Stagecoach and the Journey to a Unified America

Early American Cinema Project

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In John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” a group of strangers find themselves traveling together through dangerous Apache territory, and when put through trials and various difficulties, must work together to get to the safety of their destination. This film plays with the identities of each passenger and the stereotypes that have been shoved upon them, welcome or not. Each of the nine strangers could be sorted into three categories- the well to do, the average neutral, and the ones afflicted by the disease of social prejudice (unsavory jobs and poor reputations)- and when all together, lines are drawn and friendships made due to each person’s social standing. However, as the film progresses and the group overcomes more trials with each other, we see each of the characters redefining themselves and looking more closely at each other whilst questioning their first opinions.

One particular challenge of identity occurs when the stagecoach stops in Apache Wells, and Chris (presumably the man in charge of hospitality) begins to cater to the needs of the travelers. As they get settled in, Chris’s wife, a Native American, enters the room to the disgust of Gatewood, one of the more pompous and snobby well-to-dos, who seems to shudder upon the idea of this interracial marriage. Previous student and WordPress blogger hiilaryhanseni notes that from the civil rights era “Interracial relationships are an area that is still scrutinized today and is definitely not that widely accepted, granted the acceptance of interracial love has grown over time but it is still a strong controversial topic”. While this scene seems to fixate more on the fact that Chris’s wife was a ‘savage’, it still reflects on the conflicting identities of what was considered the norm.

A defining moment in the film occurs soon after this brief encounter, in which another from the well-to-do party falls ill- in fact, fainted under the stress of pregnancy. In this part of the movie, Lucy Mallory, a wife in search of her military husband, is abruptly pushed into a pregnancy in which she reassess the characters from the more ‘unsavory’ group- a doctor who has ruined his medical reputation by obtaining another reputation as a drunkard, and the only other woman in the traveling party, a prostitute. After delivering the baby safely, the traveling party as a whole seemed to gain newfound respect for the doctor as he was able to safely deliver (and make sure that the new mother did not die in complications). However, Lucy Mallory seemed to be one of few who understood how hardworking Dallas (the other woman in the group) was, after Dallas had stayed up all night to attend to both mother and newborn. Similarly, Ringo (the last of the ‘unsavory’ group, a prisoner), proved through his actions that he could be depended on, putting himself in the line of fire to prevent an ambush on the stagecoach from being successful. These instances in which these characters proved through their actions that they were each strong, dependable characters reflects on the time in which this film was released (1939). At this time, the U.S. was just about to go into the Second World War and the media of that time spoke a message of unity. In her book “Celebrity Culture and the American Dream,” Sternheimer noted that during this time “doing more, not having more, reflected the new patriotism” (page 159). Not only did “Stagecoach” reflect this in the plot by showing the (mostly) united efforts of the travelers to get safely to their destination, but it also promoted the fact that the people appearing to be on the bottom of the success ladder back then could be the key figures of the time that could be relied upon with any and every task necessary towards the preservation of the country as a whole.

 

Link to blog post: https://history110discussion1.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/essay-topic/

“Stagecoach (1939).” An Award-winning, Unique Resource of Film Reference Material for Film Buffs and Others, with Reviews of Classic American-Hollywood Films, Academy  Awards History, Film Posters. AMC, n.d. Web. 20 July 2017. <http://www.filmsite.org/stagec2.html&gt;.

Stagecoach. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell. Criterion Collection/Janus Films, 1939. Stagecoach. Kanopy. Web.  <http://sdsu.kanopystreaming.com/video/stagecoach&gt;.

Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.