When André Bazin described John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) as “the ideal example of the maturity of a style brought to classic perfection,” he employed an apt metaphor, that of a “wheel so perfectly made that it retains its equilibrium on any axis in any position.” No image is more common in Ford’s westerns than that of a wagon wheel, lost or abandoned, set upright against the horizon, or more emblematic.
He had been making westerns since his early days in silent films, so many one- and two-reelers that he could never remember them all. But as he established himself in his profession, his “trade” as he called it, he had moved on to other material. Stagecoach was the first western movie in thirteen years, and the first one in sound. From now on, though, his most significant films would be westerns, and they are the ones with which this essay will deal. Taken together, they compose a profound, contradictory, troublesome image of America, of our history and our landscape. It becomes, in the final films, a melancholy image.
Stagecoach‘s classicism, its scrupulous adherence to tradition, is present everywhere—narrative, characters, and, especially, relationship of character to setting. Ford had discovered Monument Valley, on the Utah–Arizona border, and would use it for most of these westerns—thirty miles of mesa carved by winds into immense and foreboding towers of sandstone, abrupt and absolute. In their very density of effect they are not typical of the desert, but rather, as a prism does, they force together the desert’s spacious and humbling cruelties. Monument Valley has been, as it were, premythicized. So closely are the valley and Stagecoach held together in memory that it comes as a shock to discover how little of the movie was shot there, and almost none of the scenes involving the principals were. Even the shot that brings John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, into the film, what Joseph McBride in his biography of Ford calls “one of the great star entrances in film history,” was done in Hollywood.
You get what you see in Stagecoach, without the ironies, the sadnesses, the shadows of Ford’s later westerns. A coachful of strangers sets out from one Arizona frontier town to another called Lordsburg—a whore named Dallas (Claire Trevor), who has been kicked out of town; Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a rum-soaked Civil War veteran given to misquoting Shakespeare; a pregnant army wife, Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), from the aristocratic but defeated South; a timid but not cowardly whiskey salesman (Donald Meek); Hatfield (John Carradine), once a Confederate officer but now a card sharp; an absconding banker. Atop ride Andy Devine as the driver and George Bancroft as the sheriff, keeping an eye out for the Ringo Kid. The Kid has broken out of prison to confront his brother’s murderers, the Plummers, who are holed up in Lordsburg. Driver and sheriff have a sneaking affection for Ringo and so will we.
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