Western Approaches : Episode 7
Is Stagecoach the perfect western or not a western at all? The story of a journey by horse-drawn coach from Tonto to Lordsburg, or the story of the birth of modern America? Is it a revenge tragedy in the style of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi or Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy or is it a love story? The story of perseverance in the face of great hardship; a time spent in the wilderness? An epic journey of a kind that stems back to Homer, Thomas Mallory or Sir Philip Sidney? All of these things or none at all? Let’s first dismiss the none at all. This is a truly great film of redemption and transformation: a demonstration of the qualities that are to form a new country in the aftermath of civil war: a comedy of manners and status that questions the assumptions of society. It is a film of and for women about which prominent female reviewers said
“One of the most exciting experiences the cinema has brought us” (C.A. Lejeune) and “One of the most exciting Westerns I have seen for years” (Dilys Powell).
Influential French critic André Bazin was absorbed by the film. Orson Welles watched it forty times as he tried to work out how to emulate the cinematography. It scooped a couple of Oscars (a thing westerns have always found hard to do) and would have picked up many more if it hadn’t been released in the same year as Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Goodbye Mr Chips, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Dark Victory.
Is it a Western?
There are two major storylines in Stagecoach: the journey from Arizona to New Mexico by coach with a constant threat of attack and the story of Ringo trying to exact revenge for the murder of his father and brother. Each of these storylines culminates with an act of violence: an Apache attack fought off by the occupants of the stage and then by the arrival of the cavalry and a shootout on the streets of Lordsburg. The combined denouements last a total of nine minutes in a film of 100 minutes. Remove them and there is nothing left that can be regarded as archetypal of the western. The characters are as likely to be found in a Restoration drama; the landscape of Monument Valley (which later became synonymous with the western) had never been used before in a major film, the storylines deal with social class, child-birth, love and acceptance. If a morality play deals with the victory of good over bad then it is a morality play.
It would make a very good stage-play. All the world’s a stagecoach and all the men and women merely players.
Is it the Classic Western?
André Bazin certainly thought so. He saw it as being as perfectly symmetrical and balanced as a wheel, the spokes of which were history, society, psychology and iconography.
More simply it can be seen as an epic journey in a vast landscape. The size and majesty of the exterior world both diminishing the affairs of mankind to trivialities and to expand the greatness of human achievement to match the towering sandstone buttes of Utah. The constant and dangerous threat of attack by Geronimo and his Apaches a re-telling of the story of Scylla and Charybdis. Survive the snows of the desert mountains or face the Apache war party. Surely impossible to survive both.
Jim Kitses in his excellent book Horizons West breaks the film down into five distinct sections. He doesn’t actually equate these to a five act play but I see no reason why he shouldn’t. Good plays show us how real people react in real situations and how the situations shape the people and vice versa. Stagecoach would, as I have already said, have made a very good play.
Two scouts report to a cavalry outpost that Geronimo and his Apaches have left the reservation and are out to wreak terror on the region. We see a stagecoach crossing a wide deserted prairie.
Act I : Tonto
The stagecoach arrives in Tonto. One by one we are introduced to the passengers who are to make the journey from there to Lordsburg. This being a Comedy of Manners we get to meet the characters in social class order. First Mrs Lucy Mallory, the wife of a cavalry officer who has been travelling on the coach and is invited to “rest her limbs” in the hotel. All characters are established with efficient precision. Between the coach and the pavement we discover she is meeting her husband and that he is nearer to hand than she thought and she sees a man she thinks she knows. This turns into the second passenger, Hatfield. Introduced as a “notorious gambler”, he is actually a Southern gentleman fallen from grace and making his living through a pistol and a pack of cards. He joins the coach in order to protect Mrs Mallory. We are later to learn that this isn’t the first time that their paths have crossed. The driver of the stage goes into the sheriff’s office to enquire about his ‘shotgun (the man who sits beside the driver as security). We discover that he is out with a posse in search of escaped convict, the Ringo Kid (which starts a second storyline). Ringo has vowed revenge on Luke Plummer for the murder of his father and brother. Buck (the driver) tells the sheriff (Curly Wilcox) that the Plummer boys are in Lordsburg so Curly decides to ride shotgun himself. That makes four.
Meanwhile we have the true nature of Tonto established by the drumming out of town of the local prostitute and the drunken doctor by the Law and Order League; a group of hatchet faced women with no more love and charity in them than could be placed in a snuff box. It is made immediately clear that both the doctor and the harlot are dignified and decent people who are out of tune with the imposed moral harshness of the town (perhaps representing Eastern values). The doctor, Josiah Boone, attempts one final drink on credit at the saloon where he is introduced to fellow traveller Samuel Peacock who must be the mildest, least assuming whisky salesman west of the Mississippi. The two are soon joined at the hip by Boone’s stronger personality (and the attraction of the whisky drummer’s samples).
Thus with seven people aboard, the coach leaves town. We’d seen a payroll being deposited in the bank and as the coach passes the banker flags it down and climbs aboard with a valise containing $50,000 in stolen money.
Act II : The Journey to Dry Fork
The coach is stopped by Ringo in one of the most famous entrances in film history. He is immediately put under arrest by Curly. The journey continues through a magnificently forbidding landscape. At Dry Fork they discover that the cavalry (including Mrs Mallory’s husband) have moved on and that there will be no escort. They have a vote to decide whether to continue or turn back. Over lunch pre-existing social conventions are brought into focus when none of the supposed superior characters will sit near the prostitute Dallas.
Act III : Dry Fork to Apache Wells
Buck Rickabaugh (driver) takes a mountainous route to avoid Apaches while Curly continues to ponder how Gatewood could have got a telegraph message from Lordsburg if the wires had been cut. At Apache Wells Mrs. Mallory gives birth attended by Doc. Boone and Dallas. Dallas reveals more and more evidence that it is she, and not the Tonto Law and Order League, who possesses genuine moral and human goodness. Ringo who has been increasingly impressed by Dallas, but who doesn’t know her past, proposes to her. She tries to help him escape. First signs of an Apache presence in the stealing of spare horses, the disappearance of the wife of the man who runs the station and smoke signals from the mountains.
Act IV : Apache Wells to Lordsburg
At Lee’s Ferry they discover the residents have been murdered and the buildings and ferry burnt. They improvise a river crossing and are just celebrating imminent safety when the Apaches attack. Then follows one of the most celebrated chase scenes in westerns. The cavalry arrive at the last minute just as ammunition runs out and Hatfield is about to use his last bullet to save Mrs Mallory falling into Apache hands. Peacock and Hatfield are wounded (Hatfield fatally).
Act V : Lordsburg
On arrival Gatewood continues to find fault with everything but on revealing his name is arrested by the local sheriff who has heard of his theft (the telegraph connection has been re-established). Ringo walks through the town with Dallas who tells him of her past. He tells her he wants to marry her anyway and if she’ll go to his ranch (in Mexico) he will join her as soon as he is freed from prison. He goes off to confront the Plummers and kills them in a showdown.
Curly is waiting to arrest Ringo and take him to prison. Ringo accepts his punishment and has climbed onto the wagon that will take him to gaol. Dallas is asked if she’d like to ride part of the way wth him and is helped aboard by Doc. Doc and Curly then start the horses and send Ringo and Dallas off together to a life in Mexico. Curly offers to buy Doc a drink. With a sparkle in his eye and absolutely no intention of conforming to the social expectations of the world he’s left behind Doc says “Just one”. The audience don’t believe him.