Another little temporary series here. Nothing too fancy – mostly an excuse for me to catch up on some films I haven’t seen or haven’t seen in a while. We’ll be looking at three classical Hollywood filmmakers over time: Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Billy Wilder, visiting each once in the annus mirabilis of classical cinema, 1939, when they were all still (relatively) young, again in the late ’40s and early ’50s at the middle of their careers (and the middle of classical Hollywood’s career), and finally when things were waning for each director and for classical Hollywood in general in the early ’60s, before the new school American New Wave would wreck up the joint.
So, John Ford made Westerns, right? And John Wayne, he starred in them. They both had careers before they first met, but if 1939 is a notable year in film history, the truest reason for this may be the galvanic, volcanic meeting of talents with Stagecoach, a small, intimate film with an endless amount to say about humanity and the Wild West. Under the visage of a simple, largely narrative-less stagecoach trip from a small, lonely town to a slightly less small, less lonely town in the West, we meet a cast of broad, mythic types: a thoughtful prostitute (Claire Trevor), a old-school Confederate with no small disgust for progressive values (John Carradine), an Eastern dweller struggling to acclimate to life out West (Donald Meek), a female stalwart of conservative social mores (Louise Platt), a doctor suffering from alcoholism (Thomas Mitchell), a naïve driver (Andy Devine), a federal marshall (George Bancroft), and a corporate type who generally shows disdain for anyone who isn’t himself (Berton Churchill). Pointedly, we don’t only meet them; they also meet each other, and if Stagecoach isn’t a Beckett-level exercise in avant-garde post-modernism, its decidedly conversational willingness to simply put these characters in a room and see what happens marks a serious progression in the artistry and conceptual thoughtfulness of the cinematic Western world.
Of course, we don’t only meet these characters. In one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema, we also meet John Wayne. We meet him when the other characters do: with the bellicose ring of a bullet, and a bewilderingly sumptuous, intoxicated wide shot of the boisterous Wayne, playing the outlaw the Ringo Kid, standing amidst the harsh, rugged, fable-like world of Monument Valley and ruling it almost like a king. He is a social outsider in this world, we will soon learn, but in this shot, he overcomes the frame, all the more so when Ford crash zooms up to Wayne as if the camera can’t be kept away from Wayne’s titanic magnetism.
This sequence is arguably the most famous character introduction in all of cinema outside of Harry Lime’s in The Third Man. Fittingly, for who else but Orson Welles could match Wayne for self-conscious iconographic acting and presentation, where his characters were more legends and myths to be whispered about than humans to be confronted? In any film with either actor, it is as if the camera can do nothing but devour the world in a search for that actor. Their faces, and the identities that are smitten with those faces, become white whales for the obsessive, ever-glancing frames.
Indeed, Stagecoach was Wayne’s first starring role in a Western, and it was Ford’s first Western in his future style, a style where he was invested not only in recreating the West but in testing it, molding it to different genres and to self-critique and to exposing it, lightly in some films and vocally in others, as a myth we hold about our national identity more than a real, tactile place. Certainly, the Monument Valley location shooting helps here; the archaic, apocryphal largeness of the place renders all else obsolete, devouring anything in the frame with its omnipresently ruthless mythical quality. It seems less like a place out of the real world than a conceptual place of the mind, a sort of magical Western identity-scape that encapsulates the cosmic idea of the West and not its reality. Ford’s habit of dwarfing his characters with the wideness of his frames accentuates this austere emptiness at every possibility, painting his West as a limbo where humans wander into to cope with their problems, or an interstitial region or void between worlds where characters find themselves searching for their true identities.
Which is the essence of Stagecoach, a work that harbors no regrets about evoking the West as a theatrical location where these people are functionally laid out before us, forced into the most cramped of carriages and shot with all the fury of ascetic, sharp-edged angles that cut into the characters and grant them no domesticity in that carriage. Everything about the film exposes it as a moralist and even somewhat abstract character play: the way the characters look at one another, their physical positions in the carriage (as in who they sit next to), the particularities of how Ford alters his shot structure to construct the moral and mental architecture of the character relationships over the course of the film (Ford specifically develops a habit of conjoining Wayne and Trevor in a unified two-shots to mark their shared outcast, outsider status). I won’t call Stagecoach an anti-adventure (for there is certainly adventure, and the film certainly moves). But it takes great pains to sit around and wait, to witness the lapses in each character’s identity rather to to simply rush from event to event.
Stagecoach is also blessed with a breathless screenplay by Dudley Nichols (who, one year before, birthed the sublime Bringing Up Baby, directed with punctual, staccato fury by Howard Hawks) that ensures Ford’s grandstanding visuals never once lose their grasp of the people daring to venture into those vistas of questionable human compassion. Nichols invokes questions of morality and interrogates some of the limits of the gentle Western world, questioning whether the morality of the Old West was truly inhabiting and inclusive to all, particularly the unspeakables epitomized by Wayne and Trevor (who both give searing performances filled with acid and leering, questioning eyes that judge the other characters for their morally righteous ways; both Wayne and Trevor sell their character’s defiance to social norms with agency and self-worth).
Not that the film is the most provocative Western ever made (these were the early days when the Western was still being formed, after all). It is tempting to call Stagecoach the most perfect Western of the old era, before Ford would break off into more insidious, perusing films like The Searchers, which was itself still more limited than many Westerns to come in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Native Americans are mere hostiles in one of Stagecoach’s most famous scenes, a phenomenally cascading shootout/chase across the dry, arid Western flatness, and they serve as a perpetual overhanging force of dread throughout. Even if the film shows how the greatest enemy of the upstanding Western citizen is their own bigotry, it has no place for non-whites and ultimately retains a gendered “rugged male saves the day” outlook of a traditional adventure.
Morally incomplete, surely, but, for the time, Stagecoach is remarkably provocative, using the Western framework as a cloth to understand the exclusionary beliefs of American society. It is also an undeniable work of craft; the finale, when the group finally emerges from the titular divining rod of human disagreement, is a particular work of sumptuous visual composition and subtle ques of contrast. Ford’s lilting but clipped style and godlike understanding of intuitive composition are obvious from frame one to the very finale, doing the lion’s share of the work of breaching and building boundaries between the characters such that we know exactly what we need to know at every moment to grasp the frailties of each individual. No more, no less, and it ensures that Stagecoach is a piece of remarkable visual delicacy and welcomes a wonderful dearth of needless dialogue and exposition. If it is not the most radical and visionary of Westerns as far as moral claims go, it may be the most singularly well crafted Western of the classical tradition.
Plus, there is after all an ironclad morality play at the core of Stagecoach, with the conservative Confederate and the sentimental Mrs. Mallory being the object of significant social critique for their exclusionary, upstanding ways. Even more so, subtle visual cues such as a shift of the eyes and the positioning of a camera during a layaway dinner scene expose the inner demons and dramas of the characters by showing the West not as a homely, welcoming land for all individuals but a contested battlefield. It was not so different from any other American landscape where various interests fought for acceptance and supremacy over others; it was merely a more pure distillation of this combat. It is an old Western, sure, but it is also an early masterpiece of craft from a director and a star who would go on to test and challenge the core of the American imagination about as much as any director-actor pair did during the classical phase of Hollywood filmmaking.