Friday, November 5, 2010

More Top Films: Stagecoach (1939)

It is ironic that when John Ford got around to making his first talkie western—the film that is usually sited as legitimizing the genre—westerns had run their course and played out in popular opinion. It is hard to imagine these days that they had already been making these movies for over 30 years. Stagecoach is, with a few exceptions perhaps, the first western worth considering.

The thing that makes Stagecoach stand out—aside from its stellar cast and the fact that it was directed by one of the best directors of all time—is the story and the commentary it makes. The important theme here as with many westerns, that is an insight into the American mindset, is that civilization often stifles and judges people as types and not the individuals that they are.

The story here is one of nine individuals travelling through a dangerous Indian territory, in alternating action and character development scenes. We are introduced to the characters as they prepare to embark on the trip, and they each represent a type.

Three of the characters are judged negatively by society. Dallas is the saloon girl/prostitute, Dr. Josiah Boone is the town drunk, and Ringo is an escaped convict looking to avenge his imprisonment and the murders of his family. Dallas and the Doctor are being run out of town by puritanical women. The movie never condones their choices or faults—Dallas is embarrassed by what she has done to survive, and Doc knows it has ruined him as a professional—but the story does show that they have redeeming human qualities as well, and they too deserve respect and have something to contribute.

Three other characters in the film are respected by society: the banker, the wife of an officer and a whiskey maker. As it turns out, the banker is a thief, and the lady is as snobbish and judgmental as the ladies in town. A gambler joins the trip to protect her honor against the undesirables on the trip. The driver of the coach and the sheriff serving as rifleman round out our cast.

By the end of the story, the suspect characters have proven their worth and humanity helping the society of the stagecoach survive. The more respected elements have been cut down to size and shown as no better than the others in two moments of crisis. All along the way a naïve Ringo teaches everyone a lesson in manners and respect. After he avenges his father and brother, he and Dallas ride off to be married and start life anew on his ranch.

A line from the doctor to the sheriff as they watch the two leave sums up the message of the movie: “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.” It is not that civilization is bad exactly. It is just that we Americans like our civilization where people are allowed to be and do what they desire; as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else’s right to the same. That may be a good attitude or it may be a bad one but it is helpful to know if you want to understand an American. It is also good to know if you are an American, because that ingrained attitude is going to affect your perspective on everything. After all, we can be just as puritanical as the women in this film about our freedoms and ideas of good civilization.

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