Nine Characters in Search of an Author
Forget that this is the film that established John Wayne as a star. Forget everything you know about John Ford films. Forget that it is a western and sit back and watch Stagecoach. It’s 97 minutes of genius: a stage play set in a stagecoach. You can even fast forward the violence and lose very little (other than one of the best chase scenes in cinema history and four deaths, unseen but registered in the facial reactions of women).
“John Ford doesn’t make pictures about good guys and bad guys. He makes films about people. They bend or they break or they hold on depending on the sort of people they are.” John Wayne
And here we have nine of the best character studies to be squeezed into any film, let alone into an action film. Nine characters who can be taken separately of collectively. This isn’t a showcase for a Hollywood star (the star incidentally was Claire Trevor and not John Wayne: the Oscar actually went to Thomas Mitchell for his skilful and charismatic portrayal of Doc Boone). David O Selznick tried to get Ford to exchange his unknown leads for Garry Cooper and Marlene Dietrich and when Ford refused, withdrew his financial support, dismissing it as “just another western”. It might have been if Cooper and Dietrich had been cast.
This, as John Carradine later wrote, was an ensemble piece. “Ford had never intended that the Ringo Kid establish Wayne as a box-office draw. The film had an ensemble cast and of all of us actors who rode that stagecoach, Wayne had the least lines of dialogue.” quoted in John Wayne The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn
Let us take a closer look at the characters and the actors who played them.
Mrs. Lucy Mallory:
The cast are introduced to us in approximate order of social status. American society at the start of the film (as represented by the town of Tonto) is structured and hierarchical. And like many social groups or institutions based on hierarchies has no supporting adherence to meritocracy. This is in many senses a doomed society. The journey takes us from this old world – representing as it does rejected values of old Europe and the Eastern states of the union – to the frontier where a new society is being forged. As the leading member of the old aristocratic world, Mrs Mallory will find the journey fraught with difficulties and will only find a place in the new order once she has accepted a new set of values (rather poetically coinciding with her giving birth to the baby who represents the future of the United States.
We don’t quite know how to take her on her first entrance. We’ve grown accustomed to finding something to admire in most of John Ford’s female characters. We are drawn towards having a modicum of respect but it takes 90 of the film’s 97 minutes before we actually come to like her. She’s haughty and dismissive of Buck Rickabaugh’s attempts to be civil and helpful. She significantly turns down the idea of a cup of coffee (the true drink of the West in films) in favour of a “cup of tea” (the European drink -albeit Asian in origin) and at all times acts as though it is her right (not simply her privilege) to be treated with deference and respect by anyone she meets.
She is from a Southern plantation family, which is as aristocratic as America allowed itself. Like all members of such families she has suffered a fall from grace at the hands of the forces of democracy through the Civil War. She is now the wife of an cavalry officer who we presume had fought for the Confederacy but has now joined the US military. The symbolism of this is never brought to the fore in the movie but is of great significance. Her perception that social status is more important than individual qualities is revealed by her respective treatments of amiable Buck and dubious Hatfield. She knows he is morally compromised but chooses him as companion rather than a more virtuous traveller.
Like all the characters in the coach he has been carefully selected to be representational (in this case of the lost Southern society based on wealth, breeding and privilege).
The English concept of the “gentleman” can perhaps be best described by the story of two such fellows being washed up on a desert island and proceeding to spend seven years each separately building a shelter, searching for water and hunting food. When rescued that were each asked why they hadn’t combined their efforts. “But how could we?” they answered. “We’ve never been formally introduced.” The point being that social rules and conventions outweigh common sense, judgement and decency.
We see him staring at Mrs Mallory in the street and, shortly afterwards, from a hotel window. If Southern gentleness counts for anything, it is good manners. Such behaviour hardly corresponds. A seed is planted that these two may have more in common than we are told. His line (spoken to himself) “An angel in a jungle” doesn’t fit a brief glimpse of a frosty woman putting on airs in a Western street.
Just as the coach is ready to leave he announces that he will be travelling to Lordsburg: “Marshall, make room for one more. I’m offering my protection to this lady. I can shoot fairly straight if there’s need for it.”
We have to wait a long time for any truthful snippets of information about his past but the Marshall’s response tells us plenty:”That’s been proved too many times Hatfield“. We are given enough clues to make an educated guess that he has killed people in a very ungentlemanly manner. It’s hard to know just why Mrs Mallory accepts his protection other than an acceptance of his suitability because he speaks well and that she is embarking on a dangerous journey.
These two, together with dishonest banker Ellsworth Gatewood, represent the supposed civilised world that the stage is leaving behind. The same values that America is leaving behind as it pursues the frontier. Gatewood arrives in Lordsburg but is immediately arrested, Mrs Mallory gets there but only after she has shown gratitude and compassion to those she would have considered her inferiors. (Mrs Mallory’s is a journey to self-knowledge. There is no complete epiphany but she changes enough. The baby she has, at the second staging post, will complete this journey for her, and be ready for the new world. Hatfield shows signs of possessing qualities but is unable to break free of the anachronistic straitjacket of his upbringing. He doesn’t survive.
Dallas and The Doc
The counterbalance to these two are from the opposite end of acceptability. Dallas and Doctor Josiah Boone are on the stagecoach without any choice: they are being driven out of town. Dallas because she has found that the only way she can earn her living is through prostitution and the doctor because he is a drunk. Tonto (the Arizona town the coach sets off from) is under the moral direction of a self-appointed group of neo-purists. There is more than a hint of a witch-hunt going on here. It isn’t the only element of the film that relates every bit as much to the year the film was made as the year it was set. Both of the town rejects are fabulous characters and both are brilliantly played. They were created by Ernest Haycox, the writer of the short story the film is based on, but much credit must go to screen writer Dudley Nicholls for turning them into characters Charles Dickens would have been proud of. There is a definite hint of Mr Micawber in the grandiloquence of the doctor’s stoical encomiums on being forced into the coach. Especially when Dallas appeals to him for help.
“We are the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice my child. These dear ladies of the Law and Order League are scouring out the dregs of the town. Come on. Be a proud, glorified drag like me.”
They give each other something that no-one else in Tonto seems able to offer them. She treats him with the respect you’d think was owed to a decent, educated man of medicine. He treats her as an equal; as a fellow human being surviving in a cruel world and hoping for something better.
He ups the quality of his remarks. He isn’t going to bow down to the self-righteous harridans who have taken control of the town and ask their pardon. Instead he continues to take pleasure in pointing out their faults; at one stage combining gallantry towards Dallas with comparing the Law and Order League with Les Tricoteuses.
“Take my arm Madame la Comptesse. The tumbril awaits. To Le Guillotine!” The soundtrack plays a jaunty march version of We Shall Gather at the River. The Doc is leaving town on his own terms. Dallas, though distraught, takes courage from him. To board the coach she must raise her skirts and reveal some stocking. This causes excitement among some male by-standers who are both titillated by the reveal and cruelly amused at her discomfort. In a defiant moment she deliberately flaunts a little more leg and in the instant de-masculates the men and horrifies the women. The (supposed) good people of Tonto are exposed as hypocrites and Dallas too gets to leave town in a moment of glory.
Her ordeal is by no means over though. Mrs Mallory’s friends seem happy to entrust her to the protection of a murderer but cannot countenance her travelling with Dallas, who they cannot even refer to in human terms.
“Mrs Whitney, you’re not going to let your friend travel with that creature?”
Even so early in the film it is obvious that the usual conventions of the western have been smashed to pieces. The paradigms of good and evil reversed and confused. Dallas and the Doc survive the journey ok. In fact they are responsible for several of the others coming through in one piece. They may be social outcasts (so many people arriving in the United States were) but they possessed the human qualities required to forge the new frontier. Two brilliant characters, two people worthy of the highest respect, two magnificent acting performances by Claire Trevor and Thomas Mitchell.
To be continued…