"Stagecoach" is agnostic on the matter of social progress,…
At a Directors Guild meeting in 1950, a tense session on the subject of anti-Communist loyalty oaths, John Ford began his dissenting statement thus: "My name's John Ford. I make westerns."
Typically for Ford, the assertion was both unassuming and calculated, grounding his patriotic bona fides in the quintessence of American myth, a myth that Ford both shaped and struggled with throughout his career.
"Stagecoach," reissued this week on Criterion's beautifully restored Blu-ray and two-disc DVD, was not Ford's first Western, although it did follow a 13-year hiatus from the genre. But it is a film of firsts, including the director's introduction to the iconic landscape of Monument Valley and the establishment of John Wayne as his favored leading man. On his commentary track, western scholar Jim Kitses argues against ex post facto analyses that place Wayne at the center of what is clearly structured as an ensemble piece. Only recently bumped up from B movies, and still saddled with the flop "The Big Trail," Wayne languished near the bottom of the payroll, banking barely a third of top-billed Claire Trevor's salary. But Ford gives Wayne a star's introductory flourish, a dramatic dolly-in whose focus blurs before resolving itself on Wayne's relatively unlined features. Framed against the soft-focus backdrop of Utah's buttes, he looks less like a rugged son of the frontier than a vision born of heat haze.
Although Wayne's Ringo Kid, jailed at 16 and bent on avenging the murder of his father and brother, is hardly an innocent, there's a stubborn, powerful naivete at his core that protects him from what Thomas Mitchell's disgraced doctor sardonically calls "the blessings of civilization." In classical terms, the western is the story of order imposed on a lawless land, the cavalry dictating by force of numbers what cannot be won by peaceful means. But "Stagecoach" is agnostic on the matter of social progress, which brings with it a wealth of hypocrisy and corruption. If foundational myths are a necessity, as Ford argued in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," it is because the truth is too ugly to face.
Establishing the template for, among other things, the modern disaster movie, "Stagecoach" crams a motley crew into a rickety stage bound to make its journey despite the threat of attack from "that old Apache butcher Geronimo." Every string in Ford's ensemble vibrates in perfect unison, from John Carradine's gaunt Southern gambler, whose gallant gestures clash with his ignoble profession, to Trevor's pride-stung whore, whose expulsion from polite society takes the form of a joyless parade, a sanctimonious procession of black-clad matrons whose drawn faces suggest a world no living soul would care to inhabit.
Visually, "Stagecoach" is a film of fences and hallways, borders and passageways. As the stage sets out on its journey, the camera lingers just beyond the split-rail edge of town, surveying the magnificent vastness stretched out below. Ceilings hang low, inspiring the muslin-topped mise-en-scène of "Citizen Kane," whose novice director watched Ford's film dozens of times to learn his craft. At a pivotal moment, just before Wayne's outlaw professes his love for Trevor's tarnished angel, Wayne stands framed in a glowing corridor, needing to pass outside before he can unburden himself.
The stage's thrilling escape from a thundering horde of Apache warriors is a logistical marvel, and was doubtless pivotal in "Stagecoach's" box-office success. (Criterion's disc justly celebrates legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, whose leap onto the stage's galloping horses was paid homage in "Raiders of the Lost Ark.") But it is not, surprisingly, the film's climax. Merely escaping the Indians' savage threat — a one-note portrayal slightly mitigated by a close-up of a pensive Geronimo — does not end the travelers' problems. The danger, the rough living conditions, may intensify their conflicts, but their roots lie elsewhere. They have brought their petty quarrels and vicious prejudices west with them, sullying the hope of a fresh start and undermining the dogma of an America of self-invention. The world where a person is defined only by what he or she does still exists, but only for a little while longer.