‘In connection with one Hollywood genre film, discuss the presence (or absence of characteristics of mise-en-scene, characterization and ideology, and how far the film accords with or diverges from the viewer’s expectations in its use of them.’
Film To Be Discussed: ‘Stagecoach’ Directed by John Ford.
It can be argued that Stagecoach was the Western that gave rise to the modern Western genre in the form that it is known today, and although on first examining the film, there is the temptation to associate this film with the kind of stereotypical, drama-orientated action Western of the early Twenties and Thirties, such as Ford’s ‘Three Bad Men’ 1926, it can be seen that ‘Stagecoach’ is more than an example of Robert Warshow’s ‘Classical Western'(1.) and is in fact a subtlely allegorical and highly symbolic film; particularly powerful if examined in its contempoary context, and undoubtedly a visual masterpeice of camera and film art – if only for its stunning footage of the Utah plains, and Monument Valley. In all the film’s lanscapes, we are shown the wilderness from the perspective of those pioneers whose lives are determined by the forces of nature and overawing vastness of the unconqurorable desert; shots of low, distant perspective convey the vastness of landscape and sky, balanced equally in the frame to suggest a landscape of mythic proportions.
Lighting in the film is constantly low-key, and this softness adds to the films’ sense of the surreal, the impression that this is not history or even fact, but high art, which is meant to appeal to the imagination, and by doing so recreate or invent an historical ethos which is the Western myth. This sense of history as art, like the great historical paintings of the early Nineteenth century (‘The death of Nelson’ 1806 – Benjamin West, and ‘Liberty leading the people’ 1830 – Delacroix,) conveys history as the ideal, from the perspective of those who hoped to attain, celebrate and propergate certain national and social values current in their respective societies. ‘Stagecoach,’ despite its multiplicity of symbol and textual/technical aspects can be understood in its entirety, as an art form, and a purposeful attempt to influence contemporary culture, and the perception of what America is to itself and the world. It is in this context that I shall examine ‘Stagecoach’, of a film cast in the vein of a popular contemporary genre, but containing many less apparent aspects of art and literature that resonate of a tradiiton going back to the Greek epics of Homer and the mediaeval proto-histories of Arthur, namely: the stalisation and glorification of national history, the reaffirmation of human spirit and nobility on the personal, national and cultural plane, especially in the face of adversity:
‘The western is to America what the Nieblunger saga is to Germany.’
(Fritz lang. 2)
The society of ‘Stagecoach’ seems reflective of contemporary pioneer American society; many disparate character-elements are seen travelling together across the wilderness, in what Wilmington calls an ‘omnibus’ of human microcosmic progress, similar in approach to the bringing together of different stratas of society within a journey as ‘Shanghai Express’ and ‘The lady Vanishes,'(4) this union of social types sets a contrast almost from the film’s begining, between the socially accepted and socially disreputable; Ford wants to illustrate the pioneer brotherhood of disparate classes and caracter types, in the allegorical journey of a people to nationhood, this parallel is supported by Wilmington:
‘A nation of exiles, of warring and contradictory factions.’
The characters that we see in Stagecoach represent not only the substance of the European emigres whose blood would build America, but also form contrasts within society, through which Ford hopes to illustrate a personal morality, or ethical priority in his attitudes to the various character types. He seeks to demonstrate an essential moral order, as opposed to a social order, a personal rather than legalistic law, and a morality reflecting natural human ethics, rather than conventional or religious ones. In this world, where the apparently amoral and antisocial seems to survive intact, preserved in its own world, outside that of conventional society, we are led to consider questions of everyday ethics which to contemporary audiences would seem radical and even tasteless. On the subject of the disreputables, Wilmington writes:
‘They act for society in ways society cannot see, and they understand society better than society understands itself.’
All the characters of ‘Stagecoach’ are going somewhere, ‘Lordsburg,’ as Walshow points out, may represent God’s City/ Jerusalem, a place where the individuals will either discover fullfilment or retribution in an Old Testament sense: the ruthless, violent yet ethical and honourable morality of the Westerner is measured against the cold, calculating and self-indulgent social form of the Easterner; characters become archetypes, identified through speech, actions, dress and their treatment of other characters, thus Dallas, although seemingly a prostitute, and an evictee of Tonto nurses Mrs. Mallory’s baby at the “Apache Wells’ fort, and asks Doc. Boone if she has the right to marry Ringo, Doc, now redeemed from drunkeness by delivering the child, refuses to play the part of authority, he respects her humanity above the socially accepted morality of Tonto. Dallas is a fallen woman by virtue of her poverty:
‘Who am I to tell? …Go ahead, good luck!’
Similarly, Doc. Boone is a disreputable character who has drunk himself out of the misery of war, he provides useful commentory on the events in the film as an impartial observer – it is through this apparently drunken individual that Ford supports and rejects characters, it is Boone who comments at the end of the film that Dallas and Ringo have done well to escape the reigime of civilisation, epitomy of the kind of social-morality and corruption seen in contrast to the true natural and personal morality of the westerner:
‘Well, they’re safe from the blessings of civilization!’
Also important in defining the kind of morality and social ideal Ford values are the characters of Buck and the Sherrif (Curly), Buck is a wagon and mail driver, and seems to represent the kind of cross-racial/ national divisions existing between the pioneers – he drives the Stagecoach from Tonto to Lordsburg, and even were this not a metaphor for union, his manner seems accomodating to please everyone, significantly, we learn that his wife is mexican – again: cross national links in ther new society. The Sherrif is more formal, he represents law and order within the crude framework of western society, but does so arbitarilly, as seen in his freeing of Ringo at the end of the film, Curly only enforces the law as far as his conscience allows, and his opinion of character can influence judgement – unlike the true concept of law and order, he is no institution, but elemental to the moral and ethical framework of the free West.
‘Ringo the Kid’ is perhaps the most powerful character in the film, he dominates through his charisma and sense of personal agenda – undisturbed by Curly’s promise to deliver him to Lordsburg, he prioritizes his revenge against the Plummer brothers against the prospect of prison, revealing his personal sense of law and moral order, it is ringo who carries out judgement on the Plummers at the end, rather than the real law, i.e: the sherrif, and it is Ringo who helps save the party from annihilation when persued by indians. Ringo’s sens of personal morality is also reflected in his egalitarian treatment of others, and in his sense of protection for those around him, at ‘Dryforks’ he insists that Dallas have a vote in deciding the future of the trip, and addresses Dallas as ‘Mam’, this contrasts the two women, dallas and Mallory – whereas Dallas has fallen through circumstance, Mallory is also a product of circumstance, and must learn to recognise true morality in others (which she does,) as opposed to the narrow minded attitudes she carries with her throughout the journey in search of her husband. Mallory also comes to symbolize the maternal aspect of the coach-society, she is protected by an oulaw, nursed by a prostitute and is treated by a drunken doctor, yet becomes part of that society through realisation of their inner-goddness, which is a result of her purgatorial journey of experience and suffering to Lordsburg.
Other characters, which symbolise the conventional, socially accepted world include Peacock, a timid whiskey drummer, who forms a contrast alongside Gatewood the banker between the easterners and westerners, these two men are cowardly, worldly and highly concerned with their own welfare, when they look out on the plains it is with reticence – Peacock is seen looking through windows several times – he reflects the corruption within society, an apparently pious man (sometimes called ‘Reverend’ by Boone, emphasising the hypocrisy) whose fortune lies in the degeneration of others. Similarly, Gatewood is a criminal hiding under respectability and pomposity, he is arrested at Lordsburg for embezzling. Hatfield is fatalistic, a former confederate officer, he seems like the cowboy dispossessed, but carying the seeds of destruction in his constant references to civilized life and aristocratic manner. His fatalism is intellectual, as opposed to Ringo’s uncomplicated ethical code of revenge and survival.
Lastly, the characterization of cavalry and indians: each seems intent on warring on the other; at the opening of the film, we are introduced to shots of the plains, the wide panorama of wilderness and sky, next, the huddled, orderly reigime of a cavalry camp, its tents arranged in neat linear arrangements. The flag at the centre of the shot almost suggests the lunar landing, a conquest, an almost phallocentric terretorial statement. Further, we are then presented with another contrast in the guard room; a stern indian stands behind three seated soldiers, this is our first glimpse of the world of ‘Stagecoach,’ and is one of outright hostility, a veritable battleground between the cavalry and the Apache freedom fighter ‘Gironimo,’ the most striking feature of this scene is the contrast between the two races: the indian, impassive, silent, alone; the soldiers anxiously discussing the recent massacre by Gironamo of a fort – close ups of the indians face, a stern, melancholy expression hightens the sense of tension in the scene, and suggests the soldiers’ sense of intrigue as opposed to the indian’s patience and calm, even in the face of subjegation. The indians are a force within the hostile landscape of the Westerner, he is caught between them and the cavalry and forces of civilisation, the cavalry are typical is this respect – throughout the film, we are presented with an ideal cavlry-type, courteous, obligeing and well dressed, again metaphors for the advance of civiisation which appears wholy righteous on the surface, but behind which lurks the spectre of corrupt government and social-order, as seen in Gatewood and Peacock.
Throughout the film, settings interior and exterior play a vital role in the film’s illustration of the Western myth. The use of ‘Mise-en-scene’ to create a physical, geographical framework contributes to a sense of time within the accurately constructed inner-scenes, and a sense of human insignificance in the exterior ones. When the Stagecoach is arriving at Tonto, we see a busy street scene, cowboys are seen parading around on horseback or just standing at bar doors, their apparently leisurely lives reflect the apparently rexaxed character of the cowboy, even in the face of danger or death. The street scene is seen nearer to ground level than the landscape shots, suggesting the strength and imporatance of the idividuals in the street.
Mise-en-scene is important as a metaphor, the huge, towering landforms seen on the coach journey seem to represent isolated humanity, perhaps a metaphor for the cowboy himself. Tattered coach curtains whipping in the wind seem to suggest the frailty of the fraternity between the group, they cannot remain together indefinately, they are an ‘inversion of a stable community'(), and cannot live by each other’s morals.
Mise-en-scene is important in determining the role and functions of characters; Boone is seen in the bar at Tonto before his expulsion, the character of the drunken Doc. is supported against that of peacock by use of perspective and focus, Boone is in the foreground, Peacock in the background, barely in focus. Similarly, Peacock is seen looking out of the window at Apache Wells, suggesting his timidity.
Characters are often introduced in a manner typical of their type: Ringo is seen close-up with his saddle over his back, Gatewood is introduced sat at his desk, whilst honest money-carriers deliver Tonto’s gold. Dallas is introduced being paraded down the street of town by the women of Tonto, to the puritanical music of “Come and join us at the river,’ and Hatfield is introduced entering a saloon to gamble.
The seating arrangement at the table at Dryforks is also interesting, Dallas and Ringo sit together on the left side of the table, Hatfield and mallory sit at the head, whilst gatewood sits opposite Dallas and peacock sits by himself at the window. A contrast is set between the two couples, Ringo and Dallas must overcome social contempt, Ringo comments:
‘Well, I guess you can’t just enter society in a week!’
Within buildings, low ceilings abound, furniture is sparse and general conditions suggest an authentic setting – the low, cramped rooms, such as the dining room at Dryforks suggests the social tension between members of the group.
Ideology in the film is closely linked to general themes and the Western myth as the focus of the work; to begin with, the ideal historical perspective or view seems the most important ideological consideration, Ford deliberately reinvents the Western story, through building archetypal characters and settings into the myth. This view, intentional or not certainly seems to have affected American and world view of american culture and history, it is based on the assumption that instinctual, headlong action and personal moral conviction built the west (as seen in the cowboy figure), rather than characters such as the corrupt, city-bred banker or hypocritical Peacock.
In supporting this view of the West, Ford may also draw attention to notions of personal freedom, especially regarding government legislation and its effect on personal rights, perhaps seeking to promote the sense of free America to the then highly undemocratic world through the metphor of plains freedom?
Certainly the film has been suggested as a mataphor for the contemporary political situation (), at a time when the axis powers had set a likely agenda for upheval in Europe, where the sherrif represents Roosevelt, and the Plummers, the Axis powers.
The notion of rebellion reaccurs throughout the film: Ringo is an outlaw, who again wants to violate society – the notion that the film concerns the raw, vital spirit of rebellion against tyranny and injustice seems to add weight to the notion that Stagecoach’s central aim is to reinvent and glorify the american past ():
‘Forging the nation in the dying embers of a pioneer race.’
In the film, Ford seems to support the ideology of old testament justice, in Ringo’s revenge, as opposed to a socially binding code of practice or religious law, this ‘primitivism’ () is integral to the Western myth theory concerning the film.
There also seems to be a kind of governing order in the film, although the arrival of the cavalry to save the coach can simply be attributed to dramatic effect, it could be argued that God has some part to play here? Chance is certainly stressed as the prime mover in the universe, as Doc points out when he weighs the odds of dying of ‘a bad bottle’… or …’bullet waiting for Josiah Boone,’ Hatfield goes with the coach after winning a hand of cards, and continues after drawing an ace – whilst plummer draws the ‘dead man’s hand’ and must face his fate with the cowboy’s courage. The gambler, Hatfield epitomises this and dies, suggesting that without the Westerner’s optimism and vital survivalsm, chance would lay waste to the West without a struggle.
Ultimately, Stagecoach does not fully create, or set a preceent for a new social/cultural reality in the history of the West, the indians are still essentially bad, the cowboy is good, but only so because he performs actions bad in the eyes of legality, and is prepared to forsake the law for fullfilment of personal morality. The traditional opposites of moral and amoral are, however questioned, and in this respect the film is very modern. The film, however does not pretent to achieve it’s aim: to deomstrate the qualities needed to build the West out of the raw wilderness, and to reconcile through experience and mutual hardship every social type.
In conclusion, we find society fragmented, athough maybe wiser than before – Dallas and Ringo must still flee society, suggesting the impossibility of recapturing the essence of the western ethos within present American society.
The film does, however demonstrate a fixed and lasting perception of American character, the American cowboy – by both America and the world, this I think was the central and principle aim of Ford, to imprint onthe minds of viewers the strength and primitive vitality that forged the American race, at a time of world political and social upheval.