The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
John Ford’s Stagecoach corrals American optimism while redefining the western genre as other than trivial or nostalgic. For Depression audiences, its weary past was recognizable, and they identified with the young outlaw couple’s quest for peace, safety, financial security. While dangerous, the landscape, fresh and wild, offered hope of renewal.
The Ringo Kid has escaped prison to avenge the murders of his father and brother. A primitive character, Ringo acts gallantly towards Dallas, a prostitute who has been run out of town.
Ford’s images engage the analytical mind. Twice, while haranguing about “law and order,” a banker about to abscond with bank funds appears against a diffuse, shining cross on his office wall, the result of sunlight pouring in through a latticed window. Hollywood’s most legendary atheist here scores a visual coup at the banker’s expense. Touting “values,” this pillar of society cloaks his corruption and greed in an upright posture and in staunch rhetoric, while the chance symbol of Jesus behind him slyly digs at his hypocrisy, reminding us how often those in positions of authority and power sanctify villainy with religiosity.
Later, the shadowy darkness that accompanies the ostrasized prostitute to her pitiful shack—the boy she loves is about to learn her business—projects not only Dallas’s shame but also society’s tendency to relegate awareness of its exploitative nature to hidden outposts of the communal psyche.
Except for a plot-driven big Indian attack, Stagecoach is lustrous with meaning and thematic purpose—and irony. The action closes with Dallas and Ringo fleeing to another country, Mexico, in order to have a chance at realizing the American Dream.
Claire Trevor and John Wayne are wonderful as Dallas and Ringo, and John Carradine is superb as an elegant, morally complex gambler-assassin—a character presaging Paladin on television’s Have Gun, Will Travel.
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