Our Imaginary Arizonas: John Ford's Stagecoach

 John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) seemed to share in the spirit of New Deal progressivism that had defined the politics of the decade.
John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) seemed to share in the spirit of New Deal progressivism that had defined the politics of the decade.

(First published by Culture Matters)


“All aboard for Lordsburg!”, my Dad used to shout. Immediately, my sister and I would scramble out to the garden to take our seats in the creaking, rust-spattered swing-set planted there, which our parents (playing the part of the work-horses) would push and pull, as we began the journey through our imaginary Arizonas. The signal was borrowed from Stagecoach, John Ford’s 1939 picture, which I had been watching on-repeat since I was small, longer than I remember. “All aboard for Lordsburg”, cries Buck (Andy Devine), the driver, as his troupe of socially disparate passengers ready themselves for their perilous trip across the desert. An acknowledged classic, emulated and admired by later directors as diverse as Orson Welles and Michael Mann, Ford’s film is still, today, one of my personal favourites. 


Stagecoach won two Oscars – for its rip-roaring musical score, and for Thomas Mitchell’s supporting performance as the grizzled, kindly  alcoholic, Doc Boone – and revitalised the flagging career of a young actor whom it established, for decades to come, as an icon of American cinema, John Wayne, who plays the Ringo Kid. If Wayne’s performance has taken on a mythic endurance over time, Ringo himself, at the film’s opening, has a quasi-legendary reputation. We hear of him before we see him; he’s broken loose from prison, rumour has it, and is bent on avenging the death of his brother at the hands of the Plummer boys. For Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the shady banker, Ringo is consequently “notorious”. Buck, by contrast, smiles at the mere mention of his name. “I thought Ringo was in the pen?”, he says, “Busted out? Well, good for him!”


Our first encounter with Wayne’s protagonist in-person is a moment of unforgettable cinematic brilliance. “Hold it!”, a hard-edged voice from the dust-trail yells, as a tracking-shot, blurring in and out of focus, speeds to a close-up of the smiling outlaw: caked with dust, a trickle of sweat running down his face, wielding a Winchester rifle in one hand and a spent saddle in the other – the Ringo Kid. François Truffaut, the French film-critic turned New Wave movie-maker, would mimic Ford’s technique at the end of his The 400 Blows (1959): the camera follows the running form of young Antoine Doinel (Jeanne-Pierre Léaud), as he heads alone to the sea, zooming in to a mesmerising freeze-frame of his uncertain, indomitable expression, as he turns to look back at the life he’s left. He’s caught, stilled by the camera, on the edge of childhood and the world, that vast expanse. 


Although in his thirties at the time of filming, Wayne in Stagecoach has the openness and quiet melancholy of a younger man, who knows what it feels like, still, to be a boy. The embittered loneliness and tyrannical anger of Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in Red River (1948), the tough hatred of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), are, on first glance, difficult to imagine lurking in the softness and daring of Ringo here. From the moment he enters the drama, in his wholesome sensitivity and dark sadness, the Kid is an everyman: an outsider the audience are invited to recognise, somehow, as a version of ourselves. 


Significantly, throughout the picture, Ringo treats Dallas (Claire Trevor), a sex worker, as an equal, and more importantly as a “lady”, drawing the ire and suspicion of some of his fellow passengers in the process. “Looks like I got the plague, don't it”, Ringo says softly, as Hatfield (John Carradine) and Mrs Mallory (Louise Platt) refuse to sit at the same table with him and Dallas: “I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week.” Earlier, when Hatfield extends a silver cup of water to Mrs Mallory, Ringo asks, in front of everyone, “How about the other lady?” He passes the communal water-flask to a grateful Dallas instead, smiling broadly: “Sorry, no silver cups.”


Their mutual affection fills the screen as the film progresses, particularly in one sequence: after Mrs Mallory has given birth in the back-room of a watering station. As Dallas, with characteristic care, carries out the newborn baby girl into the common area, Ringo’s eyes stay fixed on hers, brimming with understanding and desire. He sees her humanity, and loves her for it. In a symbolically charged interior shot, we watch Ringo lean into a side-doorway as he stares after Dallas, exhausted, pacing to the end of the back-lit corridor, into the night. He tilts his head to a lamp held by Chris (Chris-Pin Martin), lighting his cigarette before following her outside, in silence. “Don't talk like that”, Dallas nearly weeps after he proposes marriage later, and it’s a tribute to both actors, as well as Ford’s framing in the lead-up, that such an exchange can seethe with such hurt and passion. These kids have been denied a future so many times; but Ringo still has dreams. 


In all of this, Ford’s movie has an implicitly political dimension. “Much of what struck 1939 viewers as groundbreaking” about the film, as Joseph McBride observes, “was its unusually sophisticated depiction of bedrock American class conflicts”, played out and elucidated “through the intricately orchestrated clash of representative personalities under pressure”.  In its sympathetic, often heroic portrayal of Ringo and his fellow outcasts, Stagecoach seemed to share in the spirit of New Deal progressivism that had defined the politics of the preceding decade.


A friend of mine picked up on exactly this quality in Ford’s film recently, remarking on what he called the “rough-and-tumble life” it explores and celebrates, “a working or proletarian life.” I couldn’t agree more. Buck, for example, portly, comical, and shrill, is a hard worker, tethered to the meagre wages he receives as a coach-driver, as he risks his life and well-being in the hope, one day, of saving enough money to marry his “girl, Juliana”. “If there's anything I don’t like”, he says, “it’s driving a stagecoach through Apache country. [I] took this job ten years ago… I've been working hard at it ever since.” He’s later wounded, in fact nearly killed, by Apache riders, though the issue of just compensation by the coach company (for grievous work-related injury) is never addressed, even after his eventual arrival in Lordsburg. 


Questions of labour, inequality, and social standing define this adventure to an unusual degree. To revisit the character of Gatewood now, with his mixture of misanthropy, corruption, and noxious bluster, is to realise something of the long tradition, in America, that found a 21st-century manifestation in Donald Trump’s presidency. Gatewood treats conversations as sounding-boards for the politics he lives by, testing and provoking his fellow passengers, we sense, in order to scrutinise their responses. “The government must not interfere with business”, he says, “What this country needs is a business-man for president”. Even as he shuttles towards disgrace, with a bag of stolen money lodged under his arm, he test-drives a definition of US citizenship that is abruptly hierarchical, and coded white. “America for Americans!”, he barks, scanning the coach for signs of disagreement or dissent. 


Tellingly, Gatewood’s wife, with whom he apparently feels no compunction to share his stolen savings, is a member of the local Law and Order League, a self-organised committee that drives both Doc and Dallas from their lodgings at the beginning of the film. “Doc, can they make me leave town when I don't wanna go?”, Dallas asks, with a desperation given due acknowledgement by Ford, “Haven't I any right to live?” In reply, Doc offers understanding, if not quite consolation. “We’re the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice”, he says, “These dear ladies of the Law and Order League are scouring out the dregs of the town.” 


Mitchell fluently conveys Doc Boone’s whimsy and world-weariness; we’re able, through the fullness and solidity of his presence, to appreciate the doctor’s (perhaps surprising) store of minor generosities, which seem so great only because his fellow citizens have proven so narrow-hearted, and even cruel. He takes Dallas’s arm as he helps her to the coach, but not before quoting (eloquent in irony) Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to his former landlady: “Is this the face that wrecked a thousand ships, and burned the towerless tops of Ilium?” Her pinched, scornful features pucker up, in reply. 


If Ford’s vision can be described as Shakespearian in its depiction of the American West-in-formation, it’s notable that the words of the bard himself (and, as above, his Elizabethan contemporaries) sprinkle the films, heightening their emotional flavour and adding colour and tone to the rambunctious society therein. My Darling Clementine also features a dissolute (indeed, chronically ill) doctor with a poetic perspective on the world. In that movie, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) finishes Hamlet's soliloquy when an ageing actor, mounted on a bar-room table-top, forgets his lines, grounding the florid mellifluousness of the thespian’s speech in the pathos of his own dream: of life, of death. “The undiscover’d country,” he says, slowly, 


… from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all…


The saloon grows still as Doc recites his verse, then breaks into a bustle again as he crumples over his handkerchief, coughing blood. 


In Stagecoach, for all the dipsomania that fogs and bedraggles his days, Doc Boone’s burden, always, is his unusual clarity of vision. He’s seen a great deal of how the country was tamed and how towns are run, so that even his kindliness is tinged with fatigue. He previously served in the Union army during the Civil War, we learn; he’s spent some time as a pediatrician, too, he tells Mrs Mallory; while his long service as a local doctor seems to have awakened him to all that is immedicable in post-war society. “What happened to that boy, whose arm I fixed [many years ago]?”, he inquires of Ringo, who now sits hand-cuffed on the floor of the coach. “He was murdered”, the Kid replies, his eyes flickering back to a stony glaze, as he recalls his brother’s fate.


John Carradine, a regular Ford collaborator, brings a similarly explosive restraint to his portrayal of Hatfield, the former Confederate officer, latterly considered “a notorious gambler”, his reputation tarnished by violence. “Three weeks ago I took a bullet out of a man who'd been shot by a gentleman”, Doc says, pointedly, to the patrician Southerner facing him, “the bullet was in his back.” Carradine expresses Hatfield’s courtliness with a kind of controlled hunger throughout, latently menacing; his acting is superb. The mime-like exaggeration of his performance as the disenfranchised Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is toned down to a whisper here, while the stilted speechifying of the lavishly titled Major Cassius Starbuckle in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is entirely absent. When Hatfield draws the ace of spades, he smiles invisibly, almost with his gait; we sense his grim thrill and expectation. Later, when the Apaches are closing in on the stagecoach and its passengers, he stops our breath with a single calculating glance, and we see the clearness of his resolve, as he readies the final bullet in his gun for Mrs Mallory.  


Much has been made, and understandably so, of “the magnificence of the landscape” (Monument Valley) that serves as the backdrop to such dramatic intensities. Arguably, however, what makes Ford’s vision so compelling is his perception of the intimate interrelationship that endures between the characters, their society, and the natural world. Although Mrs Mallory herself is regarded as a “lady” throughout, her baby, somewhat anachronistically, is referred to as “little coyote” by her fellow passengers. It’s a telling detail, suggesting that Ford’s understanding of wildness could encompass not only the expansive skies and stark landscapes of his “Apache” country (a mythic projection, for the most part), but also the arduous physical experience of childbirth itself. The coyote howling in the night is the closest we come to hearing Mrs Mallory’s cries of pain and need during the delivery, but the film nevertheless seems to recognise, as Kathleen Jamie has written in another context, that “to give birth is to be in a wild place”, provided we define wildness “not [as] a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation”. Stagecoach is famed as a frontier drama, in which a supposed wilderness is converted into a site of social definition and struggle, but its sense of ecology and natural dynamism is closer to what Jamie describes: “a force requiring constant negotiation”, entangling the survival of its protagonists with the rhythms and imperatives of nature in the widest sense. 


Such depth and nuance, of course, are shadowed, and possibly marred, by what McBride has termed the film’s “casual indulgence of racist caricatures of Indians and Mexicans”. Although Dallas suggests that “there are worse things than Apaches”, eyeing the punitive posse of Law and Order women who eject her from the town, the indigenous characters depicted in Ford’s film are nevertheless consistently cast (in McBride’s words) “as a simple force of nature, noble in appearance but destructive in action”: savages, in brief, whose ferocity threatens all of the coach passengers, humble or high-born. “We're all going to be scalped, Gatewood, massacred in one fell swoop”, Doc says, winding up his antagonist with the news of the vandalised telegram lines, the raiding parties rumoured to be roaming the territory: 


It’s that old Apache butcher, Geronimo. Nice name for a butcher. He’s jumped the reservation. He's on the warpath.


Even Doc indulges in the distorting stereotype. 


Commenting on The Searchers, Martin Scorsese has drawn attention to Ethan Edward’s resemblance to the Comanches he hunts and hates (with a fanatical bloodlust). “There is no home, no family, waiting for Ethan” at the end of The Searchers, Scorsese observes: “He is cursed, just as he cursed the dead Comanche. He is a drifter, doomed to wander between the winds.” The correlation between Ringo and Geronimo in Stagecoach, however, has been less discussed. The Kid has escaped “the pen” and seeks vengeance for the murder of his kin; the Apache chief, similarly, has “jumped the reservation” and now is “on the warpath”. 


The real Geronimo, of course, died only thirty years prior to Ford’s film, in 1909. And while his resistance (to extermination) is legendary – in no small part due to films like Stagecoach and Ford’s complex 1948 picture, Fort Apache – the brutality he struggled against has yet to be adequately documented on-screen, Walter Hill’s commendable attempt notwithstanding. After their final surrender, Dee Brown writes, 


Geronimo and his surviving warriors were shipped to Fort Marion, Florida. He found most of his friends dying there in that warm and humid land so unlike the high, dry country of their birth. More than a hundred died of a disease diagnosed as consumption. The government took all their children away from them and sent them to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and more than fifty of their children died there. 


Ringo’s maltreatment seems mild by comparison; his quest for survival, and the justice of his revenge, relatively contrived. 


“Who better than an Irishman could understand the Indians,” Ford could still ask, rhetorically, in a late interview, referring to his directors perspective, “while still being stirred by the tales of the US Cavalry? We [the Irish diaspora] were on both sides of the epic.” Such self-heroising ambivalence on Fords part may have added to the complexity and strangeness of the cinema he created, but its effects are far from triumphant or consistently comfortable, as even Stagecoach exemplifies. Ringo’s restiveness and determination, and possibly also, his sympathy as a character, are multi-dimensional, echoing Geronimo’s; but only from the far side of that dividing line (drawn between whiteness and savagery, say) that Ford’s picture is careful never explicitly to cross. 


During the famous chase-scene near the end – which remains, in filmic terms, breath-stoppingly memorable – we see Ringo in a new light. The Kid’s controlled anger, his almost feral athleticism, is matched only by the high-speed, fast-firing horsemanship of the Apaches themselves, whom he shoots down with merciless rigour (though, like the young outlaw, they sustain their resistance, and keep charging). His later showdown with the Plummer brothers is marked by similar tension, and ruthlessness: Ringo is outnumbered, and yet remains furiously, methodically focused on the task before him, of gunning his antagonists down. In both scenes, Ringo is far more the “butcher” than Geronimo, although he is treated, throughout, as the wronged outcast and just avenger. “Say kid, how old were you when you went to the pen”, Doc asks, catching Ringo’s arm. “Oh, I was going on 17”, he shrugs.


Ringo remains the hero of the tale. As his showdown with the Plummers approaches, Lordsburg’s newspaper editor rushes to the press, excitedly ordering his assistant to “kill that story about the Republican convention in Chicago and take this down : The Ringo Kid Was Killed on Main Street in Lordsburg Tonight.” By allowing this doomed youth his victory, however, Ford makes the moral of the film clear: that against all the odds, Ringo still has an alternative future to the one society has prepared for him; (unlike Geronimo) when he leaves town, his horizons are bright.  “Well, they're saved from the blessings of civilization”, Doc smiles, watching Ringo and Dallas exit together at the close. 


Stagecoach may be understood, then, as a social parable. At the beginning, the telegram lines have been cut. When the passengers arrive at the raided ferry station, even the rocks are scorched; Hatfield lays his black coat over the body of a murdered girl. If the defence of the stagecoach against Apache attack, hurtling through the desert, is framed as a last-ditch, high-stakes clash between a settler society and an indigenous culture still capable of reducing it to chaos and fear, the thundering arrival of the US cavalry at the finish represents the decisive sweep and consolidation of federal authority over native land, drowning Geronimo and his riders in a cloud of dust. It’s part of the film’s appeal, however, as well as the conflicting certainties of Ford’s imagination, that this victory, for all its fanfare, is disquieting, and the “civilization” symbolised by the stagecoach and its journey shown up so plainly, and so often, as the unforgiving hierarchy that it is, dangerous and harsh. 




Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life.

Ciarán O'Rourke (First published by Culture Matters)  // October 2021