Notes on John Ford, 1939-1941: Stagecoach

It’s not often in the history of movies that we can pinpoint the exact moment that an actor turned into a movie star. Becoming iconic involves a succession of moments spread over time, but sometimes there is a first moment of clarity that announces the arrival of a star to anyone who’s watching. John Wayne morphed into JOHN WAYNE, movie legend, the moment that John Ford brought him into focus as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. The moment is so clear and right that I, even though I had only seen a few John Wayne movies before seeing Stagecoach, knew right away that this was John Wayne’s moment.

More than just putting John Wayne on the map, Stagecoach revived the Western, a genre that had gone sour when talking pictures came in. No one was making them, and no one wanted to make Stagecoach, even though Ford was a well known, Academy Award winning director. He had to go outside the studio system to make Stagecoach, and in the process he made every studio head in Hollywood regret that they hadn’t the foresight to see that Ford’s history of Western filmmaking during the silent era would equip him to bring the genre back in the sound era. Strangely, though, Ford would make only this one Western and then leave the genre for the next seven years before returning to it with My Darling Clementine, another classic; then he would make the Western his directorial calling card for the rest of his career. Stagecoach would become something of a template for the Western genre just as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the template for science fiction; the scorned prostitute, the good outlaw, the drunk doctor, and others were around before Stagecoach, but they were crystallized here, because they were thrown together in such an intimate way.

These two factors, factors relating primarily to historical significance, are enough to place Stagecoach in the ranks of the American classics, and they should be reason enough to watch Stagecoach today. But Stagecoach is so much more than its influence on film history. It didn’t propel the Western back to relevance for no good reason at all; it is a rip-roaring action picture, a brilliant study of character types in conflict, and a thoughtful meditation on the wiles of civilization.

Stagecoach has wormed its way into the fabric of American filmmaking so thoroughly that it is difficult to impart any new insight into the film itself. And since gushing about it like a teenage girl would be unbecoming, I want to turn my focus towards some passages in Roger Ebert’s recent Great Movies entry on Stagecoach.

Roger Ebert Hedges His Bets Lest We Think That He Enjoyed Something That Doesn’t Have the Proper Amount of Political Correctness.

“Ford was not a racist, nor was Wayne, but they made films that were sadly unenlightened”. – Roger Ebert

“…there is no suggestion that the white men have invaded their land.” – Roger Ebert

Translation: John Ford is not politically correct enough for me. Whenever Native Americans are depicted in the Western genre by a white director, there must be a sufficient amount of hand-wringing to show that we are truly sorry for what happened.

Since Stagecoach is the only true Western film during Ford’s 1939-41 period (Drums Along the Mohawk is a displaced Western that we’ll get to later on in this series), it offers a nice opportunity to discuss the one subject that seems to be the ire of all John Ford detractors (and detractors of Westerns in general): the depiction of Native Americans.

Though Roger Ebert loves Stagecoach enough to include it in his Great Movies series, he felt that it was necessary to hedge his bets on John Ford’s use of Native Americans in the film; funny thing, because Ford doesn’t really use them almost at all in Stagecoach. Yes, they pose a certain threat to the stagecoach of the title, but otherwise they are largely absent from the film. And the threat of an Apache attack is so unspecific that it seems more like a storm or some other force of weather that the passengers must go through; not an actual conflict per se, but a part of the larger environment that must be passed through.  Is this a slight to Native Americans? It might be if the central conflict of the film were between whites and Indians. The central conflict(s) of the movie, however, don’t involve Indians at all; they are conflicts between white people and they are rooted in differences of class and morality.

Saying that Stagecoach is realistic in it’s depiction of Native American’s would be a fatal error because we can’t account for the entirety of the Native American experience circa 1880, but maybe it would be helpful to project our imaginations back to the time period and ask a few questions.

Did white settlers ever fear for their lives because of a possible Indian attack?

Did said attacks ever occur?

The answer to the second question (“yes”) should serve to validate the fears referred to in the first question. These questions don’t preclude the fact that white settlers, warmongers, and maniacs also attacked Indians, or the fact that many Native Americans lived under the same fear that white settlers did; but these questions do serve to remind us that depiction is largely an issue of perception. Ford takes the perspective of traveling white settlers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that perspective, but it is going to make Native Americans a threat; just as taking the opposite perspective would make white settlers the threat. Stagecoach doesn’t represent Native Americans, but neither does it not represent them; they are a part of the story, even if only as a peripheral threat. Ford doesn’t try to humanize the natives, but neither does he make them in to pure villains; they are only a threat to safety, not an outright enemy. Ford doesn’t do any white guilt, either, which usually comes off as tritely false anyway.

The central conflict is between these people.

But Ford is not merely content to let the Apaches exist on the outer edges of the story; he actually calls attention to them in two sly dialogue exchanges.

The first is early in the film when the stagecoach is loading up its passengers. One of those passengers, Dallas, is (revealed to us in production code constraints) a prostitute; she’s being run out of town by the Law and Order League, a group of elderly women who clearly have nothing better to do in their own lives than to lord it over others. When the passengers are told of the possible Apache attack, they are all given the opportunity to get off. When Dallas is asked if she’d like to stay behind, she replies with, “There are worse things than Apaches.” as Ford hilariously cuts to a shot of the craggy women staring at Dallas with their greatest contempt. The line refers to the “fate worse than death” when a woman is raped by an Indian. Ford is explicitly saying the ladies of the Law and Order League are far worse than any marauding band of Indians, perhaps hinting that Native Americans at least had their reasons.

The second exchange is in the middle of the movie as the group of passengers is held overnight while one of them delivers a baby. They’re staying with a Mexican host with an Apache wife. When his wife first appears in the doorway of the house, one of the passengers, Mr. Peabody, lets out a little yelp of fear at the sight of her. When it’s explained to Mr. Peabody that the woman is his host’s wife, Mr. Peabody decries the fact that she is a “savage”. In return, his host says, “Si Senor, she is a little bit savage, I think”. Here Ford turns the derogatory term on its head, openly mocking the inherent racism in it. Savagery is not a trait that comes from ones race, but according to their actions.

In these two exchanges, Stagecoach brushes up against one of Ford’s most often visited themes: the mixed blessings of civilization. He would cover this idea most explicitly in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another Western that doesn’t have much at all to say about Native Americans. Ford would directly address the settlers’ relationship to Native Americans with dense complexity in The Searchers and then with some of his own white guilt in Cheyenne Autumn.

Beyond the evidence in Stagecoach, Roger Ebert might take a look at Ford’s Fort Apache, a film that openly recognizes how insidious the U.S. government was in making and breaking treaties with all varieties of Native American tribes. That movie (another Ford masterpiece) is a healthy reminder that the Western can shed light on the megalomania and deceit that accompanied Western expansion.

The crucible of the Western genre, behind all the rowdy action and dusty romance, is a hard reality of history: European immigrants and settlers, for all intents and purposes, wiped an entire people group off the face of the continent in near-classic genocidal fashion. Knowing that historical truth, it can be difficult for some to see the Western as a valid place for fantastical entertainment. We know that while the West might have been a place and time of great adventure for some, it was a time marginalization and ever-encroaching death for others. There is a natural, well-intentioned desire for a continued reminder of this evil. Many modern filmgoers find themselves disgusted (or bored) with the mythology that surrounds the Western genre, and their gut reaction is noble, even if it is not always informed by the specific films they are watching. Rather than treat each individual movie as exhibiting all the negative traits of an entire genre, we should be sure to look at each movie with close care, recognizing that many of our best directors are happy to subvert whatever conventions they are working with.

9 strange people, in costume but not in character.

In the final scene of Stagecoach, the Ringo Kid and Dallas are sent off into the sunset on a horse drawn wagon. An outlaw and a prostitute are going to be married, and they’re going to live on a ranch somewhere beyond the cinema. The sheriff and the doctor who send them off give them this benediction: “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization”. They aren’t being saved from Apache arrows, but from murderous cowboys, moral hypocrites, and white-collar criminals. Ford is enlightened enough to know that the greater evil is dressed in sheep’s skin. Too bad Roger Ebert couldn’t see through the disguise.


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