There is no argument – Stagecoach is your typical Western movie. From the panoramic views of the desert, always including Monument Valley, to the one street town, this movie has it all!
In the beginning of the movie, a few people from the first town, Tonto, New Mexico, left in a stagecoach for various reasons. Some were in search of adventure and opportunity, some were asked to leave Tonto, and some were in search of loved ones. The sense of adventure in this case lies in the ever-present fear of an attack from the Apache “savages.” There is also the appeal of the unknown dangers and encounters that can arise in the desert. Ms. Mallory has a baby at the house that they stop at and eventually loses her mind during the stagecoach journey, mostly because she fears that her husband is dead and is afraid to raise a baby without him, and Mr. Hatfield also dies.
In the beginning of their journey they come across the Ringo Kid, the outlaw that was accused of murder and left town to escape punishment. He approaches the stagecoach calmly and gives himself up immediately. I would not consider Ringo to be a typical outlaw though because even though he left town after being accused of the murder, he did not appear to be violent in nature and he seems innocent of the crime he was accused of. Ringo physically embodies the outlaw archetype – rugged, handsome, manly, and strong, but he does not always act like the outlaw archetype. He falls in love with Dallas, the young woman who is in search of a new beginning and some adventure. In this way, he does continue with his outlaw-type behavior when he tries to steal a horse and head to his ranch across the border to wait for Dallas to join him, but overall, I do not picture him as the typical violent outlaw.
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For being, as I felt (as a person who cannot remember the last time I saw a Western), an unusually lighthearted Western, Stagecoach Run (1936) did not fail to deliver in the violence area. From the opening scene the movie centers itself around guns and fighting. Throughout the movie John Wayne’s character uses guns to make statements, get attention, threaten, and ultimately show down against the ‘bad guys.’ The movie focuses on a race between Wayne’s character Blair and stageline owner Cal Drake for a mail contract from the government. Drake offers Blair a line between their town and Crescent City, which turns out to be virtually a ghost town. When Blair and his friend Larry arrive in Crescent city, they storm into town on their horses firing away with their guns into the air. An entrance that would seem to be reserved for outlaws, but is shown in this movie as a way to simply declare an arrival even if there is only two people in the town to arrive to.
A gun is later used in the movie as a way to stop a traveler from drinking poisoned water. Blair rides across a man about to take a sip from the cup he filled with the water source and so to stop him and save his life, he shoots the cup out of his hand. This can also be seen as a statement against the western land. It shows that yes, this land is dangerous and even something that is universally known to quench thirst and in all ways be good for you like water can hold poisonous secrets. However, the people moving to the west have their technology (guns) and modes of transportation to conquer the land no matter what this frontier may throw at them. It seems to express that guns are more powerful then nature. In fact, the entire movie does not focus as much on the land as most other westerns do. When Blair is traveling between towns they barely ever show the ride to and from, just the final destination, the cities that were able to grow over the harsh frontiers. Even ghost towns like Crescent City are able to bring themselves back from near extinction brought about by the harsh land to become a city that quickly begins to thrive again.
The only time that the frontier is really put on display is during the race at the end of the movie. That is also the time when the violence reaches its pick. Instead of trying to out run each other with their stagecoaches, both Drake’s men and Blair participate in a shout out that lasts the entire span of their race. This is also a statement against the land. While traveling throughout the west, the land is the real enemy with its harsh weather and terrain and wild frontier. However in the movie, Blair and his opponents have no trouble racing through this harsh landscape. It is each other’s guns and the harshness of the people in the west that prove to be the ultimate enemy downplaying the severeness of the land.
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Stagecoach (1939) portrays Indians in a wholly negative light. We see them solely from the perspective of the white men, as threatening savages on the warpath, who, we get the vague sense, are going to attack the stagecoach only because they are violent and spiteful people. Even though the threat of an Indian attack looms over the plot from the very beginning, we don’t actually see any Indians until near the end. By not showing Indians on screen until the end, the film establishes them as violent savages through the fear they inspire in the white travelers. We think of them as faceless savages who want to kill the characters we do get to know and respect during the first three-quarters of the film.
The first Indian to appear onscreen is the squaw of the Mexican innkeeper at Apache Wells. She’s very beautiful (contrasting her husband who is short and pudgy) and dressed in traditional woven shawls, establishing her “otherness.” The white men who see her first react excitedly, shouting “Savages!” and leaping out of their chairs. The innkeeper responds by introducing her as his wife and explaining that if he has an Apache wife, her warring tribesmen won’t bother him. At this point, it seems like he might be a redeeming character who was able to see through the “savage Indian” stereotypes. Later on, as she sings a seductive Spanish song, the squaw assists some other Mexicans in stealing the stagecoach’s backup horses before running off herself on her husband’s best horse. He bemoans the loss of his horse, but adds, “I can get another wife easy,” which not only shows his lack of compassion toward her, but also establishes him as uncivilized, disallowing us to sympathize with him. Also, the fact that she is a deceitful wife (especially when compared with Mrs. Mallory who is determined to be reunited with her husband, and Dallas, a prostitute who proves her virtuous femininity) demonstrates she cannot be “civilized” and that she is incapable of living a domestic lifestyle. Her husband’s lack of regard for her, other than as a pawn to keep the Apaches from bothering him, doesn’t readily occur to the audience as motivation for the squaw to steal his horses and go home to her family. Her aloofness and inability to speak in English keeps her from engaging our sympathies.
When the Apache warriors finally attack the stagecoach, it is below them in a valley, and they charge on horseback down a steep hill. There are at least thirty or forty horses and riders attacking the single stagecoach, and they attempt to surround it on all sides. They shoot arrows through the windows, exemplifying their savagery by targeting unarmed civilians, especially women and a baby. The Indians are all dressed in traditional clothing, with feathers and war paint, which again casts them as “others.” They might shout battle cries in their own language, but we’re never allowed to see them speaking or understand what they’re saying. To us they’re faceless enemies bent on murdering the stagecoach passengers because of an animalistic proclivity for violence. This undeveloped, cardboard-cutout image of violent Indians rationalizes the myth that they need to be tamed by whites, while also justifying the Ringo Kid’s heroism in shooting the most Apaches.
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