Light ‘Argo’ Dramatizes Escape from Iran

Ben Affleck’s 2012 movie, Argo, reduces the so-called Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981) to an episode of smaller proportions with satisfactory results. This isn’t great cinema, and it leaves a lot of meaning, context and history out of the picture, but the docudrama, if that’s the right term, holds interest. The history of Iran’s act of war on the United States in November 1979 is much more dramatic, horrifying and ominous.

This means that director Affleck’s prologue setting the plot’s context contains significant gaps, so the viewer should not take this as anything remotely close to the definitive re-creation of relevant, let alone essential, facts leading up to the Islamic dictatorship’s attack on the American embassy in Teheran. Affleck, with screenwriter Chris Terrio based on a book and a Wired magazine article, emphasizes certain aspects of Iran’s history, underemphasizing certain historic details. The distortion is relatively slight, however, and doesn’t omit anything major that pertains to the rescue story depicted.

Argo‘s first 12 minutes capture the terror of the U.S. embassy takeover by radical jihadists descending upon the Americans after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had returned from Paris, taken over the country following the dying Shah of Iran’s departure and incited Iran’s Moslems to revert to barbarism. Briefly, smartly contrasted with this primitivism, Affleck takes the leading role in Argo as an American agent whose father had built the Chrysler Building. So the three-step sequence of set-up, Islamic terrorist siege and introduction of the decent American with a legacy in building, as against destroying, is nicely made. The mention of the Affleck character’s connection to an iconic New York City skyscraper as a counterpoint to the mob rule of Iran’s Islamic terrorism is hard to dismiss; it makes an impression on anyone who remembers Black Tuesday.

Affleck’s unassuming agent studies the embassy attack, including Iran’s seizure of Americans working there (Americans were prisoners of war, not “hostages”, a criminal term, but I digress) and details about a band of Americans who manage to take refuge at the Canadian embassy. Argo starts to take shape as an ingenious, or at least clever, plot to trick the Iranians into letting a rescue team into the theocracy under the guise of making a movie. Working in references to Planet of the Apes, Burbank and going Hollywood (Hollywood worships movies about making movies), Argo depicts the lighter side of the Canadian embassy rescue. It’s predictable, as Affleck’s character earns trust among Hollywood types (John Goodman, Alan Arkin) to gain cooperation for putting up the front, but the scheme’s chutzpah keeps momentum going.

An embassy housekeeper and a CIA mission change may alleviate or exacerbate problems during the rescue plan as Affleck puffs on cigarettes, downs alcohol and defies the state and, before you can say “Thank you, Canada” with Canada’s ambassador to Iran (Victor Garber, Titanic, Legally Blonde) getting pre-declassification credit, Argo builds tension into a harrowing climax at Teheran’s airport. With good casting, an effective score by Alexandre Desplat and the fun of lampooning Hollywood’s sillier movies, Affleck’s Argo maintains lightness as it dramatizes an American rescue mission. This episodic approach minimizes wider implications, however, and ultimately borders on triumphalism or revisionism on behalf of President Carter, whose administration ordered the high-risk operation. This becomes more apparent on the iTunes extras, which also include the fact that Affleck was a Middle Eastern studies major at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

What Argo omits or skims is the shame and misery Americans felt during the media circus, brutality and torture of the Iranians against U.S. prisoners who were not rescued, complicity of the State Department in sanctioning and evading the Moslem jihadism, Ross Perot’s order to rescue his company’s employees, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s meddling which led to the release of only those U.S. prisoners who were neither white nor male and other facets of the 444-day ordeal which would enable and embolden state sponsors of terrorism against America.

Argo remains a light but neat, decent and involving slice of life from an incredible, dark chapter in modern American history. For American nostalgia in which the U.S. did something bold and right, for a change, complete with Affleck’s character’s kids playing with Star Wars toys, Argo is comforting and positive. Also, look for My Three Sons‘ Barry Livingston, Maude‘s Adrienne Barbeau and Orange is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling.

Movie Review: Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Movie Review: Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

I didn’t plan to see John Ford’s Western Sergeant Rutledge, an undeservedly unknown movie about a hero who is black, on the blockbuster opening weekend of Marvel Studios’ overdone movie about a black superhero (Black Panther). But doing so underscored for me the contrast between these two extremely different movies. Both films feature titular black heroes who do not dominate screen time. Both heroes are leaders of their bands of chosen brothers. But Sergeant Rutledge, unlike Black Panther, depicts an iconic hero who remains superior in his ability and steadfast in his vision; he is a man who earns and keeps the audience’s respect and consistently shows integrity while acting on principle. What’s more, Braxton Rutledge is not a fantasy figure. The “top solider” in the U.S. cavalry faces a realistic foe in the deepest sense. He goes by reason and remains strong. As a so-called buffalo soldier, he makes advancement of black people possible. Sergeant Rutledge details and dramatizes what this costs and why.

Admittedly, Ford’s Monument Valley-based Western is imperfect, yet it is also fully engrossing. Beginning with a rousing song about “Captain Buffalo”, Sergeant Rutledge, like Ford’s 1939 epic Stagecoach, sets the plot in Arizona near the scenic Monument Valley in a town with a bunch of petty, old biddies. Billie Burke (The Wizard of Oz) plays the woman who bosses this band of whiny, gossipy women around and her character is married to the judge who is charged with hearing the case of a black man accused of raping and murdering a white woman some time after the Civil War. Plot points get rather silly as the judge’s wife becomes a witness for the prosecution in the court-martial trial of Sergeant Braxton Rutledge. The whole courtroom trial framing device becomes problematic, especially later in the movie, but, at its core, the court-martial’s an important stand-in for the era’s injustice against Americans who are black. So, it serves a crucial function.

Ford, who sought to make this movie and insisted upon casting handsome, strapping Woody Strode in the leading role, against the studio’s demands for an actor such as Sidney Poitier, grasps this functionality. The courtroom layout is a key part of the unfolding mystery and drama of the wronged black man on trial. The panel of white judges sits in observation of a single witness chair while the defense and prosecution face off. The judge, who drinks alcohol to excess and huffs and puffs in typical John Ford fashion, pledges that there shall be “no prejudice toward the accused.”

Enter Sergeant Rutledge’s defense attorney, blue-eyed Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), who, unlike Strode’s swift, strong and silent soldier, fumbles when he comes on screen. It’s as though Cantrell will have to strive to rise to the caliber of a character like Rutledge, who never wavers and never errs. The relationship between the accused and his champion is among the most layered and loaded in the movie; it is, at times and in sum, an artful and potent statement on the equality of man and it is an accomplishment by all three men, Hunter, Strode and Ford, that the progression of one character is never at the other character’s expense. There’s real chemistry and artistry in their mutually tense, strained relationship.

With curiously stagy transitions from the courtroom to flashbacks of the events at issue, Sergeant Rutledge awakens the audience to the challenge of settling the West, which Ford skillfully uses to prime the story for its morality climax about the plight of the black man who, in this case, amounts to the black cowboy. A meeting on a train — a dead man at the train station — a woman (Constance Towers) stranded in the desert wearing a pink dress while Geronimo’s Apache Indians (echoing Stagecoach again) escape and attack settlers — Ford leads the audience to think of one plot scenario while dovetailing into another. The gamesmanship has a purpose, too, as it allows the audience to grow accustomed to Rutledge’s steely presence after being shocked when he puts his hand over a white woman’s mouth in anticipation of an Indian attack — and for his own sake, which he makes abundantly clear.

As the female in distress, Towers is no victim; she shoots to kill and does without getting hysterical. As he does in Stagecoach, Ford really knows how to throw people together in a crisis and let them hash out their similarities and differences. Through the scenes with Towers’ character, who’s already fallen for Hunter’s handsome cavalryman on the train, Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge sets his character straight and clear. As the woman in the West becomes traumatized, again, it merely serves to underscore what the black man in America faces by implication.

When Rutledge buries a corpse and covers up blood, though there’s every reason to think that he does so because he’s a decent man, he’s instantly suspect in a way that a white man is not. Besides unrealistic courtroom developments, Sergeant Rutledge has limitations, such as Strode’s early scenes being too wooden. The Towers character won’t say the word ‘colored’ which is not realistic for this time period. Most of the cast, except Strode, Towers and Hunter, tend to overact, some to a noticeable degree. But, generally, plot layers leading to the rape and murder of a white woman unfold and build interest, suspense and tension.

Despite the usual Ford humor, with showy character actors, jokes about drinking alcohol and silly old women, Sergeant Rutledge is best seen as a mystery about the West’s mythology, not completely unlike Ford’s superior The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, down to the two-man character contrast in Hunter’s Cantrell and Strode’s Rutledge. There’s a lot to unpack here as Ford loads up on powerful shots, scenes and suggestions, from the silly old woman who’s name-dropping for status and prestige, with the power to destroy an innocent man’s life, to female nudity. And, coming into the Sixties, John Ford demonstrates that he still likes his heroes with good looks, grit and seriousness. In stark contrast to every other witness who takes the stand, when Cantrell steps up to testify, he emphatically cuts the oath off before the bailiff can say “so help me God…”

Director Ford makes these sharp points, but he lets the pre-Civil Rights era movie’s American Negroes, buffalo soldiers, show and tell for themselves in the moving and poetic third act. Rutledge, who, if you disregard the need to account for facts, acts as though he may be guilty, says when he’s caught by his fellow black cavalryman: “why didn’t you shoot me?” He has reason to distrust that the state will grant a fair trial and he has the freedom papers, which emancipated him from slavery, as if to prove it. When Cantrell attempts to engage Rutledge, whom he knows and admires, and investigate, he ends up flustered, asking: “what does it all add up to?”

This is the question the 1960 audience is put on the spot to answer, too. But in Sergeant Rutledge, as against To Kill a Mockingbird, which was released two years later, the outcome of the wrongly accused black man’s trial is the ultimate point of the movie, not the nobility of its white characters. Braxton Rutledge, moved by the barbarism of Indians who butchered someone white, with his hooded, knowing, tired eyes, possesses qualities any man should admire. He stands alone against the world but as an idealist, not as a victim or martyr. Let that sink in about a movie made three years before Martin Luther King made his speech in Washington declaring “I have a dream…”

It’s impossible not to notice that Sergeant Rutledge’s theme, and Sergeant Rutledge‘s theme, foretells that stirring speech in Washington. He speaks of “someday” with a poignant vision, which gets severely tested in an ambush at Crazy Woman River. This turning point in the accused black man’s story marks an indelible moment in both this film and motion pictures. Until Sergeant Rutledge, black men were depicted as men of muscle with perhaps a sad, tragic or downbeat (or cartoonishly giddy) sense of life. The muscled, black buck stereotype, too, gets tossed away in Sergeant Rutledge. How the character regards himself is paramount and, with depth of sincerity, John Ford culminates the hero’s sense of himself in several climactic campfire scenes with song, an iconic stance and a reveal for how the buffalo soldier got his name.

Ford lights Strode’s deep-set eyes, cheekbones and granite facial features as if to highlight that he’s a man made of flesh, not some mindless brute or racial figure, during the sergeant’s testimony, which include a single and proper use of the term nigger. Again, the staging of opposing legal minds is pivotal to the dramatic suspense. Ford’s shots of certain characters in proximity add to the thematic rewards. For example, when Towers spews against Hunter for a perceived transgression he makes against Strode’s Rutledge, recoiling in disgust as if physiologically imploding, Strode’s sergeant stands in the background, lifting his chin in pride, defiance and liberation, as though he is undaunted by any injustice. He is proud, chiefly of himself, and he is unconquered. But, again, by this point the audience knows that he is not a pulp fiction cover or lurid movie poster pinup; he is a whole man who experiences a range of emotions. As he plainly tells the court: “I’m a man.”

Sergeant Rutledge does not stop at that, however, and, again, for 1960, Ford’s foresight in laying out a portrait of a soldier who’s black, persecuted and heroic all at once on the Western’s larger than life canvas is commendable, though his grandson Dan Ford writes in Pappy that Ford sensed in this film the ability to make money, so it’s not some sort of charity project. A case in point is how Ford treats the buffalo soldier in general, not just in particular. Look at the movie’s exaggeration among blacks in the cavalry unit for evidence of how especially attuned John Ford was to storytelling through oral histories. Each man in the cavalry talks at the right moment in Sergeant Rutledge about being welcomed at the White House by President Lincoln, embellishing history and reality to inculcate in themselves the sense of mythology, man’s idealized story, to summon their courage in the Indian Wars, stoke optimism and foster in their camaraderie the sense of a sacred mission to elevate and uplift future generations of those who look like they do. That the Negroes in the film’s 9th Cavalry smile as they march past the happy white people with pride carries an imbued sense of a greatness to come, made possible by the title’s heroic top soldier.

Whites, too, transform by having known Woody Strode’s top buffalo soldier. In seeing how Rutledge goes by reason, moral absolutes and his own judgment, Constance Towers’ character, an Easterner who’d been reluctant to embrace the glory of the West, finds in herself the courage and power to make her own personal progress. She cradles a wounded black boy to help him die or heal in peace and comfort and she ultimately learns from her mistakes.

Sergeant Rutledge is not a perfect or fully exalted movie. Its mystery is solved in a lust-driven anti-climax that seems to appear from another movie and Ford’s broad humor, the secondary cast’s overacting and other choices slow it down or dull its fine finish. But in an era in which a mediocre action blast such as Black Panther takes credit for a heroism it does not deserve, its best qualities really shine.

Black Panther Movie Pounces, Confuses and Contradicts

Black Panther Movie Pounces, Confuses and Contradicts

The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’

Too many characters, too long, too much plot but, at its root, lacking a meaningful theme. This is what I think about Marvel’s exhausting new comics movie for Disney, Black Panther, which pounces, confuses and contradicts.

Five tribes converge in an African kingdom where a substance called vibranium once crash-landed, leaving the tribal nation rich in this superpowerful resource, which must be mined and developed to perform wonders. This place is called Wakanda and Wakandans hoard the stuff, which they mine, keep and profit from for themselves, concealing it from the world, despite its healing abilities. Some might say ‘but it’s only a comics movie’ and dismiss any other thought. As for me, I did wonder, and you might, too, about what Wakanda’s closely guarded windfall could do for people with cancer, for instance.

This is the main problem with the politically tinged Black Panther, which mixes nationalism, genetics and collectivism to address, question and challenge ideas without dealing with them. Being a Marvel movie, many merely want to know if Black Panther has fights, fun, humor, cleverness and action, all the marks of Disney’s Marvel Studios brand. So, yes, it has those to varying, uneven and inconsistent degrees. Humor is flip and scattered. Fun comes in spurts. Fights are too fast, cleverness isn’t clever enough and action is solid. Visuals are, as usual, computer-generated.

Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the Fruitvale Station director (using a Bay Area angle here, too), Black Panther doesn’t settle on a theme. It ends up in a squishy mix of notions summed up by the arbitrary term social justice. It might have been called ‘Social Justice Warrior’, though this would run afoul of those who claim that title. Black Panther, with no overt relation to the 1960s black supremacist movement, opens with its first social justice mission to ‘bring back our girls’, the phrase associated with a campaign to reclaim girls kidnapped and raped by Islamic terrorists in Africa and forced to become veiled Moslems. The campaign omitted those facts and so does the movie, instead using the initial mission to introduce its leading lady and gentleman, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Chadwick Boseman as her ex-boyfriend, Wakanda’s leading monarch. Knowing what the audience knows could happen to the girls, this packs stakes, severity and context into the plot. Boseman, Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in  Marshall, and Nyong’o, Patsy the raped slave in 12 Years a Slave, rise above the script.

They’re not in Black Panther enough. Yet they carry the movie while sharing it with too many characters. Angela Bassett plays the king’s mother, Andy Serkis plays a wild-eyed villain who comes off like a drunken Englishman, Forest Whitaker plays a kind of referee, Letitia Wright (Cake) plays a sassy royal sister with amazing tech skills and Winston Duke (Dwight on Modern Family) plays a rival tribal leader. Sterling K. Brown has an important role. Danai Gurira steals every scene as a warrior. Michael B. Jordan (NBC’s Parenthood), who played the title character in Coogler’s Creed, plays the arch-villain. There are several other characters, too, including a tribal farm leader played by Daniel Kaluuya. They are each overwhelmed.

With horseback riding across the countryside and a sweeping score that briefly replaces the predominant drumbeat, the audience enters the great kingdom introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda comes with clipped, cliched narration as the story begins. A king is designated, then challenged (also cliched) during a waterfalls conference with leaders and warriors from the five tribes. All of this royal shuffle arcs into a plot to smuggle the powerful substance, which leads to the perils of poverty, presumed errors in judgment and what went down during that tie-in to the Bay Area. Wakandans speak English with foreign accents yet they also speak in a foreign language with subtitles and it’s never clear why. There are bands of all-female or all-male warriors — with all this same sex togetherness, I looked for gays in the military with none in plain sight — and the only enlistment shared by both sexes is subservience to nation, blood and the rule of the monarch.

For all the palace intrigue, it is natural to want to know who’s behind Wakanda’s smuggling amid painted faces and masks, decorative gear and furnishings and body and facial mutilation. Also, why are ritualistic displays practiced in a country so modern, enlightened and technologically advanced? An answer partly comes with the closest Wakanda has to a national slogan: Praise the ancestors! Even when sponsoring gladiator-style fighting to determine the nation’s ruler — this is intended as admirable? — familialism is as rampant as in Buckingham Palace … or [the] Trump White House.

Black Panther tries too hard to have its genres, plot points and philosophies every which way.

Boseman’s ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel’s universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 ‘badass’?

A late second wind gets Black Panther’s game on. When Michael B. Jordan’s angry urban black man finally kicks in, Boseman’s king finally gets some screen time and begins to doubt the ancestry worship, though never down too deep. Blood as defining one’s identity never gets challenged. Instead, it is mixed with mysticism. Black Panther, like last year’s Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok and most Marvel movies, is agnostic about ideas. Question your country is a platitude which competes with the question of foreign entanglements but it’s all housed in lightness, wizardry and fanfare. The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’

Thoughtfully halting after uttering the word duty, which she nearly brings herself to doubt, Lupita Nyong’o’s character rests on acting “for what I love.” Nakia’s is an affirmation of a real King’s noble line about being judged by the content of one’s character. One senses in Black Panther‘s restless pacing and prowling that it’s stalling to keep from being stalked, hunted and downed by the social justice bunch.


Stagecoach: A Pioneering Epic Western

Stagecoach: A Pioneering Epic Western

Director John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is an exciting, pioneering epic Western for several distinctive reasons. This is foremost a movie which seeks to be both entertaining and great. I first saw the black and white film on television as a boy; I was instantly enthralled. With complicated characters of all types, in a tight but intricate plot with serious themes, thrilling action and a streak of subversive heroism, Stagecoach bundles and integrates ideas with mythology and old-fashioned storytelling.

Watching this film for the first time in 35mm at the Autry Museum of the American West, appropriately enough, in the Wells Fargo Theater (the bank, which once operated a stagecoach line, gets a cameo in the movie, too), Stagecoach still packs a powerful punch.

Don’t miss its opening titles and setup in a town called Tonto, Arizona, which establishes that the herd, collective or society represents fundamental villainy in this dusty, enigmatic tale. Whatever John Ford’s politics, his movies in general, and this film in particular, favor individualism over collectivism. The scolding, prissy nags that run two decent people out of town as Stagecoach opens stand for Puritanism, in this case, against alcohol and sex. Soon, it is clear that they’ve got compliciity in certain passengers boarding the stagecoach but the band of vicious bullies — a sisterhood, it must be noted, who are always together, never apart, and express a kind of physical terror at the notion of standing alone or apart — form the moral center of that which threatens the good: the mentality of the mob.

It is interesting, for this reason, and John Ford’s alcohol consumption is relevant here, that the 1939 movie was released in the aftermath of many, many years of women’s harping through Christian temperance against the freedom to drink alcohol. Their actual goal, whatever their purported motives, was a total ban on alcohol. The band of Puritanical women infamously succeeded. So, Stagecoach was released and is best understood in the wake of Prohibition, the Constitutional ban on alcohol which originated with the premise that alcohol ought to be outlawed (the amendment was repealed in 1933).

The first third of Stagecoach differentiates seven passengers (and, to a lesser extent, two drivers). Who will fall in or out of the herd becomes the movie’s main, implicit conflict, though a distant and looming threat stands by in an attack by a bloodthirsty band of Geronimo’s Apache Indians. Nested within each of the seven characters, to Mr. Ford’s and screenwriter Dudley Nichols’ credit, is an additional inner conflict to be examined, dramatized, climaxed and resolved.

Stagecoach gains momentum as it barrels from Tonto to its final destination, compounding a sickening specter of doom.

It is in this sense that one begins to see the origins of future classic movies and genres in John Ford’s Stagecoach. The ethos of the ensemble, in particular the disaster movie, with strangers thrown together amid secrets and mutual or opposing values and clashing motives takes root here. From Lifeboat (1944) and Titanic (1953) to Airport (1970) and Hotel (1967), including movies such as Separate Tables (1958) and Crash (2005), the story of revolving and intersecting lives entangled in a single place, event or day, advances in earnest and on an epic scale with Stagecoach. It remains one of the first serious, dramatic Westerns to earn profits at the box office.

With everyone on board, the stage is fully set, packed and layered for the journey to a town called Lordsburg, which includes secondary tales of the U.S. cavalry. Though in 1939 Claire Trevor’s saloon-type character, who goes by the name Dallas, wouldn’t be called a prostitute, and Louise Platt’s morally ambiguous Mrs. Mallory, wife of a cavalry officer whom she’s traveling to visit, wouldn’t be depicted as apparently pregnant (“she’s unwell”), Stagecoach paces and loads action and dialogue intervals so that action doesn’t overwhelm and drama doesn’t ripen into melodrama.

In the motion picture which essentially launched his movie star career, John Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, a wrongly jailed and escaped convict who seeks to avenge his murdered family. His first scene is breathtaking for its ability to convey without words that he’s physically superior, skilled as a gunman and self-confident and that he is fiercely independent and untainted by his downward experience. John Wayne’s Ringo Kid remains upright, honest and innocent. Everything the audience learns about him builds from Ringo’s first facial expression.

That the character comes a bit later in the movie marks him as the new, modern, rebellious man’s man; the non-conformist who stands alone against society and its dominant ideals. Mr. Wayne’s is a clear, focused and thoughtful performance; as the strong, silent type whose moral judgment is contained in his reactions, he is the most watchable character in the movie. Whenever he delivers a line, a look or an action, it is with ease, depth and intention. Watch John Wayne’s Ringo Kid for the beginning of an exceptionally underrated acting career. His heroes are at least as interesting as the villains, usually more so, which is opposite most of today’s movies. This brand of quiet, studied and unyielding heroism against the herd, a hallmark of Westerns for years to come, starts with Stagecoach.

The other four passengers are the gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) a dastardly looking dandy who treats Mrs. Mallory with great gallantry, usually at the expense of others, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), an embezzling banker, Peacock (Donald Meek), a bookish salesman, and Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunk with a sharp tongue and a taste for tobacco. They ride at reins held by croaky Buck (Andy Devine) and under the watchful eye of Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft).

Each relationship carries a code. For example, the two women form an unspoken pact which deepens without closing any deal. Dallas and Ringo come to an understanding, too, which seems at once impossible and hard to dismiss. Doc Boone and Peacock bond over Doc’s addiction at first, though the wimpy salesman, a father of five whom no one seems to want to notice, let alone appreciate, represents an outsider of his own kind. This man may have limits but he thinks for himself. Peacock shows his own brand of kindness, independence and grit, at one point gently but firmly urging the drunk: “Please don’t drink.” Hatfield and Mrs. Mallory represent traditionalism in their stealthy, almost seedy non-courtship, both being from the South and, it’s implied, sympathetic to and mutually stained by the crushed and defeated Confederacy. There’s a quietly deliberate moral judgment rendered on them for that. But Mr. Ford makes sure that you’re the one making it (or not).

With epic views of the Overland stagecoach crossing into Monument Valley and a romantically recurring, though not overplayed musical score, morality seeds the mythology of the American West: the rogue individualist, the hardy, liberated woman, the heroic cavalry, barbarism and, above all, the noble pursuit of free travel and trade, justice and happiness toward the goal of a life, property and work to call one’s own.

Stagecoach repudiates the Confederacy, ‘going along to get along’ and Puritanism. It shows that thriving in life means thinking for oneself, being benevolent and diverging from the beaten path. But John Ford does not, contrary to what some claim, overromanticize the West. While jaunty music lightens and accentuates the voyage to Lordsburg, the ride is rough. The danger is real. No one takes or elects to risk the wrath of the Apaches lightly. Danger, dust, smoke, heat and discomfort — even enduring Buck’s whining and rambling — interfere again and again. Something always disrupts and depletes the trip. None of the obstacles, from warpath Indians to crime and persecution, are overcome too easily, if at all. Stagecoach plainly depicts, and with a degree of realism, the challenges of intercultural marriage, from Mexican-Apache to Mexican-American unions. For all the complaining about its romanticizing the American West, the film’s only song’s sung in a foreign language. Ringo makes home in Mexico.

Despite this liberalism, in the best and proper sense of the term, Stagecoach does not exist to portray Indians — let alone Americans — as above reproach. Dallas speaks of her family being massacred by Indians on Superstition Mountain. Turned-out Dallas is weary and her briefly but bluntly shared backstory explains why and how she might’ve ended up in a saloon. By the time Dallas figures she might have a shot at a romance with Ringo, the only passenger to dare to show her kindness, she seeks Doc’s blessing. For the cartoonish depiction of the banker — rarely is there ever a positive portrayal of this crucial and dignified profession — it is Devine’s grating if benign Buck who talks about charging a baby half fare, which mitigates seeing banker Gatewood, the least realistic character in the film, as the greedy capitalist. But the banker’s a cardboard cutout type. There are other flaws, too.

In terms of dramatizing a ride across the West — how buying a passage on the stagecoach moves and accounts for or liberates seven people’s lives — Stagecoach pioneers in the most inventive and exciting ways. Stunning exterior photography and stunt work (look for stuntman Yakima Canutt’s remarkable work when Geronimo’s Indians strike), an innovative river crossing, years before Howard Hawks filmed Red River, and unique and compelling characterizations add up to an equally thrilling and absorbing Western. Before John Ford made his now-revered film The Searchers (1956), he shot two main characters in Stagecoach walking together in contrast to their previous silhouettes walking in proximity but strikingly singular and alone. This type of pictorial commentary about man as a social and rational being, coupled with his seasoned view of man’s flawed, long march toward progress (look for a last minute jab at the media for getting facts wrong), and its thrills, layers and innuendo mark Stagecoach as an epic and excellent motion picture.

The scholar who introduced the 35mm screening at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park noted that this picture offers Hollywood’s first view of Monument Valley. He said he also sees John Ford’s Stagecoach as being wary of civilization, which, in a sense, is a legitimate point. However, I think of Stagecoach more precisely as being suspicious of man’s ability to sustain civilization. There is a difference. The Autry intellectual rightly pegs Stagecoach as a microcosm of American society and points out that the 1939 movie is based on a short story by Ernest Haycox (1899-1950) titled “Stage to Lordsburg”.

Twas The Night Before Christmas

Twas The Night Before Christmas

by Clement Clarke Moore

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,

Then out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”