Foundation rituals



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STAGECOACH, Ford 1939
Schatz describes Westerns as "foundation rituals" of American culture--reiterating and rehearsing the myths of the foundation and expansion of the United States according to what has been called the "Manifest Destiny" of Northern Europeans to unite and control the continent.
Stagecoach made at end of Depression--it is both rewriting the history of the West and addressing contemporary problems in the US. How can we see that the film addresses the depression more directly than does the story? In the change of the cattleman to a banker--the cattleman often represents big business and the expansion of capitalism in Westerns--here a banker as villain responds to feelings of people who are also watching The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 (1939--Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Young Mr. Lincoln--Ford).
Thus Western presents possibility for criticism of current culture and attempts to find solutions for economic and other problems in a mythical past.
Westerns of teens and twenties included both high-priced epics and low-priced serials. With advent of sound big-budget Western was on the wane--until the late 30s, when technological advances and a new interest in the West as the "final frontier" pushed the Western back to the forefront of "A" productions. Stagecoach is well known as the film that "gave new life" to the genre--indeed, Ford had considerable trouble getting a producer for the film--Selznick backed out because he didn't have confidence in the big-budget Western, for example. But there were many other big-budget Westerns in 1939-40, so Ford was responding to a revived interest as much as he was creating it.
Power of Western film to depict landscape--gives it an edge over the Western novel, which could and often did give greater character depth.
Schatz describes a set of oppositions posited by the Western:
East-West

Civilization vs savagery

garden-desert

social order-anarchy

Europe-United States

cowboy-Indian

schoolmarm-dancehall girl

individual-community


As Schatz notes, the period of the Western is usually post Civil War through the early twentieth century. Ford places the time of Stagecoach as directly after the civil war--Doc Boone and the gambler are still fighting the Civil War. Thus we can see that Stagecoach does act as a foundational ritual in both the context of the 19th century--bringing the South back into the Union (a theme strongly continued in The Searchers) and in pointing out a need to heal the economically based antagonisms of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Story "Stage to Lordsburg" takes place in the area of Southern Arizona and Western New Mexico (Tonto, Arizona [near Mt. Graham) to Lordsburg, NM). Ford moves the story to Northern Arizona's Four Corner's region where Monument Valley presents a dramatic visual backdrop for the story. The opposition between "civilization," represented by the stagecoach and by the small towns and outposts, and "savagery," represented by the harsh but beautiful landscape and by the Indians is made much more absolute than in the story.

Opening of film (Schatz) cues us to the oppositions that run throughout the story: a panoramic scene of Monument Valley is contrasted with the cavalry camp. Two riders come in and rush into the post, where the telegraph--like the stagecoach one of the slender threads of civilization--or one of its tentacles, as Schatz says--alerts the soldiers to the threat of "savagery"--Geronimo.


The stagecoach acts as a microcosm of the flawed society--carrying (Schatz) "a righteous sheriff, a cowardly driver, and alcoholic doctor, an embezzling bank executive, a whiskey drummer, a gold-hearted prostitute, a genteel gambler, an Eastern-bred lady, and the hero, an escaped convict bent upon avenging his brother's murder and his own wrongful imprisonment"
Compare this cast of characters to those in story
1. law and order league--cf ambivalence towards women as representatives of moral order--cf. Hell's Hinges, which has a religious woman as its heroine--but which also showed some ambiguity about the nature of her power

Doc and Dallas (named after big city) both marginal to society

Banker as villain, flees his wife who takes his money--complex image--she is wrong to be the kind of woman she is, but he is wrong to abandon her--representing the worst elements of society and of the hypocritical social rebel
2. Dependent relationship between Boone and Mr. Peacock--society creates parasitism in fundamentally noble character, Doc
3. Appearance of Ringo--tracking shot in studio--loss of focus because camera is moving so quickly--he is a force rising up from the landscape; interesting that he is a prisoner in the film and not in the story--makes film more a microcosm of a society that sometimes makes outlaws out of good men.
Schatz (50): The appeal of the stagecoach's passengers derives from their ambiguous social status. Often they are on the periphery of the community and somehow at odds with its value system. Perhpas the most significan conflict in the Western is the sommunity's demand for order through cooperation and compromise versus the physical environment's demand for rugged individualism coupled with a survival of the fittest mentality. In Stagecoach, each of the three central figures--Ringo, Doc Boon, and Dallas--is an outcast who has violated society's precepts in order to survive.
Like many Westerns, Stagecoach emphasizes society's need to incorporate the survival skills of the rugged individual--what Schatz calls the West's potential synthesis of nature and culture. Most of the time, however, this heroic though ambivalent individual is too much of a threat to the community to be integrated into it--he rides off into the sunset, or in the case of Stagecoach, crosses the border into Mexico, a utopian place where the outlaw can live according to his own principles.
4-5 Note how positions in stagecoach and patterns of looking create meanging. This becomes explicit in the dinner scene, where Dallas is object of derisory gaze of Mrs. Mallory and Southerner (whose gentle manners conceal deadly violence) moves her to end of table. Ringo gallantly takes the gaze to have been directed at him. He's a more "naive" char. in film than in story, where he realizes the young girl is a prostitute early on.
Contradictions--attempt to integrate Apache woman into marriage with Mexican--like trying to bring in rugged individual--creates tensions. But Indian is less assimilable than prostitute or outlaw.
6. Play of being on each side of fence--Ringo and Dallas. She says she has "friends" in Lordsburg, vs saying she has "house." Primacy of heterosexual bond as formative unit of society--most Hollywood film moves towards heterosexual union.
7. Ringo's ability to read "war signals"
8. Appearance of Indians--good old chase scene.

Show Birth of a Nation clip.


9. Mythic redeemer-hero"who enters a community and through his unique powers eliminates a threat to that community" (54)


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