In the later films of John Ford (i.e., late 1930s onward), we already see how much the western has developed as a genre: yes, the depiction of women and “Indians” is still problematic, but, compared to most westerns of the day, characterization seems a bit more complex, motives more ambiguous, and the narrative more sophisticated as a result. To be sure, we’re still a decade or so away from really outstanding westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969), and a half-century away from the western’s complete overhaul thanks to programs on HBO, AMC, and FX. But both Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) demonstrated the potential for the genre to use the traditional western setting as a backdrop to bloody good story telling. The second film’s thematic concern with the dissolution of traditional boundaries such as race, nation, and home marks this film as one of the more complex of the period and signals that the genre had lost its innocence.
The Question of the Western’s Demise
Both Anne Thompson and Robert Kolker (who are by no means alone in their assumptions) have argued that the end of the western was a more or less definitive event, even if a specific death knell could not be pinpointed. Writing in the early 1990s, Thompson pointed to parodic pictures like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) as signs that the western was in decline. However, Thompson noted that the “cyclical nature of Hollywood” (52) meant that a revival was certainly possible. Writing nearly twenty years later, Kolker viewed the 1960s and 1970s westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969), and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) as evidence that the western had, indeed, “died.”
With successful film remakes like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), and TV shows like Deadwood (2004-2006) and, more recently, FX’s Justified (2010-2015), it seems hard to sell the idea that the western has ever come to an end. I would agree with Kolker that The Searchers questioned “the givens of the genre.” But I’d add that a particular type of western died out as a result and was replaced by the richly textured films of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood, and that it underwent another rejuvenation in the next twenty or so years.
The Case of Stagecoach
While The Searchers is the most sophisticated of Ford’s films, western or otherwise, Stagecoach demonstrates the early stages of the genre’s metamorphosis into a self-critical mode of cinema. The story (by Ernest Haycox, adapted by Dudley Nichols) is immediately engrossing since it features a cross-country journey in a stagecoach filled with several people of different social backgrounds, including a corrupt banker (Berton Churchill), the pregnant wife of a soldier (Louise Platt), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a prostitute (Claire Trevor), and an outlaw (John Wayne). The doctor’s opening quip to the prostitute sets the tone for a film that, while still conventional in its depiction of race, at least critiques traditional views of social class: “We’re the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice.”
And while the threat of an Apache attack looms large during the journey and constitutes an exhilarating conclusion (mimicked, of course, in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), the film’s real focus is on the passengers’ evolving relationships and, ultimately, what will happen to the outsiders once they reach their destination. As the prostitute Dallas puts it, in one of the film’s other memorable lines, “There are worse things than Apaches.” The outlaw, Ringo Kid, not surprisingly finds allies in both Doc Boone and Dallas.
Despite these strengths, Stagecoach was still marred by its uncritical prejudiced view of native culture: though the Apache are less visible in the film than in The Searchers, they are more wooden as a result. In addition, gender is still problematic. The “Ladies of the Law & Order League,” who drive Dallas out of town at the beginning of the film, are the sort of smarmy, self-righteous, tee-totalling kill-joys that were destined to promote the widespread growth of anti-feminism. I will give Ford a nod for the fascinating character of Dallas, who almost steals the show, if it weren’t for Ford’s obvious preference for the drunken philosophizing of Doc Boone (admittedly, portrayed well by Mitchell).
The Case of The Searchers
So where does The Searchers stand in relation to the earlier film? To answer that, I’ll defer to J. Hoberman, who, in his New York Times review essay on Glenn Frankel’s book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, said the following:
No American movie has ever so directly addressed the psychosexual underpinnings of racism or advanced a protagonist so consumed by race hatred.