Notes for the Twelfth Lecture.


John Ford

That Wonderful Year 1939

The 30’ s began with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 which started the era of The Great Depression It spread worldwide reaching a low point between 1931 and 1933. The recovery finally came in 1940. Film critics often see (as we have pointed out) a large number of "escapist" films in the ’ 30s as a response to the overall depression, both, economically and emotionally that ran throughout the period. Monsters appear in films perhaps symbolizing the depression and then killed off a a way to indicate the depression will be conquered.

By 1939, the depression was, technically almost over. Recovery from its lowest point (1931 to 1933) had virtually restored the economy. So John Ford’s Stagecoach appears at a time of recovery. So the film looks at an America where the West is beginning to open, but is still "untamed".

Stagecoach (1939) John Ford (1939) has been seen as "Hollywood’s Greatest Year". It is a year in which Hollywood produced a large number of films that received wide acclaim. Among them are Babes in Arms, Beau Geste, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wuthering Heights, Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln and of course, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz along with Stagecoach.

American movie goers reportedly bought 80 million tickets a week that year to see the 365 films released! ( According to Comscore, a media measurement and analytics company, Gone With the Wind sold 201 million tickets over the seven times it has been released since 1939, resulting in an estimated adjusted gross of $1.81 billion. That puts the Civil War epic ahead of box-office blockbusters Star Wars, The Sound of Music, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ((
This the peak year of the studio system. Part of the reason lies in that a large number of people in the film business in Europe were fleeing the rise of Nazism which led to an influx of talent.

The Western

The western is a major genre and occurs occasionally with other genres such as musicals (Oklahoma!, Destry, Red Garters etc.) and less commonly with science fiction (Cowboys and Aliens, the serial The Phantom Empire (with singing cowboy Gene Autry) and horror (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James meets Frankenstein’ s Daughter).

One of the more popular sub-genres is the "Singing cowboy" made popular by such singer/actors as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Rex Allen, Ken Maynard and many others.
Westerns were by and large cheap to make, sot largely outdoors, didn’t require a lot of sets, or elaborate costumes. They were popular and made money for the studios.
Their audience’s interest in them started to wane, and the western was being relegated to B level status. Ford’s decision to make Stagecoach was to revolutionize the genre. He certainly had problems with getting it going, The idea of a western wasn’t all that appealing to the studio and he wanted touse a relative unknown in the main role, John Wayne. There was a lot of argument about it, but Ford won out and Wayne got the part of the Ringo Kid.

Defining the western as a genre seems initially easy - a film that takes place in the west. If that were all it takes, then Psycho would be a Western, starting in Phoenix Arizona and finishing in California. (Other than Hawaii and Alaska you don’t get much further west than that). Even so Hawaii is not a Western, nor is North to Alaska (which is also not a "Northern"!. We only have Westerns, not Easterns, Southerns or Northerns! This is partially because it is the direction in which the country grew largely to the west ":from sea to shining sea" as the song says.

So, westerns have an interesting problem. The same year John Ford made Stagecoach he also made another "western" called . Alas, the Mohawk River which runs about 150 miles across New York State and is the largest tributary of the Hudson River, which it enters a bit above Albany.Even with a wild stretch of the imagination it is hard to consider New York State as the "west". It is even now, the state with the sixth largest indigenous population in the U.S. so if having Indians is one of the criteria, that would work. Even Last of the Mohicans in its several incarnations, takes place largely in the northeast and has its share of native people in it.

Some people rule the film out Ford’ s first color film Drums Along the Mohawk (also 1939)as a western, because the horses are used as farm animals, not for riding. Of course before the car people rode horses so the argument is not really valid, although in filmic terms, it may have some significance. It is the images of the film that determine its classification not real life. But in truth, the Eastern part of the country (even pre European contact the areas of the films, are horticultural while the Plains have been largely hunting and gathering cultures)

In some sense, the "western" as a genre could be thought of as a film type which deals with the frontier and the "civilizing" or "taming the nature" of the frontier. So, it is a genre that has to do with bring "civilization" to an area not yet "civilized". In that sense, the "western" might be better termed "frontier" film, so it would include not only films like Stagecoach and Shane, but also Drums along the Mohawk and maybe even Outland. Interestingly Star Trek almost defines itself in that vein by saying "Space, the last frontier". This is interesting since every program it meets aliens who are already living where the Enterprise is going, so it is, as it is in the westerns, the last frontier only for those moving into already occupied territories. This becomes of interest when we look at films like Shane, who comes from who knows where and goes to who knows where but brings “civilization” into the area in the form of churches and schools, and ridding the place of the "bad guys".

The Western has a long history dating back to 1906 and The Great Train Robbery, which in terms of its sartorial code is clearly "the west" although it was shot in the very eastern New Jersey

. Typically westerns were action oriented and the set piece often the "shoot out" or gun fight. The robbery and shoot out are already in place at the time of "The Great Train Robbery"

Stagecoach (1939 John Ford) (along with Jesse James (1939 Irving King and Henry Cummings) brought new life to the genre. Both Drums Along the Mohawk and Jesse James had major stars in the lead roles. Drums Along the Mohawk starred Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert while Jesse James starred Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda
. Stagecoach stands as a landmark western along with the same year’s Jesse James. reinvigorated and re-defined the western. It is something more akin to an "adult western" in that it is a kind of character study of several different people travelling on the stagecoac while holding on to the action sequences that typified the western. Stagecoach has in fact been referred to as the "first Adult Western" in the sense that Kubrick’ s 2001: A Space Odyssey is seen as the "first Adult science fiction" film.

One of the most dramatic moments in the film occurs when stunt man Yakima Canutt performs his now famous stunt of falling from the lead horses on the stage coach and passing between the other 4 horse and then under the speeding stagecoach.
At the end of the stunt, Canutt rushed to Ford and asked him if he got the shot. Ford said whether he did or didn’t he wasn’t going to reshoot it!
It was discovered that in the scene in which the stagecoach fords a river, the stagecoach was too heavy. The scene was going to be cut until Canutt got them to fasten hollow logs on the side to increase buoyancy. Canutt was made the head of the "stunts" in Stagecoach after that.

He is also famous for having planned and executed the chariot race in the 1959 Ben Hur, He taught Charlton Heston to drive the chariot. Heston said when they were going to film the race, he asked Canutt if he had any last minute Canutt said "Don’t fall off. The horses know what to do, you just stay on".. Stagecoach also made John Wayne a star and introduced many of the tropes now associated with westerns such as the cavalry riding to the rescue. The film is also notable for the first use of Utah’ s Monument Valley, one of cinema’s most spectacular locations. Stagecoach had a major influence on Orson Welles who said he watched it 40 times to study the lighting, set design and interior shots and the cinematography and lighting, which taught him "the language of film" which he then used in Citizen Kane.

The film itself

The film won TWO academy awards:

1, Best Actor in a supporting role:
Thomas Mitchell who plays the alcoholic doctor in the film

2. Best Music, Scoring

Richard Hageman
W. Franke Harling
John Leipold
Leo Shuke
Oscar nominations went to the film for Best Picture: Stagecoach
Best Director: John Ford
Best Art Direction:Alexander Toluboff
Best Film Editing: Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer
Brooklyn born Claire Trevor who plays Dallas was three times nominated for an Academy award 2x for best supporting actress in, High and the Mighty (1955) and Dead End. (1938) and Key Largo (1949) for which she won.
The "star" of the film is of course, John Wayne although not credited above Claire Trevor since he was basically and unknown and she was not. He became a Hollywood icon loved and despised by many. He appeared in more than 180 films in his career. Three time academy award nominee for best actor – Sands of Iwo Jima (1950) and True Grit (1970) for which he won, and also as the director of the film The Alamo (1960) , which won for best picture.
He appeared in more than 82 films before he made Stagecoach, none of them particularly significant in his career. He was friends with John Ford, the director of the film, and Ford indicated he really wasn’t ready for a starring role. When he showed Wayne the script for Stagecoach, he asked him to read it and suggest someone for the role of Ringo. When guessed he meant it for him so suggested someone totally inappropriate and Ford said he wanted him Wayne said he knew it all the time. This choice was to give Ford lots of problems with the producers who did not want to trust a non-star actor in the role but Ford refused to back down. William WAnger the producer wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. One wonders what the difference would be with an actor with a foreign accent playiiing Dallas instead of Brooklyn born Claire Trevor. It would certainly have diminished the feel of "Americana" Ford was looking for in the film.

John Ford (Director) February 1, 1894 - August 31, 1973
Famous for location shooting and extreme wide shots. His characters are often shown against a large, hostile and rugged landscape.
John Ford broke into the business following th footsteps of his older brother, Francis who played in hundreds of silent films for Edison, Melies and Ince (remember ince?). The two worked in various aspects of the business from actors to stunt men and finally to directing and producing.
Ford liked to work with specific actors who appear in many of his films Wayne being one of them. Two others are Andy Devine (Buck, the stagecoach driver) and John Carradine (Hatfield, the gambler).
Others not appearing in Stagecoach include Harry Carey Sr., (the star of 25 Ford silent films), Will Rogers, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Maureen O’ Hara, James Stewart, Woody Strode, Richard Widmark, Victor McLaglen, Vera Miles and Jeffrey Hunter, Ben Johnson, Chill Wills, Ward Bond, Grant Withers, Mae Marsh, Anna Lee, Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Frank Baker, Dolores del Río, Pedro Armendáriz, Hank Worden, John Qualen, Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields, O. Z. Whitehead and Carleton Young!
Jack Murray, Ford’s primary editor died in 1961. After that, Otho Lovering who was one of the two editors of Stagecoach nominated for the Academy Award, became Ford’s editor for many years
Ford directed more than 150 films, some in the silent era many of which have been lost. He received six Academy Awards including a record four wins for Best Director for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). The last was also nominated for Best Picture. He was nominates Best Director for Stagecoach (1939) as well.
He is renowned for Westerns films which include not only Stagecoach (1939), but My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

About The Film

The film has long been recognized as an important work that transcends the Western genre. Philosopher Robert B. Pippin has observed that both the collection of characters and their journey "are archetypal rather than merely individual" and that the film is a "mythic representation of the American aspiration toward a form of politically meaningful equality." In 1995, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry. Still, Stagecoach has not avoided controversy. Like most Westerns of the era, its depiction of Native Americans as simplistic savages has been criticized.
Stagecoach was Ford’ s first sound western. His last western was 3 Bad Men in 1926 some 13 years earlier.
. Ford’ s desire to use location shots caused him to use Monument Valley in Utah.


The film received the Academy Award for music scoring. It does not have an original score in the sense that it has music composed directly for it. Rather it relies on known American songs that are modified to fit the development of the story.
The opening of the film uses "O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" (aka "Trail to Mexico") along with "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair". In addition, "Careless Love"," Rosa Lee", "She’ s More to Be Pitied Than Censured", "My Lulu", "Shall we gather at the River?", "Ten Thousand Cattle", "Gentle Annie", "Lily Dale", "Joe Bowers", "Joe the Wrangler", "She May Have Seen Better Days" all appearing in somewhat altered froms
The use of these western songs adds to the Americana feel of the film, but also indicates Ford’ s attachment to the country.

The film involves a kind of "microcosm" of different people from different walks of life put together in a single location to interact.

Dallas, the good hearted prostitute
Doc: The alcoholic doctor, Josiah Boone
Hatfield: the gambler with a sense of propriety
Lucy: Stuffy, proper and dedicated to her husband
Samuel Peacock: the somewhat prissy whisky drummer
Elsworth Gatewood: the dishonest pompous banker
Ringo: Good hearted open minded tolerant hero


Treatment of Dallas by Ladies Society. She however is a good person helps with the baby’s birth etc.
Hostility towards alcoholism in Dr. Boone
Lucy a bit snotty, but devoted to husband and maybe loosening toward Dallas at the end
Hatfield clinging to an age of chivalry "from the old South" (only one to die. The union is to be maintained). Notice the tension with Hatfield,the confederate, in discussions about the Civil War
Does not like enclosed spaces (use of ceilings in shots). Uses outdoors to show the grandeur and spectacular beauty of America, while pushing to open the country up. Indians are to some degree "in the way"
After several Western films which paint Indians in a bad light (The Searchers, for example) he "atones" or has a change of heart" by making a film about the treatment of the Cheyenne by the government. Like D. W. Griffith by makin0g Intolerance after Birth of a Nation and like Jonathan Demme by making Philadelphia after Silence of the Lambs

The film concentrates on "archetypes" in the stage. All other characters tend to be 1 or 2 dimensional. Other than obedience to orders, there is nothing we know about the cavalry soldiers, nothing we know about the "inn keepers" other than one is married to Yakima - a relative of Geronimo (actually played by a rather well known Mexican singer named Elvira Rios). One suspects the Apaches( actually played by Navajos) could have almost been replaced by a flood, a plague of locusts or any other danger although they need to be something the cavalry can rescue them from. (The criticisms of the Indians in the film are largely about their not be recognized as having had their territory invaded).

Interestingly enough, Geronimo recounted later in his life that he and some other Apaches were out riding and they encountered some men running telegraph lines west. He said the Apache and the linemen stayed together for several days although neither group cold speak the others language and they were all sad when they had to part company.
Geronimo married at 17 and his wife (the first of 9) and he had 3 children. On March 5, 1851 400 Mexican soldiers attacked the Geronimo’s camp while the men were trading in Janos, Sonora and killed Geronimo’s wife, children and mother (among others). Geronimo had a life long hatred of Mexicans which was demonstrably stronger than his hatred of whites. As a result he attacked Mexican towns with devastating results. One town whose patron saint was Jerome supposed ran from him screaming to their patron saint (Geronimo in Spanish) and thus he got his name.
The Indians oof course, represent, one part of the west that needs to be "tamed" either by conversion or elimination.
Visually, the film is spectacular in that the scenery is magnificent. But of course, it is hard to take a bad photograph with Monument Valley! If that were the only interesting thing about the photography we could ignore it. Ford’ s love of the open spaces in obvious in his love of location shots and extreme wide angle shots that show the stage coach looking almost like a miniature in the vast landscape.
The long build up to the appearance of Geronimo and the Apaches arrives in a panning shot that follows the stagecoach in the distance and then reveals Geronimo and his band. The shot appears over an hour (69 minutes) into the film. The band appears much larger than the stagecoach which is some distance away.

Another famous shot in the film introduces the audience to The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) In what appears to be a quick shallow focus tracking shot, which draws the audience to him. Ringo is isolated in the frame and theshot enhances his status as a loner. Ringo and the banker are the only two people to board the stage after it leaves town. Both are or have been involved in some criminal activity (Ringo escaped andis unting the Plummer brothers) and the banker is fleeing with the stolen money.

Ford has an affinity for family values. There are often scenes in his films with people gathered around cemeteries where family members are buried and in this film, Ringo is avenging the death of his family members by the Plummer family

The end of the film shifts gears rather suddenly once the stage arrives in Lordsburg. The screen is full of people the way it was in Tonto. No longer involved in the characters on the stage, the story line moves rapidly toward Ringo’s confrontation with the Plummer brothers who are the ones responsible for the killing of the members of Ringo’s family. This kind of "avenging" of wrongs done to the family by a member is not uncommon in Ford films (see again, The Searchers).
There are many aspects of the film which look at families: Lucy Mallory trying to get to her husband, the innkeeper and his wife (related to Geronimo and that is why he is left alone); Ringo and Dallas rapidly growing attachment for one another and the "send off" they receive to start a life together "across the border".
Ford also sees in America an desire for a "politically meaningful equality" which he approaches almost mythically in the film. It shows people who are some sort of pariahs as basically good people: Dallas, and the doctor who sobers up to deliver the baby are victims and thrown out of the town by unsympathetic townspeople.
Photography: low angle shots; ceilings (hard to light) Does not follow 180 degree rule (neither do Japanese)
Clearly a return to silent film techniques. Camera pans, follows action (scenes in Tonto).

Characters are archetypes; the stage is a microcosm.
Check introduction - how are characters introduced? First Buck and Curly; then Lucy Mallory, Hatfield (paired) Then Dallas and Doc Boone (Paired); relation between Boone and Peacock: Gatewood (loner - attaches somewhat to Hatfield and Lucy Mallory, Finally Ringo and Dallas. The film goes back and forth between the pairings and the stage coach. Only Gatewood and Ringo enter alone after the stage is underway.
Scene where the cavalry leaves and the crossroad is very silent film style. Troops exit left; stage leaves ahead. Tim Holt (head of troops between them, waves good by, Lucy waves back.

Film is full of Photography: low angle shots; ceilings (hard to light)
Does not follow 180 degree rule (neither do Japanese)
Clearly a return to silent film techniques. Camera pans, follows action (scenes in Tonto).

Characters are archetypes; the stage is a microcosm.
Check introduction - how are characters introduced? First Buck and Curly; then Lucy Mallory, Hatfield (paired) Then Dallas and Doc Boone (Paired); relation between Boone and Peacock: Gatewood (loner - attaches somewhat to Hatfield and Lucy Mallory, Finally Ringo and Dallas. The film goes back and forth between the pairings and the stage coach. Only Gatewood and Ringo enter alone after the stage is underway.
Scene where the cavalry leaves and the crossroad is very silent film style. Troops exit left; stage leaves ahead. Tim Holt (head of troops between them, waves good by, Lucy waves back.
Film is full of "looks", In the restaurant, Lucy looks at Hatfield, he looks back through the window - no dialog; After the birth of the baby, Dallas and Ringo exchange looks as romance grows and he sees her with the baby.
Ford said movie actors act with their eyes, not mouths.

Ford’s film is a kind of "Birth of a nation". Like most people, his family immigrated to the US and faced prejudice as have almost all who followed. Ford’s affiliation with "lower" levels of society. Film starts with pariah groups on the bottom: Dallas, doctor, Gatewood, Lucy and Hatfield on the top end. At the end of the film , Hatfield is dead, Gatewood publically arrested, Lucy has recognized Dallas for what he true worth is. (Note the line "If there is anything I can do..." which is first said by Dallas, when Lucy finds out her husband may be dying. Lucy brushes it off. Then at the end when Lucy is saved and Dallas brings her her baby, Lucy says the line to Dallas, and cuts it off as she realizes that that is the same line she had heard from Dallas.

One of Ford’s "motifs" is the idea that people get tested and they are changed by the test. The trip is the test and the results are clear. The "pariah" group comes out on top and perhaps has a clearer understanding of their own worth (Dallas accepts that she is someone people don’t want to associate with - Lucy friends don’t want her to ride in the same stage with Dallas. Hatfield moves Lucy away from Dallas at the dinner table. (notice the looks between the two women).

Some conflict exists between images of the East as corrupt and enlightened and the west as heroic and savage.

Classic gunfight, but with twists. Starts in the bar. Notice Plummer’ s first appearance. Tom Tyler had played many bad guys (not his black hat)
The gunfight actually does not occur on screen. Ford tends to prefer off screen violence. While there is little doubt that the Apache attack is violent, we don’t see Peacock actually shot, nor do we see Hatfield killed. We see him about to shoot Lucy with his last bullet to prevent her from being taken captive by the Apaches. (All the Indians in the film are Navajos playing at being Apaches except John Big Tree who is Seneca (from Buffalo, NY) playing a Cheyenne, who hates the Apaches (played by Navajos) When Ringo drops to the ground to shoot, the film cuts to long take of Dallas walking.

What does it say about the "new nation"? Is an enlightened Lucy the one who will bring it to fruition? The couple whose status has changed from pariah to "pure" leave the country from Mexico. Perhaps Lucy is the one who has undergone the biggest change in that she realizes thee worth of the others she had disdained. Dallas comes to recognize her own worth. Compare Ringo and Dallas’ departure with that of Shane in the film of the same name.

Ford’s reputation with ethnics is complex.
His treatment of the Mexican characters in the film is somewhat sympathetic. Notice the way in which the "Mexican innkeeper" breaks the news to Lucy about her husband having been wounded which contrasts sharply with the way Nancy responds to Dallas’ offer to be of help.
He was well liked by the Navajos and adopted into the tribe with the name "Tall Soldier". He made a number of movies on the reservation using Navajos whose economy benefited greatly by his film making. It is said that he had supplies parachuted into the reservation during a particularly hard winter.

Some fun Symbolism

Cards: Hatfield draws Ace of spades (death card)
Plummer lays down "dead man’s hand" 2 black aces and 2 black eights.(Wild Bill Hickok is reported to have when he was playing poker and was shot and killed).