John Ford, Stagecoach (1939)
- Based on Ernest Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg," John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) is considered one of the first "great" Westerns, ranked 63rd on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 Films. Ford went on to make such classic Westerns as My Darling Clementine (1946), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Searchers (1956). In this somewhat simple story of a group of people travelling by stage between several towns in Arizona, we see numerous examples of "Western types," and the characteristics which identify the Western as a film genre. As the stagecoach carries these characters to Turner's "outer edge of the wave" of the Frontier, Ford crafts a story of the American nation written through the interwoven stories of the stagecoach passengers.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) What are the characteristics which identify the Western as a genre? To answer this, think of other Westerns you have seen, and refer to the selected reading from Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation. What are the types of characters which appear in the Western? What do they represent?
- 2) One of the most important aspects of the Western is the way in which Westerns as a genre reflect (and challenge) the founding story of the American nation. What is so "American" about the Western genre? What values do they reflect? What internal struggles do they bury or alleviate and which do they accentuate in favor of establishing a more cohesive and hegemonic national identity?
- 3) John Ford's Westerns are often credited as the most "classic" expressions of the genre. What specific characteristics do you find in the film Stagecoach? Who are each of the following characters, and what type do they represent: Henry, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne); Dallas (Claire Trevor); Buck, the Stagecoach Driver (Andy Devine); Mr. Hatfield (John Carradine); Doc Josiah Boone (Thomas Mitchell); Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt); Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft); Mr. Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek); Mr. Elswood Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill); Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler)? How do we learn things which identify each character in the film?
- 4) Think about Turner's Frontier thesis and the creation of Americans. Of the characters above, where does each belong? Which is more of the Frontier, and which more foreign to it? Which are created by the Frontier, and which are yet to be created by it?
- 5) What are the Frontier landscapes represented in the film? In what ways does this landscape become like a character in the story? What does the landscape do in the story? Who is in the landscape and who is simply on it?
- 6) Richard Slotkin argues that central to the myth of the frontier is the maintenance of borders. What kind of borders are drawn and maintained in Stagecoach? How are they represented? Who crosses them and why? The most important border of course is that between "civilization" and "savagery": how are they represented?
- 7) One way in which the Western plays an important role in American society is in its redefinition of the meaning of the term "outlaw" and representing what Turner called the re-creation of society on the Frontier. Consider the following quotes:
You can also consider the several rants by the banker, Gatewood, against government intervention. What is the film saying about the relation about the individual to society, and the systems of ethics necessitated by the "Frontier experience"? What are the morals which Ford associates with the Frontier and with the "East"?
- Doc (to Dallas): "We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child. These dear ladies of the Law and Order League are scouring out the dregs of the town. C'mon--be a proud, glorified dreg like me."
- Ringo (to Dallas): "Well, I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week."
- Doc (to Curley, as Dallas and Ringo ride away): "Saved from the blessings of civilization!"
- 8) Why are the two female passengers on the stagecoach treated so differently by the passengers on the stage (with the exception of Henry, the Ringo Kid)? Why does Henry treat them both "like ladies"? How does Whitfield intend to protect her ultimately while under Apache attack? What is the meaning of this kind of "protection"?
- 9) The character of the Ringo Kid is an important central icon: the cowboy "outlaw" who is wrongly accused, the man avenging his kinsmen's murders, the gentleman who treats everyone the same way, the protector of the weak. How does the film present the cowboy? What are the icons and images associated with him? This will be especially important to remember for comparative purposes when we watch the same actor play another side of this character in The Searchers. What is the meaning of Henry, the Ringo Kid's quote, "There are some things a man just can't walk away from"? Keep this thought in mind when we watch The Searchers.
- 10) An important part of the Western genre is the Cult of the Horse. With that in mind, consider the following quote from Chris, the Mexican Station Keeper: "I can find another wife easy, but not a horse like that." What is the Cult of the Horse? What does the horse symbolize?
- 11) Finally, the Western is perhaps the most "masculine" of all American film genres. What are the images of masculinity presented in the film? Comment on the masculinity of each of the male characters in the film, and compare them to each other. Can you assign them a place on a scale from "Wimp" to "He-Man"? What would be the criteria presented by the film for each character's location on that scale?
Further resources and readings:
- Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986)
- John Tuska, The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western (1985)
- William T. Pilkington, "The Western Movie to 1960," from A Literary History of the American West (Western Literature Association)
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (American Frontiers and Borderlands), Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Saturday, 19 August 2000.