40s Time Capsule: Stagecoach (1939)

John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) was important in establishing the common trend of westerns that would be popular for years to come. The practical setting provides a sense of spatial awareness. Shots often include sections of the ceiling to put the audience in the room with the characters. Many of these rooms have windows, using shadow play to highlight the sheer amount of dust. Stagecoach also showcases Ford’s love of the horizon, giving the audience a sense of scarcity and displaying the true nature of the wilderness as settlers travel during westward expansion. There are characters along the trip that have become common tropes within the genre and even outside of it: a pretty woman, a drunk, a salesman, a sharpshooter, the comic relief, and a “damsel in distress.” There are characters that demonstrate the societal mindset of westerners, with the banker being arguably the most prevalent, representative of greed.

Ford stresses this through his use of intercuts, reaction shots, and heavy-handed dialogue that women need protection from other men and, on occasion, the dangers of the Western frontier. His narrative is one of honor, tradition, and following orders. While the beginning credits displayed the main actors, instead of using the word “starring,” they were presented by the word “with.” Yet, it’s clear that John Wayne is the center focus of the film. In his first scene, the camera physically moves on a dolly from afar to a tight shot of his face; the shot that made him a star overnight, after years of wandering in the wilderness of “B” westerns. Wayne’s character, Henry, is one of the few that Ford chooses to hold a tight close-up on frequently. Another being Claire Trevor’s Dallas, as they fall in love. Ford focuses on the character’s emotions through their eyes.

Still from Stagecoach (1939)

The musical score, or lack thereof, evokes smaller, more intimate moments between the characters. As the story unfolds, these moments increase in frequency, but the comedy never truly fades. Instead of using intercuts to accelerate the pace of the film Ford keeps the camera static, allowing for the scene to play out with the audience soaking in the setting. This remains constant from place-to-place, as the situations become more pressing. Rather than the group escaping the danger early on, the trip progressively becomes more dangerous. The music increases, and Ford uses more intercuts to enhance the tension.

With all its greatness, Ford unfortunately washes over a critical point of view in the film: Native Americans. There is not much subtext provided for an entire group of people, other than implying that they are savages. Nothing is explained regarding the reason for their attacks or even showing their humanity. With little screen time, it’s clear that Ford doesn’t really care to tell a well-rounded story because he’s so focused on the group of characters riding in the stagecoach. The only instance where we truly get a good look at the tribe is when they are attack the stagecoach in a very violent way. There’s no nuance or ambiguity, no context provided for why they are attacking other than the implication that they hate white people. While Ford’s direction and westerns were impactful within film history, his achievement should be met with some minor criticism.

Author: Jared Charles

I am the owner of The Burrow Reviews. Currently studying Film, English, Political Science, and Gender Studies.

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