Peacock the unmanly a kingdom of the meek. In contrast, the Law and Order League, the group of society women that kicks Dallas and the doctor out of the town, is presented as a bunch of busybodies scandalised at the smallest gesture of nonconformity. When Dallas and Ringo drive away from the town at the end, the doc cries out, “saved from the blessings of civilisation”.
The critique of an exclusionary community is conveyed primarily through the character of Dallas, who is the heart of the narrative. All through the film, Ford emphasises her pain of not belonging and her gratefulness at those treating her with dignity. Everyone, except the banker, eventually comes to respect her, yet she can’t become a part of them. Towards the end, when the group reaches its destination, Mrs Mallory and company are taken indoors by the townsfolk, Dallas left standing at the doorstep. A contemplative moment finds her alone gathering her belongings from the coach. It’s a direct predecessor to the last shot of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) where it is John Wayne standing alone at the entrance, incapable of taking part in the community.
Although Claire Trevor as Dallas gets top billing in the credits, history has deemed Stagecoach a John Wayne vehicle, and the actor has a veritable star-making turn as Ringo. He is introduced with an emphatic combination of zoom and track shots, the brief defocusing of the camera adding to the dreamlike texture of this introduction. But Ford mostly photographs Wayne in long shots underscoring his then-lanky frame. Ford’s characteristic low-level indoor camera positioning and use of architectural elements of the west produces a strong sense of space. With a large part of the film set inside the limited confines of the coach, Ford chains together closeups in tight shot-reverse shot configurations, creating intimate connections or oppositions between characters.
These close-grained conversation scenes are set against two grandiose action set-pieces. In the first, the stagecoach is pursued by a team of armed Apaches. Filmed in extremely wide shots, the scene is thrilling in its action choreography, with stunt doubles getting in and out of the moving vehicle, jumping on and off horses running at top speed. There’s a shot from the wheel of the speeding wagon that has become a staple in chase sequences ever since.
Even more impressive is the final showdown, in which Ringo takes down his brother’s three killers. Firstly, the lead-up to the sequence is a masterful tonal mix that intertwines an episode of anguished romance between Ringo and Dallas and a tense, wordless passage of the villains waiting at the saloon, punctuated by a muffled piano melody. The shootout itself is nothing short of mythical. Unfolding in the deserted main street of the town and lit by harsh side lights that produce tall shadows, the actual shooting is suggested by the gunshots Dallas hears. The villain trudges back into the saloon, now full of anxious faces, and collapses, signaling Ringo’s triumph. It’s a striking example of high stylisation in the genre that is a precursor to the baroque formalism of the Spaghetti Westerns in the 60s.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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