Monday, March 02, 2009

Ford Country

As Leo Grin of National Review reminds us, today marks an important anniversary in the history of the American cinema. Seventy years ago, on March 1, 1939, director John Ford released Stagecoach, arguably the greatest western ever made, and one of the most celebrated films of Hollywood's Golden Era.

Stagecoach represented a number of milestones, both for the director and the film industry. It was Ford's first western "talkie;" it was the first movie the director filmed amid the stunning vistas of Monument Valley, a location that John Ford would use again (and again) during his long career. And perhaps most importantly, Stagecoach marked the feature debut of John Wayne, after nearly a decade as a B movie performer and singing cowboy.

The film's plot--like many of Ford's westerns--is relatively straightforward. A group of passengers boards an east-bound stage, heading from Arizona territory to Lourdsburg, New Mexico. As they prepare to depart, the local marshal (played by George Bancroft) joins them, planning to join his deputy in pursuit of the fugitive Ringo Kid (Wayne).

Among the passengers are an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell); a southern gambler (John Carradine), a prostitute being run out of town (Claire Trevor); the pregnant wife of a Calvary officer (Louise Platt), a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek) and a local banker, on the run with $50,000 in embezzled cash (Berton Churchill).

But the trip to Lourdsburg promises to be anything but routine. An Apache uprising is underway and the U.S. Army can protect the stage for only part of its journey. Facing potential threats from Ringo and the Indians, the travelers set out for New Mexico.

What follows is one of the finest works of Ford's storied career. Orson Welles, preparing for Citizen Kane a year later, described it as a virtual "textbook" on film making. Welles screened the film more than 40 times, fascinated by the lighting and camera work achieved by John Ford and his cinematographer, Bert Glennon.

That speaks volumes about the influence of Stagecoach; Kane is widely acclaimed as the finest film of all time, and its visual images, created by Welles and his cameraman, Gregg Toland, were considered revolutionary.

I first discovered Stagecoach during a film appreciation class in college 30 years ago. Though hardly a film buff at the time, I was a fan of both Ford and Wayne, familiar with their work on such productions as The Quiet Man, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. All are rightfully considered film classics.

Watching their first collaboration in that college classroom, it was easy to admire the genius of John Ford. There isn't a wasted scene or bit of dialogue in the entire film; as a rule Ford shot only what he needed and did much of his "cutting" in the camera, making the final edit that much easier.

Stagecoach is Ford at his minimalist best, creating a spare style of film-making that has influenced directors ranging George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, to Don Siegel, Sergio Leone and (of course) Clint Eastwood. Various elements of their films borrow heavily from the template created in Ford's 1939 epic. Leo Grin describes it well:

Under the ancient shadows of the valley’s sandstone mesas, the movie unfolds as wiry and muscular as a timber wolf, awash in visual poetry and what Ford called his “grace notes.” Wayne is off-screen for the first third of the film, before rocketing to instant stardom courtesy of one of the most memorable introductions in movie history, spinning his rifle and yelling “Hold it!” as the camera rushes toward his towering figure with such speed that he blurs out of focus. The film’s Apache marauders remain unseen, an almost supernatural danger lurking around every bend, until finally revealed late in the film by a sudden whipcrack pan that still strikes like a death knell seven decades later. Ford teases excruciatingly toward a final gunfight, and then, just as the bullets start flying, he audaciously cuts away to the heroine listening to the far-off gunfire, wondering who has lived and who has perished. Those magnificent cinematic moves, and many more, mark Stagecoach as a masterpiece.

Though often identified as a Republican, John Ford only became a conservative in later life. At the time of Stagecoach, his politics were decidedly liberal. But throughout his career, Ford retained a timeless belief in God and country, family and human decency that are reflected in his work.

Eight decades after its release, Stagecoach remains not only relevant, but essential. At a time when Hollywood's worldview has never been more distant from Middle America, it's well worth your time and effort to buy a copy of Ford's masterpiece, or catch it during the next airing on Turner Classic Movies.

ADDENDUM: Any discussion of Stagecoach is incomplete without mentioning the spectacular stunt sequences, devised--and largely performed--by the legendary Yakima Canutt. Not only was Mr. Canutt responsible for some of the greatest action sequences in film history (including the chariot race in Ben Hur), but his drawl and mannerisms became the basis for John Wayne's on-screen persona.

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