We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child.

We’re the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child.

On many occasions, I’ve had to re-examine my relationship with The Western. It’s not a genre I feel as though I don’t grasp (the way I didn’t grasp anime, until a few years ago), nor is it a genre I would ever say I don’t like. Quite the contrary, actually – almost every time I’ve sat down to watch a western, be they modern or classic, I’ve come away remarkably entertained. However, despite it being a genre I’m both familiar with and appreciative of, I feel like I am missing whole chapters of my study…whole phrases from my vocabulary. I have always been able to underline why UNFORGIVEN is such a powerful statement in the medium, and yet I’m ill-equipped to discuss it as a counter-point to HANG ‘EM HIGH.

So it was that I sat down to watch STAGECOACH: A fan of westerns who hadn’t seen one of the greatest westerns of them all.

The funny thing about sitting down to write this piece is that I’m actually struggling to articulate my thoughts in the afterglow of John Ford’s classic. In a way, that’s probably fitting, since Ford himself hated analysis. So if ever I needed a sign that spending 1000 words analyzing a 75-year-old classic, I might very well have just been handed two clear signs that telling you “what I think about it” is fruitless. Still, allow me a few thoughts after this brief synopsis for the uninitiated.

STAGECOACH is the story of a group of nine unlikely strangers headed across the dangerous American wilderness. Piled into one meagre form of transportation are a doctor, a prostitute, a whiskey salesman, a soldier’s wife,  a gambler, a banker, a fugitive, along with the driver and his guard (“sitting shotgun”, as it were). The group is faced with all sorts of challenges that test their mettle as individuals and a collective. America is a democracy, after-all, but while The Constitution says that “all men are created equal”, the fact remains to this day that we believe some are more equal than others. So when time comes to make decisions and take actions, it shouldn’t surprise us that the fugitive, the drunken doctor, and the prostitute aren’t always given the benefit of the doubt.

Still – they press on, trying to work as a group and facing certain peril.

Stagecoach
As I soaked-up STAGECOACH, I realized that so much of what I love about westerns I owe to John Ford…and this movie.

Perhaps the biggest stigma about the genre is that we always think about it in its most primitive sense; black hats versus white hats, or white men versus natives. The truth, of course, is that we are all several shades of grey. In every nobleman there is a crook…and in every killer there is a knight. In some ways, it’s crazy to think that such thinking could be laced into such an antiquated genre back in 1939. Up until then, those Saturday matinees with black hats and white hats were what ruled the genre. Hell, this was the very year that a film romanticizing the South’s attempt at secession won Best Picture. However, as this movie unfolds, all of those facets are on full display. It’s evident when John Wayne’s Ringo treats Claire Trevor’s Dallas as more than just “a whore”. He constantly has to underline that a woman of the evening is still a woman. On a different end of the spectrum, we watch as Hatfield puts his revolver to the new mother Mallory’s head as the coach seems ready to fall to a native attack.

Is it “right” to kill a woman instantly before she can be taken prisoner (assuming she’s only going to be taken prisoner?). Even if it is “right”, should a gambler who fought on the losing side of  The Civil War be the one to make that call?

Ford along with writers Dudley Nicholls and Ernest Haycox understood this well and tapped into it early, using it to shape the genre at a curiously early age. Like the very part of the country these stories are set in, STAGECOACH proves that people can be both giving and merciless, and unexpected dangers can come from anywhere. These traits are the same traits I caught in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, THE SEARCHERS, 3:10 TO YUMA, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.
Monument Valley
The other thing I realize that I’ve always had behind my eyelids when I close my eyes and think of “The Western” is Ford’s vision of Monument Valley.

I’ve waxed poetic in the past about what David Lean brought to the desert in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and how we never fully appreciate the scale and spectacle of it until we see it projected on a big screen and realize that black line on the top of the dune is actually a caravan Lean caught on 70mm worth of film. That same epic photography is on display in STAGECOACH, and how I got this far without hearing it spoken of in the same sort of hushed tones reserved for Stanley Kubrick and David Lean is beyond me. The photography in this film shows just how daunting and unforgiving the American frontier was…and how puny the settlers were in relation to it. Just look at that shot above and the way those rock formations tower over our heroes. Hell, if you squint your eyes, you’d almost think they were part of the landscape themselves.

These sorts of images come up time and again in STAGECOACH: sometimes as the road that our travellers warily traverse, sometimes as the stage for a battle. As much as I think of one-horse-towns when it comes to westerns, this is always where my mind goes. And not just “here”, but from the wide-angle that we see in this sort of shot. Its tonal range and deep focus make it imagery worthy of Ansel Adams – in an age where many Hollywood westerns were still being shot on back lots. Not that much of STAGECOACH wasn’t shot on a backlot…Ford just knew how to strike the right balance.

Louise Platt
Maybe at the end of the day, I understand the western better than I thought I did, and that I owe a great debt of thanks for that to John Ford and his influence on what I’ve seen so far. It’s a genre that’s about more than preventing bank robberies, saving the girl, and riding off into the sunset. It’s a genre depicting a time where rules were merely “suggestions”, and few people even abided by those. STAGECOACH felt familiar, and I say that in the best possible way. It felt like that deep worry that gnaws at all of us – that of we’re not careful, we’ll get what we deserve. For the good among us that have made mistakes, the hope is that we deserve to be forgiven. For the duplicitous, the worry is that we deserve to be held to account.

I guess my relationship with The Western is in fine form, and needs a little less therapy than I thought…perhaps just a bit more attention and communication. Let’s get to that: someone point me towards a copy of HOW THE WEST WAS WON.

Blind Spots

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

Here’s the round-up for October so far…

Beatrice watched HIS GIRL FRIDAY

Josh watched MAN ON WIRE

Shane watched COMING HOME

Fisti watched both versions of CAT PEOPLE

John Hitchcock watched RE-ANIMATOR

Andina watched PSYCHO

Jay Cluitt watched REBECCA

Chris watched BIRTH OF A NATION

Dan Heaton watched ROSEMARY’S BABY

Brittani Burnham watched WILD STRAWBERRIES

Will Kouf watched NIGHT OF THE CREEPS

Sean Kelly watched SUSPIRIA

Steve Flores watched EL TOPO