Initial reactions to a classic: Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

stagecoach

A few notes on Stagecoach:

– I love the premise of this film (a group of disparate characters travels through a hostile landscape) so much that I’m relieved I actually enjoyed it. Does that make sense? It may be that I’ve watched some other films this year, such as Strangers on a Train, that I expected to like but didn’t, so was worried I’d be disappointed here. It’s obviously a classic film that’s important and influential, but I also liked it a lot, which is definitely not always a given.

Stagecoach features prime examples of two of the western’s most prominent female stereotypes. Dallas is a prostitute, and she’s ostracised, harassed, thrown out of town, and treated badly by anyone who’s not also an outcast. Lucy Mallory is a lady from the east, and she gets far better treatment because she’s married to a cavalry officer. It’s just as well, because she’s totally ill-suited to life in the west and would be lost if she was not looked after by others. Hatfield, a dashing but somewhat degenerate gambler and gunslinger, is only too happy to coddle her while shunning Dallas. This is at its most disturbing when he’s prepared to shoot Lucy in the head unawares rather than let her be captured by Indians.

– As the movie went on, I got curious about who was playing Hatfield. He had too strong a look and presence not to be someone significant. The answer: John Carradine! Now I know where Keith and David got their cheekbones.

Stagecoach doesn’t seem to have a good deal of confidence in America’s capacity for tolerance. The film grants Dallas and Ringo a chance at happiness, but it’s both amusing and sad that the pair of them must flee to Mexico while another character sarcastically remarks that they are eluding “the blessings of civilization.”

– There’s a shot in the scene where the stagecoach crosses a river that I find unusually effective. The camera has been put on top of the coach and I’m surprised by how off balance and uneasy this makes me feel as the horses move down into the water. It doesn’t even matter that you can see the camera’s shadow in the shot.

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