FOCUS Genre Stardom and Classic Hollywood Narrative

Westerns have a long history in cinema. Indeed, it is generally agreed that the first American narrative film, Edwin S. Porter's silent The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western. Before Stagecoach, Westerns were generally not quality films. They were made quickly and cheaply for a largely male audience. Their appeal lay in the gunfights, chases and spectacular scenery. They were 'B' features known within the industry as 'horse operas'. John Ford cut his teeth as a director on such Westerns. By the late 1930s he already had 100 films to his credit, but he had not made a Western since Three Bad Men in 1926. In effect his status as a director had risen, so that he did not need to make Westerns anymore. He was perceived by David O. Selznick, one of the most powerful and respected producers in Hollywood at the time, as a director of quality pictures. The fact that Selznick wanted to work with Ford indicates clearly Ford's status in 1939. The fact that Selznick pulled out when Ford insisted on making a Western indicates equally clearly the lowly status of the Western. Ford maintained his commitment to the project, determined to make a classic Western (a term that at the time was itself contradictory). Stagecoach was made and the Western genre was reborn and given a respectability it had never had before.

In viewing this film, then, we need to consider what John Ford brought to the genre. A clue is to be found in the fact that, when it was released, Stagecoach was described in the trade press not as a 'Western' at all but as a 'Melodrama'. Ford and his screenwriter Dudley Nichols chose to focus on people rather than gunfights and horses, and they deliberately broadened the appeal of the story beyond the traditionally male spectators of Westerns by developing the love interest and including the birth of a baby. The film contains the characteristics we would expect of the Western genre - for example, the Indian attack and the shoot-out between Ringo and the Plummer brothers at the end - but the real focus is character and character development. The perilous journey across the hostile Western landscape is a device that allows Ford to examine how the characters interact / develop once removed from the safe confines of society and its civilised values.

As well as being the classic Western, the template from which the rest were to follow, Stagecoach is also a perfect example of the classic Hollywood narrative.

• The narrative follows a conventional structure where we clearly see a beginning, middle and end (in that order).

• Events are linked by a cause-and-effect relationship that makes motivation clear to the audience - for example, at the start of the film we have a cause, which is the murder of Ringo's family. This causes (and affects the value of) the shoot-out at the end of the film.

• The story is character driven and we understand what drives the characters.

• The role of the hero is important; he instigates much of the action and brings about resolution at the end.

• We see economy of storytelling, where each event serves not only to illuminate character but also to move the story along by triggering the next event. The birth of Lucy's baby is a good example of this. The enforced wait amid the ever-increasing threat of Indian attack is juxtaposed with the images of birth and new life. The humanity (or lack of it) of each of the characters is revealed through his or her responses to both the increasing danger and the baby. For Dallas and Doc, it provides them with redemption and an opportunity to shine. For Gatewood, it reveals the true depths of his selfishness. As well as illuminating the characters in this way, the scene triggers further crisis because they cannot move Lucy.

• The film has a clear sense of closure, where nothing is left dangling or unexplained.

• Apart from the scene of the Indian attack, the film follows the rules of continuity editing - the process of piecing the film together so that the joins are invisible, spatial continuity is maintained and the viewer can easily follow the story.

Film theorist André Bazin wrote that: 'Stagecoach is like a wheel, so perfectly made that it remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position.' The structure of the film is certainly very formal. The story takes place over two days and is divided into carefully balanced episodes - for example, the 12-minute opening scene in Tonto, where the characters boarding the stage are carefully and comprehensively introduced, is balanced by the arrival in Lordsburg, where they disembark and their various goals are quickly resolved.

Much of the richness of the narrative comes from the mixing of such different characters each with their different but clearly defined goals. The characters can in fact be divided into groups. In one we see the apparently respectable people - Lucy Mallory, Gatewood (actually an embezzler) and Hatfield, whose chivalrous aspiration to protect Lucy marks a return to former values and an abandonment of his selfish gambling. In the second group we have the apparently disreputable characters - the drunken Doc Boone, Dallas the prostitute and Ringo the outlaw. The progression of the narrative will challenge these appearances. Doc, Dallas and Ringo each finds redemption through his or her humanity. Lucy's snobbery is momentarily lifted, only to return when she rejoins society. Hatfield dies having recovered his chivalrous Southern code (his death symbolising the death of the lifestyle and values of the South that he represents). It is Peacock, the solemn whisky-drummer, who presents us with the simplest moral of the film. 'Let us have a little Christian Charity toward one another.' Buck and Curly outside the coach act like a chorus on the moral debate within. These nine disparate characters are held together by two main narrative strands: the perilous journey across a hostile landscape and Ringo's revenge plot, both staple elements of the genre.

Stagecoach represents a significant development for women characters. In both Lucy and Dallas we have rounded and interesting characters, but they are still polarised into two available roles for women: the good wife and mother (Lucy) and the 'fallen' social outcast (Dallas). What is interesting is Ford's treatment of these roles, which encourages us to sympathise more with the prostitute than with the good woman. But what does Dallas achieve with all our sympathy? Promotion to the other female role - good wife and mother. In such limited possibilities for women, the film reflects the time in which it was made.

Stagecoach also introduced two major stars to the screen - John Wayne and Monument Valley - thus it can be credited with creating much of the iconography of the Western. Wayne had made a large number of instantly forgettable 'B' features, but it was his role as Ringo that brought him to stardom. From the moment that Wayne (as Ringo) stopped the coach, his persona and the characters he played began to fuse into the iconic image that is 'John Wayne'.

The functional definition of a 'star' is clearly put by John Ellis in C. Gledhill (ed.), Star Signs (London, 1992): 'a performer in a particular medium whose figure enters into subsidiary forms of circulation and then feeds back into future performances.' Richard Dyer has made major contributions to theorising the star via two seminal studies, Stars (1980) and Heavenly Bodies (1986). For Dyer the star image has four components:

* what the industry puts out;

* what the media say;

• what the audience or spectator selects.

Following Wayne's career from Stagecoach through a host of films (all basically Westerns) via The Searchers (see chapter 18) and on to The Green Berets (Wayne, USA, 1968) would furnish the viewers with their own classic narrative of stardom.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• How does the film-maker so concisely but effectively inform us about each of his characters in the opening sequence of the film?

For each character look at: costume; performance; dialogue; music.

Can you group the characters according to class? What are their feelings/prejudices towards each other?

• Compare this opening scene to the first stop at Dry Fork and the scene when Lucy's baby is born. How does Ford use these scenes to develop his characters and the interactions between them?

• Ringo's unique status as hero is partly marked out by the fact that he joins the coach separately and dramatically by holding it up.

■ What aspects of the cinematography increase the drama of Ringo's appearance?

What do we already know about Ringo's history? What do we already know about Curly's and Buck's feelings/sympathies towards him?

• Ringo's code of honour demands that he seek revenge for the murder of his father and brother.

Consider how the film encourages us to sympathise with him.

= Why do you think it is Ringo the murderer who escapes to freedom and a new life at the end of the film, whilst Gate wood the thief is captured and punished. How do you feel about their respective endings? Compare Ringo's role as the Western hero with that of other Western heroes - e.g. Ethan in The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956) (see chapter 18) and William Munny in Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992) (see chapter 38).

• Genre films work by creating a fine balance between fulfilling audience expectations and creating something new.

What aspects of this film do you find predictable and formulaic?

• What aspects do you find surprising and original? Remember that the film is over 60 years old and has been much copied.

• Consider what messages and values are presented about: 4 gender

» white people

* Mexicans ,s Indians

Further Viewing

High Noon (Zinneman, USA, 1952) Shane (Stevens, USA, 1953) The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

A Fistful of Dollars (Leone, Italy/Germany/Spain, 1964) Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

Further Reading

R. Dyer, Heavenly Bodies (1986)

G. Roberts and H. Wallis, Introducing Film (London, 2001)

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