Film Studies Program

Kanopy Film Project: Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

This is the first in a series of weekly films selected and introduced by Film Studies faculty from the Kanopy streaming service subscribed to by Schaffer Library. You can access the Kanopy service so long as you are on campus or using the college VPN: at Kanopy is especially rich in selections from French, German and Japanese cinema.

With Stagecoach John Ford (1884-1973) returned to producing westerns after more than a decade of directing high-end dramas. The film, considered by many one of the best films in the history of Hollywood (Orson Welles reportedly watched it 40 times before making Citizen Kane the following year), is an adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant story (Boule de Suif) about class and social stigma in late nineteenth-century France. Ford’s version of the story, written by Dudley Nichols, moves the journey to a route between two fictional towns in the west during the Apache uprising of the late 1870s to early 1880s, a key episode in the so-called “Indian Wars” when American troops defeated Native American resistance to European-American expansion.

As historian Richard Slotkin points out (in his book Gunfighter Nation), Ford’s film incorporates many of the formulaic elements of the B-westerns popular during the 1930s –stagecoach chases, Indian attacks, stock characters such as corrupt bankers and drunken doctors. Much of that film idiom contains racist stereotypes we now find offensive: for instance, “savage” Native Americans attacking “civilized” outposts for no apparent reason or Mexican-American roadhouse managers mangling English. So, we should view this film critically, as an artifact of a moment in Hollywood history when screenwriters, actors, producers and directors had little thought about promoting racial stereotypes on screen. The film also significantly misrepresents the history of the American frontier — not only is the story of Geronimo and the Apache resistance mangled and caricatured, but notably absent from the film are groups of people that populated the “wild west.” There are far fewer Mexican-Americans in this film than inhabited the southwestern territories at the time, but Ford also gives no evidence of the many African Americans who served in the cavalry and who settled and worked west of the Mississippi.

It is hard to ignore such shortcomings in the film. But, it is also important to see how Ford turns the conventional B-western into a new kind of classic cinema, in a style and genre that he and others would exploit for the next 20 years, and that would lay a new foundation for American cinema across many types of stories and styles (including the film noir crime and social dramas for which Hollywood would become famous after WWII).

Shot in stark, high contrast by cinematographer Bert Glennon, Stagecoach contains one of the most picked apart scenes in American film history — a very brief episode when the stage stops to change horses and the passengers assemble around a table for lunch. It is only 4 minutes long and easy to miss (some 30 minutes into the film), but it reveals much about the film’s main ideas, concerning class, gender, status and democracy, messages as pertinent to the problems of the Depression Era during which the film was produced as they were to the mythical idealization of the west (for which Ford was famous).

(notes by Andrew Feffer, History department, co-director Film Studies)