1930s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

Stagecoach (1939)

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Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Dudley Nichols (Ben Hecht, uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

1939 has long been described as the greatest year in cinema, certainly for classic Hollywood. Alongside the epoch-defining success of Gone with the Wind, the highpoint of producer-centric Hollywood methods, 1939 nonetheless saw two key works from great American directors coming completely into their own after years refining their craft. One was Howard Hawks, who released Only Angels Have Wings, and the other was John Ford, who had already won a Best Director Oscar for The Informer and yet only grew greater as a filmmaker. Some movies are so famous they threaten to become invisible. Stagecoach is a cornerstone of popular culture, one that wields a pervasive influence not just on modern action cinema but filmmaking in general, the movie Orson Welles claimed to have watched forty times to teach himself essential film grammar. Stagecoach’s surprise success in its moment was perceived as opening new vistas for the Western film and finally propelled John Wayne towards major stardom, after subsisting in B Westerns since the relative failure of his first big starring vehicle, The Big Trail, nine years earlier. For director Ford, the film marked a homecoming even as he, much like the rest of his nation, was facing an immediate future of disruption. Ford, who had directed horse operas by the score in his two-reeler days and landed his first major hit with The Iron Horse (1924), had nursed his great affinity for the genre as a personal passion but hadn’t made a Western proper since the coming of sound.

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Stagecoach saw Ford establish the Western as capable of bearing great dramatic weight: despite the decade that intervened, it’s seen as defining the precepts of the ‘adult’ westerns of the 1950s. Of course, that name’s never been entirely fair to Westerns that came before Stagecoach. Genre entries like The Big Trail, Cimarron (1931), Law and Order (1932), and The Plainsman (1936) were hardly lacking a degree of thematic depth in contending with the epoch of American colonial expansion. But Stagecoach worked in part because it evoked something larger than a mere window of American history, instead seeing in the Old West a sort of bare-boned stage perfect for metaphorical drama. Another aspect of what distinguishes Stagecoach ironically is its businesslike efficiency, its rejection of inflating the story and its stakes and the driving aesthetic with any great pomp, setting up its story, depicting its characters, and delivering drama in just over an hour and a half with all Ford’s hard-won sense of cinematic drive as sufficient in and of itself. Whilst encompassing many essential aspects of the classic horse opera, Stagecoach deftly assembles familiar motifs and events in an unusual manner, subordinating action for the most part to character dynamics and social metaphors, and yet managing to never seem stagy or talky.

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Whilst Only Angels Have Wings reflected Hawks’ personality in regarding a small community defined by its distinction, bordering on cult-like, from a mundane world, Stagecoach saw Ford finally nailing down his own specific artistic personality in offering a situation just as compressed and dangerous but emphasising the essential normality of his characters, their function as representatives of society at large. Stagecoach negotiates both relevance to its moment and a brisk, folkloric portrait of history in the sense of plunging into an unknowable zone of danger. The name “Geronimo” is the last and only word from a frontier outpost, signalling to the colonial civilisation that an enemy is on the march and a dark force rumbling over the horizon, both pinning the film to a specific incident in the Old West whilst also invoking a sense of the then-current geopolitical moment, the countdown to when borders would close and communications would shut down as war erupted. Ford’s other two films of 1939, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, retreated even more deeply into folkloric history and Americana for both solace and caution. Stagecoach was adapted by Dudley Nichols from the story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox. Ford reported the story captured his attention in part through reminding him of Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif”, and the film, despite some scholarly debate, seems to offer a fairly obvious revisionist take on De Maupassant in jamming a group of sundry citizens into a coach in a war zone with a lady of ill-repute.

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Ford had established a superlative working partnership at this point of his career with screenwriter Nichols, even though Ford purportedly had a habit of tossing Nichols’ scripts out the porthole of his yacht when they felt too heavy and therefore surely had too much dialogue. True or not, this summarises much about Ford’s method, his determination to express through imagery with literary depth, delivered in a manner the audience would absorb and delight in without ever thinking of it as some kind of force-fed art. Ford put his neck on the line to get Stagecoach made, shopping the project around studios, none of which would back him as Westerns were out of vogue and his choice of leading man in Wayne lacked box office appeal. Wayne had been subsisting mostly as a star of cheap and negligible westerns since The Big Trail. Ford eventually found support from independent producer Walter Wanger, who signed off on Ford’s demands but with a budget half what Ford wanted and obliging him to bill costar Claire Trevor over Wayne.

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The basic plot of Stagecoach is simplicity itself: sometime in the 1880s, six paying passengers and a sheriff board a stagecoach of the Overland Stage Line from Tonto, Arizona Territory, to make the journey to Lordsburg, New Mexico, even as the threat of Geronimo and his Apache raiders looms over the countryside between: along the way the stage picks up the Ringo Kid (Wayne), who gives vital aid when the stagecoach has to battle off the Apaches. The microcosm in Nichols’ script offers a parochial survey, most of whom are specifically defined by the way war – in this cast the Civil War, a conflict that always served myriad purposes for Ford – has impacted upon their lives and self-perceptions. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is the “great lady,” a remnant of the old fallen plantation class and its attendant pseudo-aristocratic airs but whose new ethos is one of perfect obedience to another ideal, so determined to reach her soldier husband on the frontier that she risks her life and that of her unborn child to do so. John Carradine’s Hatfield is the male equivalent, the former Southern gentleman turned sharklike survivor, whilst Dr Josiah ‘Doc’ Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is the boozy physician, with clear suggestions his alcoholism stems from his wartime experience.

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Added to their number are other avatars: Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is a crooked but vainglorious banker, who, upon hearing that Geronimo has cut the telegraph wires between Tonto and Lordsburg, sees the perfect opportunity to steal the Wells-Fargo payroll from his bank’s safe. Mr Peacock (Donald Meek) is a timid yet amiable representative of the petit bourgeoisie, a travelling whiskey salesman. Dallas (Trevor) is a prostitute being run out of town. Buck (Andy Devine) is the coach driver, a rotund and hapless man doing his job to feed his brood and all his mooching relatives. Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) is certain in his authority and sense of responsibility but not inured or insensitive to the vagaries of life. Then there’s Ringo himself, the young but coolly self-possessed scion of the frontier, just busted out of jail with designs on paying back the murder of his father and brother on Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler), the territory’s deadliest thug. Stopping twice en route, at the way-stations of Dry Fork and Apache Wells, the passengers contend with losing the cavalry escort given them by the fresh-faced but rigorous Lt Blanchard (Tim Holt) and soon find it’s no less dangerous to double back than to dash on to Lordsburg in risking Apache assault.

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Stagecoach is anchored inevitably to a very precise sense of geographical progress, a progress also tethered to ethical, communal, and personal movement. Much like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), officially a deconstruction of a movie like Stagecoach, Ford’s film contends with a basic tension between the official ideal of the Western genre, the taming and subordinating of the land to an imposed, prefabricated ideal of civilisation, and the sorts of people who feel obliged from wont or necessity to blaze the trail and ride the frontier. Such folk tend to be misfits and seekers, people beyond the pale of society but utterly attuned to the needs of a rough and ready life based around primitive needs and basic hungers. Dallas is introduced being seen off by a new-formed “Law and Order League,” the inevitable coalition of the self-righteous, who collect together once a town has reached a certain point in its development. The skill with which Ford makes plain what Dallas is and what she’s being held to account for without tripping the sensors of the Production Code says much about Ford’s nimbleness in such terms and also the subtext of his disdain: Ford is taking his pot shot at the new dogmas encaging him and other filmmakers. Boone is booted out of his lodgings for failing to pay his rent, essentially caught in the same net for his drunken disreputability, unsurprisingly as he’s the character who seems most plainly Ford’s avatar, officially boozy and laughingly cynical whilst never quite disguising streaks of florid intellectualism and an unflinching moral core.

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Stagecoach stands in perpetual dialogue with Ford’s other best-known Western, The Searchers (1956), not just as definitive movies but two distinct stations in Ford’s mature period, whilst also encompassing themes Ford would revisit with near-crazed and apocalyptic fervour in his last feature, 7 Women (1966). Stagecoach represented Ford’s determined play for creative independence and elevation for a favoured genre, and the latter a moment of creative apotheosis reached despite, and because of, a moment of crisis and confusion, the former crystallising his most profound ideals and the latter ransacking them. At the same time Stagecoach is also a revisiting, one that sees Ford revisiting the microcosmic evocation of existential battle he had previously explored in his desert-bound British Imperial war tale The Lost Patrol (1934), whilst swapping that film’s portrayal of nightmarish stasis, with soldiers entrapped by an unseen foe, for one defined by frantic mobility. The contrast in the stories has dimensions of political suggestion as well as immediate dramatic meaning: Ford’s depiction of the imperialist project devolving into one plebeian soldier fighting for his life in a desert pit gives way to the more dynamic idealisation of the West as a place for revisions and new chances.

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The key linking theme is of characters driven to such an end by their life choices and mean fate. All of the passengers of the Lordsburg coach have reasons for travelling on that invoke extremes of their characters, save Peacock, who acquiesces to the forceful personalities about him. He is counterbalanced most stridently by Gatewood, whose treachery is concealed with a layer of fine righteous bluster, and his push to keep the stagecoach moving at all costs is rooted in self-interest, leading others into hazard. With the exception perhaps of Gatewood and the straightforward Buck and Curley, all aboard the stagecoach are ambivalent in some crucial fashion. They’re perched between stations in life as well as literal ones on the stagecoach route, and all are driven to make choices of life and death. They’re all on the run, most literally with Ringo, who’s busted out of jail, and Gatewood, but the rest are fleeing something too, something foul or abandoned or lost in their past. Some are blessed with specific aims, again most particularly Ringo with his date with destiny and Gatewood with his need to slip any potential legal net, and Buck and Curley meeting their professional obligations. Others retain aims and desires that are more shark-like, moving to survive: Dallas heading on to the next cathouse, Boone to the next bottle, Hatfield to the next card game and gunfight. Journeying presents strange opportunities and epiphanies. Dallas falls for Ringo, Boone regains some measure of his professional pride and sense of agency. Hatfield boards the stage in the first place to revisit and honour a romantic past he’s otherwise been obliged to abandon by giving his protection to Lucy.

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The introductory shot of Wayne’s Ringo was calculated to be instantly iconic and it still retains an electric quality after eighty years: Ringo glimpsed in semi-silhouette against a backdrop of elemental stone crags and pillars, gun and saddle in each hand. Ford’s American answer to the friezes of the Parthenon. The camera dollies up fast to focus Wayne’s sweating brow and cocked smile, at once resolute and innocent, young and ageless, presented as a warrior born out of the earth admitted to the world of humans whilst also the idealised exemplar of that world. Sergio Leone would reiterate it more explosively in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Welles would quote it in Chimes at Midnight (1966), and just about every action movie hero earns some variation of it; Ford himself would revise it in a more complex and pensive manner with the doorway motifs in The Searchers. The legend of Ringo’s lot has preceded him, the certainty of his eventual duel with Luke Plummer a topic of general knowledge and fascination for the territory, and the possibility of running into him on the trail has made Curley join the stage because Buck’s usual shotgun rider has joined the posse out after Ringo. True to the film’s communal rather than individual focus for most of its length, Ringo is also just another character on the ride for most of the film, smiling a patient and enamoured smile at Dallas, bewildered by the scarcely noticeable rituals of exclusion – what today some would call micro-aggressions – like failing to offer her the same comforts offered Lucy maintained to excise her from polite society.

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Later Boone establishes Ringo has been in jail since he was seventeen, signalling he’s likely still a virgin, a potential roadblock to Ringo accepting Dallas when he learns about her profession. This motif echoes the depiction of the young officer’s loss of virginity with a dancer in Seas Beneath (1931), one of Ford’s most vividly realised rite-of-passage sequences. Where in that film the lover is ultimately revealed to be treacherous, Dallas is an entirely sympathetic woman, one of those many instances where Ford revisited motifs he’d touched upon before for another, closer look. Despite being a film about people thrust into countryside between communities, Stagecoach is all about social phenomena and ritual, at once oppressive and defining. Most overtly, Ford’s loathing for petty moralists and the self-righteous types burns hot as ever, whilst fuelling gestures of defiance, in Dallas and Boone marching together anointing themselves in mocking fashion as royals headed for the guillotine, in Dallas’ impudent skirt flick at two gawkers enjoying the sight of her gams as she climbs aboard the stage, and Boone thumbing his nose as the League biddies, to their mortification.

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The severing of the telegraph wires at the film’s very start, with only that totemic name as a last broadcast, has definite plot purpose – it facilitates Gatewood’s theft and obliges other important character actions – and also renders the stagecoach journey a trip into the unknown, into a space where the microcosmic society must sustain its own rules or revise them according to the moment. “Boule de Suif” made a potent impact on readers bordering on scandal when it was first published for its excoriating portrayal of social hypocrisy, with the assembly of French bourgeoisie prevailing upon the title character to sleep with a German officer during the Franco-Prussian War to expedite their journey only to then ostracise her afterwards. Dallas accords with Boule de Suif herself, and Boone and Ringo offer variants on the figure of Cornudet, the sullied liberal who remains the closest thing she has to an ally, although both prove far more robust. Ringo’s indifference to Dallas’ sexual history represents a more hopeful contrast, along with an ironically flavoured awareness that life out on the frontier demands achievement in things considered shocking back in civilised climes for just about everyone: even Lucy, the anointed flower of genteel womanhood, pushes through a certain physical and behavioural barrier in her determination to reach her husband.

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Gatewood presents a blatant if incisive caricature of a specific breed of American blowhard as relevant now as in 1939: “What this country needs is a businessman for President!” he opines whilst clutching his valise crammed with pilfered funds, and evokes the destructive impact of the financial sector during the Depression even whilst declaring, “And remember this – what’s good for the banks is good for the country!” What hisses that must have earned from a 1930s audience. Ford grants him at least one fillip of sympathy, as the last straw before his theft is being faced with spending another dinner with his gruff wife and her fellows in the Law and Order League. Ford’s comic sensibility tends to be one that divides contemporary viewers with his tendency to indulge his rollicking Oyrish slapstick, but Stagecoach is distinguished by how comedy is neatly woven into the fabric of the film and counterpointing its dramatic and emotional textures. Boone’s pilfering of Peacock’s samples whilst playing at being a solicitous friend to the salesman, as he wraps him in a scarf and wipes the tears from his face, is droll but gives way to the sight of Boone at his most pathetic, dribbling and drifting into a drunken sleep with face planted on Peacock’s sample case.

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Ford had gained his first Oscar for The Informer essentially for assimilating and redeploying German Expressionist visual flourishes, a mode he had experimented with since the late 1920s, for an impressive if perhaps heavy-handed evocation of moral murk and salvation in an overtly dreamlike world that proved, ultimately, too much at odds with Ford’s general preference for solid and authentic realms. By the time of Stagecoach Ford rendered the Expressionist influence in a more contoured manner, still very apparent in his visions of rough-and-ready frontier taverns and way-stations as spaces dominated by complex interplay of light and shadow. This is contrasted with the stark look of the exterior sequences where the sun feels inescapable, rendering the landscape in sharp alternations of brilliance and darkness and pinioning the stagecoach, adrift in space and vulnerable to eyes watching from the hills. Ford’s use of the Monument Valley locations, famous as it is in invoking the adamantine grandeur and spaciousness of the American landscape, is nonetheless also charged with ambivalence: the mesa forms offer a stony audience dwarfing the progress of the humans upon the lowlands, who eventually must do battle out on a vast salt flat that could well come out of a Salvador Dali painting, a dreamlike imagining of natural space severed from all connection to a settled and liminal world. When Blanchard and his troop have to separate from the stagecoach, Ford memorably offers a telling portrait of the smiling deserting the young officer’s face in disquiet as he waves to the vehicle, before a long shot shows the cavalry and the stagecoach literally diverging along forks in the road to diverse fates.

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Ford’s careful use of space and light as well as connecting dramatic elements betrays lessons he absorbed from D.W. Griffith, Maurice Tourneur, and Fritz Lang. The sequence where the passengers settle around a table at Dry Fork shows Ford’s capacity to illustrate ideas and motifs in a manner that synthesises such influences, as the connection, and the distinction, of individuals and group is not just spoken but dramatized with the camera. Ford initially shoots the scene from a remove and a low angle, observing the characters in their various postures as Curley polls them over whether it’s worth risking heading on: the situation is dynamic and the characters are scattered, separate in a space, distinct in their postures. Soon enough, Ford retreats to one end of the table, the framing turned rectilinear to envision a sense of imposed order, matched to the specific action defining the characters as Lucy, Hatfield, and Gatewood consciously segregate themselves from Dallas whilst the oblivious Ringo remains with her, deepening their bond. Ford’s dislike of camera gimmicks and perspectives not shared by his characters is plain enough, but the scene where the travellers improvise a raft to float the stage across a river sees Ford mounting his camera on the stagecoach roof as it drives into the water, a shot with a woozy sense of physical immediacy unusual as Hollywood’s style had become more conservative as the ‘30s advanced.

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The stagecoach eventually arrives at Apache Wells, the last way-station before Lordsburg overseen by Mexican Chris (Chris-Pain Martin). Apache Wells, offers an island of proto-noir where the characters are marooned in an illusion of sustained civilisation even with their nerves tingling with paranoia and the sudden imminence of Lucy giving birth pushing everyone to the edge. Chris’s Apache wife Yakima (Elvira Ríos) sings with some mariachi, offering strange musical accompaniment to the drama of birth and character within, before they flee despite Chris’s faith having an Apache wife might shield him from Geronimo. Ford wrings the urgent need for Boone to rouse himself from a drunken stupor and rediscover his professional prowess for queasy comedy as he gets Ringo and Curley to fill him with coffee until his vomits: “Isn’t that drunken swine sober yet?” Hatfield demands as tensions are ratcheted high. Ford’s portrayal of Hatfield’s self-imposed mission to protect Lucy invokes a host ironies, in giving contours to Hatfield’s schismatic nature, and offering a sociological investigation of the purpose of the chivalric code in gendered terms. The duty of protection of the child-bearer also justifies infantalising, contrasted with Lucy’s own imperative sense of mission, and leading to the climax of circular logic where Hatfield must contemplate shooting Lucy to spare her the threat of being raped by the Apaches – that is, being subordinated to another tribe’s childbearing purpose.

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Ford’s sentimental streak surfaces as the men of many characters gather in delight around the child Lucy does birth, calloused exteriors easily scraped away by the presence of genuine innocence. Meanwhile Dallas, whose sexuality is theoretically open to all and therefore leaves her beyond the protective mantle of the tribe, reveals talents not just as a nurse but proves so decisive and able a personality in such a predicament she makes the other passengers see her in a new light, and sets the seal on Ringo’s ardour for her. Ford offers one of his greatest shots as Ringo watches her walk a corridor and move through a doorway out into the twilight, before following her: as Dallas shifts from a lit figure to one in silhouette in Expressionist fashion, she transitions from human to epitome, whilst passing from interior to exterior, signalling her break from the social world into the natural world where Ringo joins her. The misty, frigid, besieged courtyard of the station becomes a romantic nocturne as Dallas basks in moonlight’s benign glow and Ringo tracks her. Dallas tries to make Ringo flee and vanish into the wilds rather than risk further imprisonment or death in a gunfight with Luke Plummer, and defies Curley to help him, but Ringo’s flight is forestalled when Ringo spots Apache smoke signals and it becomes clear the stagecoach has no choice but to make the dash to Lordsburg.

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It’s often noted that the progression from Stagecoach through his Cavalry trilogy to The Searchers and finally to Cheyenne Autumn (1964) charted a clear shift in Ford’s representation of Native Americans from unadorned threats to empathetic protagonists, albeit always existing at a remove from the enveloping colonial civilisation. There’s certainly truth to this, particularly as Ford evolved and worked to expand his sense of the American mythos to include First Nations peoples and black Americans, although it also smudges Ford’s consistent and complex meditations on cultural divisions and problems of social relations, and his habit of turning his candid parochialism as an Irish-American to broader uses, forging sympathy for the Oakies of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and the Cheyenne of Cheyenne Autumn through perceiving their similarities in situation and outlook to dispossessed Irish. On one level, Stagecoach isn’t much interested in this particular aspect: Geronimo and his Apaches are essentially a hostile natural force, who might as well be Berbers or Nazis or aliens or Orcs, a realm of Othering that might be taken, depending on one’s point of view, as essentially negligible or revealing about the way threats are conjured and imposed.

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But Ford’s needling portrayal for hysterical bigotry also encompasses a commentary on racism as self-fulfilling prophecy as Peacock is shocked by the presence of Yakima, perhaps informing her decision to flee. The script works in a semantic gag: “She’s savage,” Peacock cries in alarm to Chris’ satisfied reply, “Si senor, she’s a little bit savage I think.” At the outset an officer questions the veracity of a Native army scout (Chief John Big Tree) only for another to point out the scout is Cheyenne: “They hate Apaches worse than we do.” The film’s social survey is keen to such an evolving world, the fallen supremacy of the genteel white Southerns contrasted with Lucy’s marriage to a soldier in Union blue, Buck with his Mexican wife and Chris with his Apache bride, dogged, sometimes jokily and sometimes more portentously, by the consequences of such cross-cultural alliances. Hatfield’s slippery blending of ardent chivalry and discreet nostalgia with cynicism and shows of delight in violence as a man adrift in the world manifests in ambiguous hints about his character, suggestions he’s shot men in the back and the question of a cup Lucy recognises as coming from a great house she’s visited, a cup Hatfield claims to have won in a wager but with the hint he’s concealing aspects of his background or criminal acts. The battle with the Apaches offers close-ups of Hatfield captures his feral revelry in gunning down foes, a calculated act of revelation by Ford that presents him suffering an addiction as potent as Boone’s and perhaps with the same sources and definite uses, but hardly so forgivable.

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Stagecoach’s precisely cast collective of actors gained one Oscar, for Mitchell. His performance is orchestral in its sense of fluid detail and deftly makes what was even then a fairly cliché character into a multilayered fulcrum for the film’s deeper themes. Boone often contends with the world with theatrical and mock-philosophical bravura, only to be sometimes drawn to reveal his quiet and lucid intelligence, his precise feel for the cruelties of the world he’s become so adept at placing himself at a remove from, as when he warns Dallas about the likelihood of being devastatingly hurt in her flowering romance with Ringo when he really understands what she is. Trevor is great in a role that allowed her to sketch out the same portrait of fraying and persecuted will mixed with both deep self-loathing and potential for decency that would later gain her an Oscar, for Key Largo (1948). Ford regulars like Carradine and Devine are deployed as much for their physical qualities as their specific talents, Devine, short and plump and defined by his wheezing everyman pathos, Carradine bat-like in black cape, angular limbs balancing out framings like a living art deco form. Ford places Churchill beside or between the much smaller Meek, Trevor, and Platt, so Gatewood’s bullying is matched to a sense of physical imposition if not strength, a vibrating mound of pomposity.

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But of course Stagecoach did most for Wayne. Part of the film’s structural and iconographic cunning lies in the way Ringo’s potency is suggested constantly, including by his first appearance, and yet kept in the wings, never entirely rising above the ensemble until the film’s later acts, and even as his skills and particularly sense of mission become predominant, he lacks the usual distinction akin to a divine light that so many Western heroes are imbued with: nobody thinks he can win the inevitable shootout with Luke Plummer, his Winchester is only one gun amongst many in the battle with the Apaches although he’s the most gutsy and invaluable, and in the climax he has to use tactical inspiration rather than sheer prowess. Playing a man nominally about a decade younger than Wayne actually was at the time, unworldly and naïve in certain respects, Ringo nonetheless plainly considers Wayne as a far more developed figure than The Big Trail’s Breck Coleman: Wayne’s grin was still just boyish enough to pass for an ingenue, but his flintier mature persona is also in place. The way he’s already become the stuff of local legend is made plain when Buck recounts it to Curley. Beyond his introduction the impression of Ringo’s authority, and by extension Wayne’s, is conveyed by his habit of decisive declaration that have the effect, often on Gatewood, of stating curt truisms that undercut blather and disruption (“Looks to me like the army’s got its hands pretty full, mister.”). This particular motif would become the spine of Wayne’s screen persona, so often playing the figure in movies – and then with less success in real life – who beyond being a great shot or fighter is also a man blessed with raw-boned wisdom, one who’s been around the block a few times and gained hard-won awareness as well as fine-honed morality, whilst also being blessedly unconcerned with the prejudices and perceptions of others when it comes to his own judgements.

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Ford’s sense of visual and narrative concision creeps up to the edge of both self-critique and parody, particularly in the film’s most famous sequence, the stagecoach’s battle to outpace an assault by Apaches. Ford casually turns the camera from a shot of the stagecoach traversing Monument Valley, belittled and obvious, to the waiting Apache war party watching from the heights, mocking the characters’ dawning feelings of relief in surviving the trip. The climax of the sequence offers a single-shot nexus of story, method, and critique: Hatfield raises his pistol with his last shot to the cowering Lucy’s head, when a shot is heard, and the way the gun slumps out of view signals it’s Hatfield rather than Lucy who’s been killed; only then do Lucy’s eyes pop open in hearing the faint but delivering sound of a cavalry bugle in the distance and announcing it to her fellows. Ford pulls off something remarkable in this vignette, an episode of perfectly straightforward storytelling that also a unit of self-analysis about making and watching genre cinema, melodrama conjoining with a meta gag about the audience’s already well-imbued knowledge of the right time for the cavalry to show up. On top of that, a flash of the tragic and bitterly comic in Hatfield meeting his end right of the point of fulfilling the ultimate function of his brand of gentleman, killing what he set out to protect.

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The sequence in between weaves its lineage through intervening decades of action cinema, quoted in the desert chase of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), forming the template for the chase finales of George Miller’s Mad Max films and the careening mobile heists of The Fast and the Furious (2001) and its sequels, just to name some of the more overt and direct homages, on top of being recreated and ripped off for dozens upon dozens of Westerns in the film’s direct wake. Ford warns with glimpses of the massing attackers, and yet expertly makes the first actual flash of violence, as an arrow slips through a window and strikes Peacock, a shock that brutally interrupts another social ritual, as Boone proposes a toast to his fellow passengers. Stuntman Yakima Canutt augmented the spectacle and cut his name into the pillars of movie legend with his startling and much-imitated acts of physical daring, like allowing the stagecoach and its horses to ride over the top of him, and leaping along the backs of the horse team, filling for Wayne as Ringo tries to gain control of them after Buck is wounded and the reins flap wildly. Once the stagecoach is saved by the cavalry, it arrives in Lordsburg with Hatfield dead and Peacock injured but the rest all safe to resmue their lives. Nonetheless all have seen aspects of their characters pointedly revised. Most are more open and connected and willing to break rules, as Lucy farewells Dallas and Curley unleashes Ringo on the Plummers.

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By comparison with the chase, Stagecoach’s proper climax is often cited as comparatively superfluous and anticlimactic, as Ringo faces his showdown with the three Plummer brothers. Whilst it’s certainly close to a short film appended to the back of the movie, I find it one of Ford’s great achievements regardless. Ford steps back from hard-driving action to one that unfolds as a slow burn, in a vignette where the return to civilisation is associated with a rather darker, more intense threat of incipient violence and ambient cynicism: a newspaper editor gleefully tells his underling to write up a story reporting Ringo’s death before the shootout even takes place. The sequence suggests a rough draft for the OK Corral gunfight of My Darling Clementine (1946) particularly in the absence of dramatic scoring, and the two films are distinguished by sporting just about the only standard shoot-outs in Ford’s Westerns. The build-up is defined by restrained yet powerful gestures, as Boone enters the tavern where Luke is playing poker and confronts him to make sure he doesn’t take a shotgun that gives him an unfair advantage into the fight, and deftly rhyming character touches, like the way Luke pushes away his dancing girl lover as she begs him not to to fight, in alternation with Ringo contending with Dallas’ expectation he’ll push her away once they arrive at the cathouse she’s destined for.

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The alleys of Lordsburg became far more threatening than the wild landscape the stagecoach ventured through, in a manner that underlines the film’s ultimate notion that civilisation is a matter of sustained illusion that merely contains rather than curbs human nature. Gerard Carbonara’s high-riding scoring vanishes from the soundtrack, giving way to a careful use of ambient sound before scoring returns as a sonorous rumble as Ringo stalks his enemies in the street. Ford’s return to Expressionist technique in the use of shadows and silhouettes emphasises immersion in a nightmarish space, the canyons of the streets as vast and dramatic as the aisles of Monument Valley and a more deadly trap. The sequence also sarcastically echoes the earlier tryst between Ringo and Dallas at Apache Wells, romantic liaison swapped for a very different dance in the moonlight. Ringo opens fire whilst dropping to the ground, a jarring and surprising move that defies the usual quick-draw rules of the ritual gunfight, before Ford cuts away, and the gunfight is overheard from Dallas’ perspective as she cowers in dread and grief. Ford delivers more oblique storytelling that serves as a commentary on itself: Luke re-enters the tavern as if triumphant only to collapse dead on the floor, and initially implies Ringo’s return to Dallas with a tracking shot mimicking his approach, her eyes lighting up as it gets closer. The viewer immediately grasps the implication, and indeed is invited to become the hero, to experience the return to life as an act defined not merely as the escape of death but reunion with someone who cares to see it, entwining spectacle and spectator in a statement of cinematic philosophy. The epigram is delivered by Boone after he and Curley see Ringo and Dallas on their way, delivered back to the wilds, “saved from the blessings of civilisation.” Stagecoach’s ultimate statement of faith in the Western mythos sees an inch of space between truth and legend, a space where Ford’s characters could flee to. He would spend his many returns and revisions struggling to retain that faith.

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1960s, Biopic, War

Hell to Eternity (1960)

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Director: Phil Karlson

By Roderick Heath

Phil Karlson is one of those indispensable figures for the enterprising movie fan in search of lost heroes: a jobbing studio hand with a chequered career whose touch, nonetheless, betrays for the attentive a wealth of individuality manifest in scattered gems. Karlson started off with C-grade screen filler in the ’40s, and finished up helming gaudy cult flicks like Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973), and a couple of Matt Helm movies; in between, he made a run of deeply eccentric and richly textured little noir films, including the belatedly beloved likes of Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story (both 1955). Karlson’s vivid sense of storytelling, with a special feel for moments of intense violence, combined in his best work with a discursive approach to structuring scenes and absorbing character that was rare in the era’s cinema. Karlson anticipates the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has included Karlson in the long list of film influences on him. Karlson’s heroes tended to be cynical proto-hipsters or hard-scrabble, blue-collar guys and girls alienated from their own society, and several of his films dealt with racial persecution and social conflict.

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Just as his noir films are joyfully strange, Hell to Eternity, a film based on the life story of Guy Gabaldon, is one I saw once many years ago and could never get out of my head. Revisiting it recently, I realized why: it’s a rowdy, dirty-minded, defiantly deromanticised film that’s a fascinating marker in the era of the decline of the old studios and the oncoming age of a new realism. Karlson’s best films greatly resemble Samuel Fuller’s in taking on meaty subjects with a hard wallop to the metaphorical jaw. Although Karlson ultimately lacked the spiky individualism that irresistibly endeared Fuller to critics and filmmakers even when his career almost entirely foundered, Karlson’s films, often just as bold in their subversion and raw in style, are just as deceptively sophisticated.

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This film’s uniqueness is partly disguised by its god-awful title, which tries all too obviously to suggest a melding of the Audie Murphy biopic To Hell and Back (1955) and Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953). Karlson’s film commences during the Depression. Young Guy (Richard Eyer) is a member of a multiracial gang, getting into brawls with the blond Neanderthals in his California schoolyard. Japanese-American schoolteacher Kaz Une (George Shibata), father of Guy’s friend George, is disturbed by Guy’s semi-sadomasochistic displays of bravado and antisocial anger, and drives him home one day to discover he’s been living alone in his house because his gravely ill mother has been hospitalised. Kaz takes Guy to live with him, and Guy swiftly finds unexpected love and unity with the Une clan, including Kaz’s parents (Bob Okazaki and Tsuru Aoki), a couple of harmless, lovable old moths who could have stumbled in directly from an Ozu film. Mother Une begins teaching Guy Japanese, and Guy responds by helping her with her English, a task he’s surprised that none of Kaz’s younger siblings have tried. After his mother dies, Guy becomes a permanent member of the clan and remains virulently aggressive towards anyone turning racist epithets on his family as he matures into the virile form of Jeffrey Hunter. His life reaches a singular and historical crisis point when Guy, as a favor to George (played when grown by an absurdly young George Takei), takes George’s crush Ester (Miiko Taka) out to find out what she thinks of George. When they stop at a fast food joint, insults are thrown her way. Guy assaults the big mouth, only to learn that everyone’s hot under the collar because Pearl Harbor’s just been bombed.

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The Unes are soon collectively bustled off to the American internment camps, or, as Guy angrily calls them, concentration camps by another name, in a blunt sequence that concludes with Guy left utterly alone, the bland and friendly suburb he’s grown up turned into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Ironically, as his family adapts to their exiled circumstances and his brothers are able to join the famous 442nd Regiment, he’s rejected as a 4F. He eddies in frustration and anger at the government until he’s finally inducted into the Marines,because of the desperate need for translators. Guy, never particularly at ease with authority, clashes with raucous Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and bests him in a judo match-up, which, of course, cements their subsequent friendship. They’re both attached to a special unit composed largely of skilled, hardened warriors from the Pacific theater being put together for a new campaign, and along with another friend from boot camp, Corp. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone), they raise hell in Honolulu before being shipped out to join in the landings on Saipan, an island colonised and garrisoned by huge numbers of Japanese, and about to become the site of a bloody and protracted death match.

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Hell to Eternity bends aspects of Gabaldon’s tale a little: there’s no mention of the fact he was of Latino background, and the actual reason it took him so long to be accepted into the army was because he was still only 17 when he was accepted in 1943. But Gabaldon acted as advisor on the film, and presumably signed off on all that followed. The film fits nominally in with the run of ’50s war movies based on true stories, with their focus on interesting individual experiences of the war, and the sudden onrush of movies about racism and tolerance that began to increase in frequency, urgency, and bluntness throughout the decade. Karlson’s film in that regard is less like the message movies of Stanley Kramer and more reminiscent of the likes of Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and Kings Go Forth (1958), and Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1960), in blending the drama with other generic concerns. Karlson doesn’t merely present racial harmony as the only sane option, but fills the film with violently neurotic energy, as the characters are caught between world views and melodramatic crises that expose their conflicts on macrocosmic levels. But Karlson’s film, on another level, couldn’t give a damn about the message aspect of the story, compelled as Karlson really is by Gabaldon as a character, a man filled with anger at his own society and soon filled with it again by the enemy in a war zone, a man whose fractured psyche, informed by his strange, almost Candide-like variety of experiences and outsider perspective on the era, drives him to near nihilism and lunacy before finally turning him into a rare kind of hero. Hunter, an actor of whom I’ve never been greatly fond, gives what is almost certainly his best performance, coherently inhabiting Guy’s emotional extremes.

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Most ’50s war films out of Hollywood sadly tended to be rather plastic, best if they stuck strictly to combat. A lot of solid war novels, like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and other projects that tried to depict not merely raw warfare but the sexual and emotional lives of young men engaged in profound adventures of body and mind hit the screens so bogged down with prestige, prettification, and pandering that they finished up weak and interchangeable. Hell to Eternity is infinitely less self-important, possessed of a gamy vigour and a refreshingly disreputable, gritty, semi-anarchic feel, beyond even what Stanley Kubrick and David Lean then dared put in their war movies. Hell to Eternity instead looks forward, in its cruder way, to the raucous, earthy sensibility of Sam Peckinpah, whose ’60s films, like Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have a similar feel for the overflowing joie de vivre of men who are ironically trapped in lethal situations, as well as the seamy reality of violence. Remember how Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was supposedly the first film to openly defy the Hays Code convention about not showing a gun fired and the person shot in the same frame? Well, Karlson does it here years earlier, and with the same DP, Burnett Guffey, in a sequence that’s amazing for other reasons too. Long before The Wild Bunch, Karlson depicts bursting bullet wounds close up in the midst of a grueling sequence in which Gabaldon, maddened by Hazen’s death, stalks the battlefield flushing out exhausted, wounded, and starving Japanese soldiers and shoots them in the back.

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Hell to Eternity is therefore curiously anticipatory and modern in both aspects of technique, and in the tangle of raw violence and ripe sexuality that makes it into the film. Karlson had a peculiar, indulgent interest in simply watching his characters behave on screen, and a particular genius for depicting what I might call the intricacies of homosocial behaviour, or put more simply, guys hanging out. In this attribute, he is reminiscent of Ford and Hawks, but more distinctly modern in tone and attitude, less romanticised. 5 Against The House blended a heist drama not only with portraiture of the psychological damage and social difficulties of former soldiers, but also with a flip and funny collegiate playfulness, especially in its lengthy, discursive opening, that looks forward to the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) (in fact, 5 Against the House can be described glibly, but with some accuracy as “Animal House goes Rififi.” For its part, Hell to Eternity’s middle sequence in Honolulu offers for no particular reason, except to get some T&A into the tale and to suit Karlson’s taste for an epic, oddball sequence of pure behaviour, the quest of Guy, Hazen, and Lewis to get drunk and laid in roughly that order.

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Guy scams a taxi driver out of a load of booze, and, hitting the nightclubs, Guy uses his linguistic skills to hook some Japanese-American B-girls, whilst Hazen points out to Lewis the Mount Everest of conquests, journalist Sheila Lincoln (Patricia Owens), stationed in Honolulu to report on the great enterprise of young men going off to war, and whose ability to brush off the most charming GI lothario has confounded all comers so far. “She writes that everyone should give their all to the enlisted man, but she don’t practice what she preaches!” Hazen murmurs with the ruefulness of one who’s tried. But Sheila does accept an invitation to a party from Lewis, only for the party to prove just a drunken orgy in a hotel room, where another one of the girls the boys have managed to pick up proves to be a former stripper who gives a show, whipping Hazen and Lewis into a frenzy. Sheila, after guzzling liquor with gusto whilst sitting apparently cold and disdainful all night, suddenly arises to do her own striptease, whereupon the males do a fair impression of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf, and Guy finishes up making out with Sheila on the veranda. This whole movement of the film is glorious in its unapologetically discursive, seamy fashion. But Karlson lets it unfold as if it’s really the raison d’être of his film, possibly torn directly from somebody’s memory, maybe Gabaldon’s, maybe Karlson’s, maybe those of screenwriters Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt—or perhaps they just wished it happened to them. What it clearly does is capture the explosive, incantatory sensual energy of the characters who soon will be venturing into war and the women close to them. It also feels like an attempt to show how the scenes with Frank Sinatra, Monty Clift, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity should really have played. In any event, Karlson offers the sexual gamesmanship, frank carnality, and almost blackly comic contrasts of character and situation—with Janssen’s excitement reaching near-lunacy, and Guy, already a practiced seducer, conquering Mount Everest almost casually—with a fearless intensity that lingers long in the mind. Either way, it’s like barely anything in Hollywood cinema between the late silent era and the mid ’60s.

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Perhaps such carnality and camaraderie is so emphasised because Hell to Eternity isn’t in any sense a typical war movie celebrating a hero’s competence with violence, but whose gifts for bridging cultures and charming people give him a chance to transcend war. This film is the wicked twin to Sergeant York (1941), revolving as it does around a hero whose heroism is, surprisingly, about saving lives in the midst of carnage and finding unexpected common humanity—except Guy’s not a goody-two-shoes but a man furious with the world, and for whom love and hatred are forever closely related. When the warriors actually hit the beaches of Saipan, the film turns into a grueling, slaughter-clogged slog across country, anticipating Terence Malick’s version of it The Thin Red Line (1998), and in a set-piece sequence in which a band of Japanese defenders, rather than surrender, mass for a banzai charge that engulfs the Americans. Suddenly they’re hurled back into the warfare of centuries past where what hand-to-hand combat skills they have must keep them alive, and the film turns into a Kurosawa movie.

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Lewis dies in this battle, and the survivors overlook the aftermath of astounding carnage, ground strewn with corpses. Hazen is killed shortly afterwards by enemy soldiers on the charge, and Guy becomes somewhat unhinged. Where before he had difficulty shooting anyone, he becomes near psychopathic, and where he had used his language skills to talk individual soldiers and pockets of resistance into surrender, he now drops grenades on them and flushes the exhausted and ruined men out to meet his gun. By the end of the ’60s perhaps it wouldn’t be so odd to see a movie protagonist acting in such a fashion, but even then, not usually a hero and a real war hero to boot. It’s revealing then that Gabaldon let himself be portrayed in such a fashion, and it gives force to the feeling, coming on top of the film’s frankness about unfairness of the internment camps and even the dirty playfulness of the Honolulu scenes, that Hell to Eternity is perhaps the most morally complex, honest, and tough-minded American war movie of its era, in its conception of war as a place where any individual can act on both the best and the most bestial impulses within themselves, depending on the pressures in any given moment.

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Finally Guy’s CO, Capt. Schwabe (John Larch), tries to intervene, weakly at first (“I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, but…”), and then by trying to talk him into resuming his translation work by taking him to watch the spectacle of Japanese civilians hurling themselves off cliffs in obedience to the Emperor: Guy sees his family in the innocents casting themselves to their deaths, and this shocks him out his murderous phase. Finally, he and another soldier locate the underground dugout being used by the Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa), and are able to eavesdrop on him ordering his men to stage one last suicide charge. Guy assaults the dugout and takes the general captive, the two men engaging in a duel of wits that, oddly, evokes the deceptions and gamesmanship of the Honolulu scenes, as Matsui, like the reporter, plays coy whilst testing the mettle of his opponent. Guy outsmarts him by not revealing his knowledge of Japanese until Matsui tries to trick him, and Guy finally convinces Matsui to forego the hopeless destruction of the remnant of his army, which, when they go out to see it, proves to be a mass of barely clothed, starving, ruined humans: “God, what a pathetic sight!” Guy says with a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity. Karlson stages an unforgettable climactic shot as Matsui commits seppuku after ordering his men to surrender, sinking to his knees and dying with Guy at his side and the column of his soldiers moving past, barely able to spare their dying commander a nod as they trudge toward the safety Guy has given them. All that’s left is for one of Guy’s fellow soldiers to bestow on him the unofficial title of “Pied Piper of Saipan” as his soldiers see him leading this unlikely exodus.

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