Stagecoach is to American movies what The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to American literature. It’s a work deep in the national character, and, like Huck Finn, its meaning is often taken to be its exact opposite. John Ford’s 1939 western, the story of a thrown-together band of travelers braving an Arizona stage ride through territory where Geronimo has instigated an uprising, is often taken to be a metaphor for America bringing civilization into the savage wilderness. But as the last line of Dudley Nichols’ screenplay makes clear, Stagecoach is about escaping “the blessings of civilization.” To put it another way, in Stagecoach John Ford pits the idea of America against the rigidity of Americanism.
There’s no point in denying that Ford was a traditionalist. Nearly 70 years on, Stagecoach still gives you the feeling that you are seeing movie conventions minted fresh: There’s the Indian attack on the stage, the cavalry riding to the rescue, the two rivals meeting for a gunfight in the deserted main street. The cast, playing a roster of archetypes—the whore with the heart of gold; the drunken but still-capable doctor; the rogue trying to redeem himself; the rich villain; the good man turned outlaw by circumstance—rise above themselves, bringing caricature the sort of richness you associate with Dickens.
As the craft and excitement of Stagecoach prove, tradition needn’t be stifling, and to John Ford American tradition meant individualism. The enemies of that individualism are conformity, moralism, the corruptions that power can’t resist. And all of those things appear whenever people organize themselves into groups. In Stagecoach, the characters who are supposed to be the founders of a new ordered society are threatened by the very thing they are working to achieve.
In the first five minutes alone, there is no respectable institution—law, religion, business—that Ford doesn’t regard with deep suspicion. We see Dallas (Claire Trevor), the local prostitute forced out of town by the women’s “Law and Order League.” They of course have no right to bully her, but when Dallas implores the town sheriff to do something, he tells her to go quietly. He’s not about to make trouble by standing up for a whore. When Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), who’s also being given the bum’s rush, gallantly takes Dallas’ arm, they are herded to the stagecoach followed by their tormentors while a drunken version of “Shall We Gather at the River?” plays on the soundtrack, turning the scene into a parody of a temperance march. When the stagecoach driver Buck (the wonderful Andy Devine, whose scratchy-squeaky voice suggests a balloon rubbed with steel wool) hears that the Ringo Kid (the impossibly charming young John Wayne in the movie—his 80th—that finally made him a star) has busted out of prison, his reaction is “Good for him!” When the banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) takes delivery of the Wells Fargo payroll, he pontificates that what’s good for the banks is good for America—before absconding with the bundle.
These are Ford’s representatives of America sallying forth into the wilderness: a whore, a drunk and an outlaw. The only respectable member, the banker Gatewood, is a thief escaping with stolen loot. Except for the whiskey drummer Peacock (played by Donald Meek, and to the name born), a man so mild and respectable he’s constantly mistaken for a clergyman, the other respectable members of the caravan act to uphold a vision of America in which some people belong and some don’t. Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), the wife of a cavalry officer, traveling in considerable discomfort because she’s pregnant, continually rebuffs Dallas’ attempts at kindness. The former Confederate soldier Hatfield (John Carradine, probably never as handsome as he is here), hopes that offering Mrs. Mallory his protection will bring back the honor he’s lost by falling into a life of gambling. And though that profession should make him at home with whores, drunks and outlaws, he acts as if it were a supreme insult to Mrs. Mallory to be keeping their company.
I don’t wish to reduce Stagecoach to a civics lesson like the phony High Noon. As an adventure tale, the movie is thrilling. The centerpiece, the attack on the stage by marauding Apaches, is highlighted by the breathtaking stunt work of Yakima Canutt, a reminder of the artistry that’s been lost in the age of computer-generated imagery. But Stagecoach is a vision of democracy as well, and one that’s both stirred by the idea of how democracy levels the playing field and tough-minded enough to know that the judgmentalism Americans are prone to will do everything it can to create a land where the folks who live on the hill look down at those in the valley.
The recent premiere of the third season of Deadwood has prompted a lot of dumb talk about the traditions of the western, most of it, as the critic Dave Kehr observed on his blog, from people who don’t appear to have seen many westerns. These writers really believe that westerns are all black hats vs. white hats, good women vs. whores, cowboys vs. Indians. So when they see a western where violence is treated less than triumphantly—where moral ambiguity is present—all they can do is proclaim it an “anti-western,” as Alessandra Stanley recently called Deadwood in The Times.
In the great westerns, the stirring and the heroic have always existed alongside the evil and the craven. We are looking at them in a country in its birth pangs, capable of going in either direction.
So the idea of the “anti-western” is inherently ahistorical. It denies the subtleties in the great Ford and Hawks westerns, the adult pessimism that Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann brought to the genre in the 50’s, and just how much the presumed father of the anti-western, Sam Peckinpah, owed to the traditions that had preceded him. What’s seen as a break with tradition is really a mirror of the journey undertaken by the genre’s heroes: the push to go further afield, knowing all the while that they can never fully escape what they are leaving behind. For Americans, the western is, as Huck Finn says of civilization, a place we all been before.
[Stagecoach, Two-Disc Special Edition; Warner Home Video; $26.98.]