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Hollywood Hollywoodland had only been around making films since 1910. Stagecoach was made before World War II and Ford certainly makes use of many recognisable images that are representative of the traditional western genre: “corrals and ten-gallon hats, swinging saloon doors and Colt revolvers, stagecoaches â€¦ showdowns and shootouts” (Langford 54). The film makes great use of the incredible scenery of Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona. Stagecoach wasn’t too far removed from the pioneering days of the late 1800’s and into the early twentieth century and plays on the wide open spaces of the American west.
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However, Stagecoach can’t be depicted as simply a traditional western. It was ground-breaking for 1939 with themes of racism and social prejudice and contained a hardened edge following a decade of the Great Depression. Ford had been influenced by the German Expressionism movement and there were also many flawed characters in the film racked with greed and revenge (Bernstein; Tibbetts & Welsh). Similar westerns in the period after Stagecoach and in the same vein were Michael Curtiz’s Dodge City (1939), Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and two more from John Ford, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949.
By the time of the second John Ford film, The Searchers, the world had been through a horrific war from 1939 to 1945. This was followed by the Korean War (1950-1953) and then there was “commies and reds under the bed”, the East versus West Cold War and McCarthyism in America by the time Ford started filming The Searchers. There was an army general in the White House and it was in this setting of not knowing if “the bomb” was going to be dropped any day and annihilate the world that The Searchers was filmed. Films after The Searchers and in a similar vein were Rio Bravo (1959), Sergio Leone’s two films, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in The West (1968), as well as Henry Hathaway and John Wayne’s True Grit (1969).
Film expert, Shari Roberts says how “genres maintain their vitality by combining difference and familiarity” (48). Both films, in their own way, certainly maintained the western’s vitality. The Searchers had certainly evolved and developed in the western genre from the pre-WW II Stagecoach. There is a lot of hating and prejudices in this film that plays off on the dark mood of the times. John Ford also had been exposed to the explosion of other genres after World War II like the Italian NeoRealism movement and Film Noir.
Frank Nugent’s screenplay for The Searchers is about obsession and hatred and it is basically a tragedy along Shakespearean lines. Film writers and experts, Dr. John Tibbets and Jim Welsh best sum up The Searchers as “a morality tale in the guise of a western” and a “near-Shakespearean drama of hatred, murder, and vengeance” (91). However, there is irony and humour in it as well, especially between John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and Jeff Hunter’s Marty Pawley. The Indian massacre of Ethan’s brother’s family starts a sequence that provokes many moral doubts and conflicts; it’s certainly no ordinary “goodies” versus “baddies” Western.
There are many parallels between the two films. Both films use Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona as an incredible backdrop – one in black and white (Stagecoach), the other in colour (The Searchers). A major similarity is that the main character in Stagecoach, Kid Ringo (John Wayne), is driven by revenge and hatred and spends most of the film looking for the men who killed his family. This is very similar to Ethan Hawke (John Wayne) looking for the Indians who killed his brother’s family. There are renegade Indians in both – Geronimo and the Apaches in Stagecoach and Scar and the Comanches in The Searchers. Also the conclusions are similar – at the end of Stagecoach Ringo shoots the men (the Plummer brothers) who killed his family and at the end of The Searchers Ethan shots the Indians (the Comanches) who killed his brother’s family (Buscombe; Kitses; Langford).
Both films are about journeys in the pioneering American west of the latter nineteenth century and parallel the latter twentieth century road movie genre. They show the importance of the narrative and like the great road movie, Thelma and Louise there is a strong, continuous narrative running through both these westerns. The question in Thelma and Louise is “will Thelma and Louise survive, get caught, or die?” (Stadler & O’Shaughnessy). John Ford and Stagecoach’s screen writer, Dudley Nicholls ask the questions “will the group on the stagecoach fight the Indians and survive or die and will Ringo survive, get caught, or die?” Ford and Frank Nugent in The Searchers ask “will Ethan, Marty and Debbie survive or die?” Also, Stadler and O’Shaughnessy discuss the importance of a number of smaller narrative questions that are structured to play off these bigger questions. For example, in The Searches how lesser questions around Ethan and Marty’s relationship and Ethan and Debbie’s relationship add strength to the overall, seamless narrative.
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Both films also question women’s roles in the western genre. Westerns up to the time of Stagecoach normally depicted “good” women bringing family values and order to the chaos of the west. However, “just as many of Ford’s female characters blur the boundary between “good” woman and “bad,” (Studlar 54). Studlar further argues that the shift in Ford’s The Searchers to the perspective of the female hostage (Debbie) is significant (54). Roth goes on to further say that by having the film’s narrative play out through the female character (wife/daughter/niece) rather than through the male character (father/son/nephew) lays bare the fact that “what is at stake in the genre is female purity” (39). In both films John Ford uses a number of such questions and issues around the central one and as they unfold he gives more and more information to the audience until the central question reaches a climax (Kitses & Rickman; Pippin).
Both films also differ dramatically, especially in relation to the main characters. Kid Ringo in Stagecoach is pretty much a “straight down the line” type of person; “you see what you get”. Whereas Ethan Edwards is at times during The Searchers “all over the place”. He is a very troubled character and there is definitely a lot of moral ambiguity present in Ethan’s actions throughout the film. His sense of justice and retribution are unconditional. He is unrelenting in his search for his niece, Debbie and the Indians who killed his brother’s family. He will kill everyone who stands in his way if he has to – no debate entered into at all.
John Ford’s and Frank Nugent’s world had certainly changed in 1956 in the making of The Searchers. Thomas Schatz reasoned that westerns with their repetitive formula had evolved from the beginnings of the genre in the early twentieth century so that by the time of The Searchers, “both the frontier community and its moralistic standard-bearers are depicted in increasingly complex, ambiguous, and unflattering terms” (51).
In Stagecoach in 1939 the open landscape depicted in black and white “visualizes the idea of America’s limitless possibilities and individual opportunities” (Bernstein 332). It was an incredible visual experience for the audience at the time. However, in The Searchers the beautiful scenery is in colour, but has a different effect – it is more unsettling because of its vastness.
In conclusion, John Ford was an amazingly intuitive film director and has created two iconic western films. Stagecoach and The Searchers have many parallels and similarities, but they also contain a strong contrast – the contrast between the “old” 1939 west of Stagecoach and the “new morality” 1956 west of The Searchers.
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