An Interpretation of ‘Stagecoach’
In 1939 John Ford masterminded a classical western film by the name of Stagecoach. This film has the integrity of a fine work of art. Being that it could be considered a work of art, the impression left on a viewing audience could differ relying on the audience’s demographics. However, it is conceivable to all audiences that Ford delivers a cast of characters that are built on stereotypes and perceptions conjured from ‘B’ westerns that preceded this film’s time. Each character is introduced to the audience in a stereotypical genre, as the film progresses, these stereotypes are broken down and the characters become more humanized. This is apparent with a handful of characters being portrayed better than others. One can investigate each individual character to correlate such a pattern. The characters are, in no particular order: Curly, Hatfield, Gatewood, Peacock, the stagecoach driver, Dallas, Lady Mallory, and of course Ringo.
Robert Slotkin writes in Gunfighter nation, . . . by 1890 it was clear that the industrialization of the economy had produced a social order in which wealth and power would increasingly be concentrated in the hands of relatively few men . . . (p 31). It was this social order that influenced iconography of many ‘B’ westerns. Such iconography would create the ideal of the crooked banker, or the shoot em’ up outlaw and even a brothel prostitute, all of which are found in Ford’s Stagecoach. The social classes that each character can generally be categorized as an upper, middle and lower class.
In Stagecoach the upper class is composed of Gatewood and Lady Mallory. Gatewood is first introduced as a stern and modest character and part remains to be for most of the film. He exemplifies the ‘B’ western icon of the crooked banker in every manner. His crooked behavior is not revealed until the end of the film climaxing at his arrest as the stagecoach reaches town. His actions are arrogant and always in line with a financial mind set. His main focus was bag full of money, nothing else. Even as the stagecoach was under siege by the savage Indians, the audience could catch a glimpse of Gatewood clasping his bag rather than brandishing a firearm. Gatewood’s character is one of those that does not stray from the ‘B’ side icon. He is clearly plays the stereotype of the financial trusts that fueled the industry of the time. Lady Mallory,also in the category of upper class is really of little significance in the plot of this movie. Her only claim to such an elite profile is her husband, who belongs to the US Calvary. Her iconography is that of upper class women, nothing more really. She longs for her husband, she too is arrogant to some degree, and she is despised of things subordinate to her nature. She is revolted Dallas who is portrayed as a prostitute. She could not even bear to share a meal at the same table with someone of Dallas’s social standing. It is only after the birth of her child that she breaks away from her stereotype. She realizes the aid and care that she received from Dallas with her newborn and soon after begins to socially accept Dallas. This is not the last one will see of a character breaking their stereotypical role.
This brings us to the characters that compose the middle class. These characters are: Curly, Hatfield, Doc Boone and Peacock. The roles of these characters are not built and manifested throughout the film. For instance, Curly is introduced as the sheriff out to imprison the Ringo kid. This is in line with the ‘B’ men of the justice of the peace. His major concern is to see that the laws of the land are upheld. He deviates from this role at the very end of this film by letting the Ringo kid go. Clearly this is an action that is not in line with his law keeping duty. Hatfield, a southern gambler, is really a unique character. Most ‘B’ western icons depicted as gamblers are usually shown as hard and emotionless. Hatfield is far from this. In fact he never did fit his stereotype from the beginning. He is more of a lady’s man. This can be noticeably seen by his treatment of Lady Mallory. He becomes her personal guard to ensure her safety. Even in the dramatic scene of the Indian siege he oddly shows his valor by his readiness to take Lady Mallory’s life himself rather than see her killed by savages. Doc Boone is a character who could have easily have been categorized as lower class. Doc is really nothing more than a drunk ( a classic ‘B’ western icon). His raging alcoholism is fueled in material by Mr. Peacock. Doc does redeem himself by his delivery of Lady Mallory’s child. Mr. Peacock is a character who is very seldom seen or heard. Throughout the movie he establishes himself to be a typical homesteader of the time period. Although the characters in this class never really resoundingly break out of their class, their actions portray a behavior that would lead one to believe that Ford was breaking their stereotypical roles.
This brings us to the lower class. These are the quintessential roles of this particular film, mainly for the fact that they provide most of the storyline and dialog. These characters are Dallas, Ringo and the stagecoach driver. Ford really shows how humanistic these characters really are. Starting with Dallas, when she is introduced, she is portrayed as worthless prostitute. However, throughout the film, she has a real nurturing personality, as seen when she helps Lady Mallory in the care of her newborn. She defies her stereotype as does the Ringo Kid. Ringo who is first described as a real menace to society is reported by the townspeople and by Curly. On the contrary when Ringo is first seen in the movie he is not violent nor is he much of a menace. He seems to be a real gentle man, as one may have noticed in his actions toward Dallas even after finding what her line of work was. He is not ill mannered nor tempermental. He is on a mission to seek revenge as any man rightfully would. He is a far cry from his gun toting tobacco spitting counterpart in the ‘B’ westerns. The stagecoach driver is the last of these unique characters. Typically, he is charactered in ‘B’ westerns as being filthy, blockheaded and offensive. Despite his crackled voice and foolish nature, the stagecoach driver was anything but these descriptions. Granted, at times he may not have said the smartest of things or have been the bravest of men during the film, but he does come off as a sensible good minded man.
Every character of Ford’s Stagecoach was derived from the ‘B’ westerns to years before. Each one is usually introduced in that genre of the ‘B’ western. Ford has a unique way he portrays these characters. He shed new light on stereotypes that are not commonly broken. It truly was one of the many factors that made this film unique.
Film and Cinema