Sunday, January 30, 2011

Along the Scenic Route

Y'know, I'm not even sure of where to begin with Stagecoach. It's one of those great movies that seems pretty straightforward on the surface, but gives way to bottomless depths once you begin to examine it. In some regards, it's like Citizen Kane or Persona, in so far as people have been writing about them since they first debuted, and yet people still return to them time and again. Its director, John Ford, used to introduce himself like this: "I'm John Ford. I make Westerns." He was being entirely too modest. The great period of the American Western movie begins with Stagecoach. You can pick any end point you like. Stagecoach encapsulates the Western in one sprawling, beautiful package. It has everything. No wonder Orson Welles screened it repeatedly when he was starting to make films.

So, I repeat: I don't even know where to start.

Maybe I should start with the politics, because it's the politics that leapt off the screen at me this go-round. This is a John Ford Western starring John Wayne and both men have long been associated with a kind of regressive conservatism by contemporary viewers ever since the 1970s, so it comes as kind of a shock to see Stagecoach critiquing conservatism so ruthlessly--so ruthlessly that it might be talking about the current state of the body politic. It's worth keeping in mind that Ford would start work on The Grapes of Wrath shortly after Stagecoach. The politics in Stagecoach are New Deal progressive, and the straw man for conservatism is the banker, Mr. Gatewood. If Gatewood was alive today, he would find himself on Fox News as a commentator after serving out his prison sentence for absconding with the mine payroll. Hell, if he were alive today, he probably wouldn't even go to jail. He'd ride off with a golden parachute settlement to hush him up about the systematic improprieties. "What's good for the banks is good for the country," he says at one point. "I don't know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they're even talking now about having bank examiners. As if we bankers don't know how to run our own banks!" he says at another. When push comes to shove, he thinks he's better than his compatriots, better than the Mexicans who run the staging posts, more important than the health of women and children, and certainly more important than the law. As villains go, he's particularly vile, and seeing him in this seventy year-old movie makes me weep a little because America has learned so little from the past.

But it's not just Gatewood who tips the filmmakers hands. The coding of the characters in Stagecoach reminds me of the prayer from Ecclesiasticus that James Agee adapts for the down trodden at the end of his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: "And some there be which have no memoria; who perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten." The heroes of Stagecoach are: a drunken doctor, a prostitute, a gambler, an outlaw. They are the retched refuse of Emma Lazarus, and they're the rock on which John Ford built his vision of America. This is summed up, I think, in a single cut:

At the beginning of the movie, Claire Trevor's Dallas, a fallen woman, is being chased out of town by the "women for law and order." As she settles into her seat on the stage, the word comes that the telegraph has been cut, that Geronimo is on the warpath, and that the passengers travel at their own risk, to which Dallas says: "There are worse things than Apaches." This is the shot Ford cuts to immediately after that line:

False piety, the movie is saying, is far worse than promiscuity. The movie does a stellar job of humanizing Dallas. She's not a whore because she wants to be one and the film doesn't despise her for her life choices. The other scene that really leapt out at me this go-round is near the end, when Dallas and Ringo walk past the bordellos once they make it to Lordsburg. This is as raw a scene as Ford ever shot, and the shame Claire Trevor puts into her body language in this sequence is remarkable. By this time, the movie has shown her to be a perfectly admirable woman with the same aspirations as the uptight Mrs. Mallory. The scenes involving Mrs. Mallory's baby are a kind of "hymn to her" for Dallas--it's a manipulation, sure, but the payoff at the end of the movie is so unexpected that it doesn't matter.

I could make a case that Stagecoach is entirely Claire Trevor's movie, but that wouldn't exactly be honest. First among its other qualities, it's the movie that really introduced the world to John Wayne. Wayne gets one of the cinema's most memorable entrances in this movie, in which Ford instantly creates the Wayne persona. This is the shot. It's iconic:

Say what you will about Wayne's performance in Stagecoach--if you ask me, he's not really very good--the performance doesn't matter here. One of the movie's primary preoccupations is mythmaking, and the myth of John Wayne begins right here. It's a perfect melding of image and archetype, irrevocably tying Wayne to the the epic landscape of the West.

In a sense, Wayne and Trevor are first among equals. The film is populated with memorable character parts, including Thomas Mitchell's Oscar-winning supporting role as Doc Boone, John Carradine as the smooth gambler, Hatfield, Louise Platt as Mrs. Mallory, Andy Devine as Buck the stage driver, and even Tim Holt as the cavalry lieutenant. This is packed with interesting faces. Has any actor ever had a year like Thomas Mitchell's 1939? In addition to Stagecoach, he was also in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Gone With the Wind. That's a career, right there, it is. Mitchell gets the stock role as the "loveable" drunk here, and he's tasked with the burden of Ford's occasional excess of humor. Anyone who's seen a few of Ford's movies knows this character, and usually, he's an irritant. Here, he's not. There's a real moral rectitude in Mitchell's portrayal, and a hardness that occasionally surfaces. This is most apparent in the childbirth scene where he has to sober up as fast as possible, but also resurfaces at the end when he disarms the film's bete noir, Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler), after which he tells the barkeeper, "Don't ever let me do something like that again."

But, as I say, Wayne and Trevor are first among equals here, and their romance is a masterclass in film editing. There isn't much in the way of dialogue in their courtship. They say that the art of film editing is often a dance of eyes, and that was never more true than in this movie. Stagecoach is a film filled to the brim with significant glances. It's not just Dallas and Ringo, either. The way Hatfield looks at Mrs. Mallory says volumes. Surprisingly, the most interesting exchange of looks comes from Tom Tyler when his character is informed that The Ringo Kid has arrived driving the stage. The sequence where he assembles his brothers in the saloon is practically without significant dialogue, but the looks the characters give speak volumes. This is pure cinema at its most economical.

"John Ford could command the sky. The rest of us have to use soundstages."--Howard Hawks

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Stagecoach is where John Ford first set down the Monument Valley as THE landscape of the West. It's a locale so iconic that when Sergio Leone came to America to shoot Once Upon a Time In the West, it was the Monument Valley that drew him. He knew. Even filmmakers like Anthony Mann, who chose to shoot elsewhere in the West, measure their images against Ford. The landscape in Ford's Westerns is a genre signifier. It's the language of the Western. Burt Glennon's eye for landscapes finds its full flowering here, inspired by the epic landscapes of Cole and Bierstadt. Even when the landscape makes no sense--as it does in the portion of the film in which the stagecoach travels through a snowstorm--the Monument Valley is the backdrop. Occasionally, Ford takes a god's eye view of the figures he sets against it. This shot, for instance:

Given that Stagecoach is dominated by the landscape, this is a surprisingly nocturnal movie, in which most of the significant character developments, including the film's climax, play out in the dark. Glennon had an eye for the chiaroscuro, too. While I wouldn't dream of suggesting that there's a touch of film noir here, it occasionally looks like a Western variant of it:

There's so much else. The way John Wayne is shot from that low angle as he advances on the Plummer brothers during the final shootout; the melting pot of faces throughout; the epic scale of the stunts. That last one is important. I'll expand on that a little.

Stagecoach has been famously compared to Grand Hotel, and you can see the formula at work: Throw a bunch of disparate characters together and watch how they interact. This kind of breaks down on close inspection, though, because Grand Hotel is limited by the conventions of the melodrama, while Stagecoach puts its characters into the crucible of genre, where more severe pressures can be brought to bear, and more severe faultlines can be allowed to develop. It also opens up the cinematic possibilities. While both movies generate most of their interest from watching their various characters, Stagecoach injects the threat of death and the adrenalin rush of action. This, like the politics I discussed earlier, also seems strikingly contemporary. I rewatched The Road Warrior a few weeks ago, and it didn't even occur to me at the time that the final chase scene in that movie is essentially a rerun of the final chase scene in Stagecoach. That's how completely the movies have internalized Stagecoach.

Just as I wasn't sure where to begin writing about this movie, I'm not really sure of where to end. It's a film that I love, sure, but it's more than that. It's a film that's central to my love of movies.


Deborah said...

Wonderful review. Really thoughtful. I've got to see this one again; I've only seen it once (and reviewed it here:

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Deborah. Thanks.

You picked up on a lot of the same stuff that stands out for me. I approve! It's interesting, too, because for some reason, I misremembered the Mrs. Mallory character as being unmarried (what can I say? It's been a while). I guess I just wanted more of America's "undesirables" in that coach.

You've also reminded me that just having the single tag for "Stagecoach" on this post is just not enough, so I've added "Feminism," "Westerns," and "John Ford."

cinemarchaeologist said...

I'm usually a heretic when it comes to John Ford. Of all the words in common currency in the game of writing about movies (or anything, really), perhaps the one I despise the most is the "o" word, but when it comes to Ford, I just can't avoid it; the man's work is, much like that of Hitchcock, insanely overrated. STAGECOACH, however, is one of those very rare entries in his filmography which genuinely lives up to the hype. It's a great movie, a genuine classic, in the way only classic-era Hollywood could do it.

Ford's own politics were always New-Dealist, but it usually doesn't come across in his films. He always ends up thrown into the "conservative" tank because he was a pop director who, as his career progressed, played to the crowd, including some of the worst elements of that crowd. Ethan Edwards, the nearly-psychotic racist of THE SEARCHERS, is played by big, affable John Wayne, and audiences identified with the character, exactly as Ford intended. Later, he would try to have it both ways, and expressed regret that this happened with viewers, but if you watch the film, it was clearly intentional--it's there in every frame. He did the same thing with FORT APACHE. Henry Ford's stupidity and racism lead he and his men to a violent end, but Ford, at the end, has Wayne's character, who knows the truth, lie about it in order to make Fonda into a hero--another variation on the "print the legend" ending, accompanied by stirring music and flag-waving. Later in life, Ford would be asked about this, and he was still trying to have it both ways--he said he showed the truth in the film itself.

Writing anything new about STAGECOACH is probably an impossible task. It's too big, and it's been around too long. It's the same with any genuine classic. The best one can hope is to write something good, and you definitely accomplished that, doc.

Scarecrow88 said...

Claire Trevor. One hell of an actress. I first watched her in KEY LARGO. Man, was I blown away. Then, I had the distinct pleasure of watching her in BORN TO KILL, my favorite performance from her. I hadn't even realized that she was in STAGECOACH until I FINALLY watched it a few years back. What a movie! I can see that this movie really touched a nerve with you, lots of things surface and caught your attention, the way Ford set up shots and how the western really started with STAGECOACH. Interesting comment about Mann. I always felt he desperately wanted to escape from Ford's shadow, and I'm one of his major admirers because of the darker characters and plots in the Mann/Stewart collaborations, but was simply unable to. Hawks had RED RIVER, I guess this is as close to anyone being able to escape from Ford's shadow. Cool comment on Leone. As iconic as ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is, Ford's spirit lives and breathes throughout it. You might even believe that RED RIVER is unable to escape, I'd like your opinion on that. You mentioned that you felt Wayne's performance wasn't exactly that grand, his presence compensated for his action restrictions, but I did feel Hawks got the best out of him in RED RIVER.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I love Red River, mostly. I don't really like Colleen Gray in it, and I wish that it had followed its premise to its logical conclusion and made Wayne's character an outright villain instead of Captain Ahab. But you know? I don't care. I love the movie anyway.

Oh, and yeah. Claire Trevor in Born to Kill! What an awesome performance. I mean, it doesn't hurt that Lawrence Tierney was such a non-actor (that's not a criticism) that he couldn't take the movie way from her. I have a hard time reconciling the fact that Born to Kill was made by the same man who made The Sound of Music.

I don't know that there are any Westerns that escape Ford's shadow. The Great Silence, maybe. Or Unforgiven, but only because it's actively burning the Western to the ground and sowing salt in the soil.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for crafting such an enjoyable article about one of my favorite Westerns! said...

What a great review. You managed to combine Fox News and Agee in one post, and both so effectively punctuate your points about the film. I wasn't completely sold on the western until this one got to me. It's so spare and well edited, and Trevor so right in it. Thank you for this review, and for the blogathon! Leah

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Thanks! Stagecoach is one of my favorite movies.

Silver Screenings said...

Fabulous review! There really is a lot to say about this filmI, but I think your post one of the best reviews I've read in a long time. Must. See. It. Again.

Actually, I'm heading right to over Amazon and buying it.