Staging and Depth: Yet another post on John Ford

by zunguzungu

There’s a certain eeriness about the way Monument Valley frames the whole of John Ford‘s Stagecoach. In theory, the travelers voyage through five different towns, crossing a vast stretch of western terrain, and allegorically re-creating the great Westward passage. Or something. But the bulk of the movie is actually shot in front of exactly the same picturesque part of Utah, what is now Monument Valley state park, and if you watch the background with any care, you’ll notice that they keep parading in front of the same hunks of rock. They vary the effect by shooting from different angles, of course, but if you know what you’re looking for (and it helps to have been there) there’s still a “sixty-four views of Monument Valley” kind of effect to it, the kind of timelessness that intensely rootedness in a particular physical space can achieve. So what does it mean that a film so archetypically named “Stagecoach,” a film so obviously and incredibly about travel, is actually filmed in a single place? And made that one place into a metonym for the entire West?

One response, the simple one, is to ignore it. “You’re reading too much into it,” my students sometimes try to tell me, “You’ve got to suspend some disbelief!” And maybe it’s fair to ignore it, the way we overlook other breaks in cinematic continuity (and Stagecoach has a few). But John Ford, damn his eyes, is a much more subtle director than is immediately apparent. Plus, this film is not merely the origin of certain generic traditions in the Western (like the Monument Valley imagery), it’s also a highly self-conscious revival of a tradition considered (at that time) to be moribund. Its success gave the genre a shot in the arm, and made it possible for more such films to be made (and that’s an important thing to remember about it), but it’s also key to keep in mind that John Ford is dealing out from a well-shuffled pack of cards, not so much establishing archetypical Western characters (the gambler, the hot-head gunslinger, the fallen flower, the drunken doctor, etc) but troping on their extreme conventionality.

So maybe it’s exactly the point that they move but don’t move. While the drama of “The West” is always the closing of the frontier, the establishment of order in wild places beyond the border (a drama which therefore has a definite end), the “Western,” as generic dramatic form, has to make an enduring monument out of that thing that, by it’s very nature, cannot last. Where better than Monument Valley?

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, on the other hand, wants to distance itself as much as possible from such romanticizing. While Stagecoach is a kind of stage play, in which the background is spectacular but also somewhat shallow, Yellow Ribbon is fascinatingly interested in the little details, the particular and the tangible. The tobacco that John Wayne is always chewing on, for example, is real and deep in a way that nothing in Stagecoach can be. In Stagecoach, Doc Boone drinks because that’s what he does: he’s the “drunken doctor” archetype, so it’s necessary that he drink. But tobacco in Yellow Ribbon serves no functional purpose: like tobacco in real life, it is chewed because of how it feels to chew it. I was also struck by the curiously deep pattern of cavalry bugle calls we hear in this film; like the incredibly particular maneuvers Wayne puts his men through at various stages, it is simply more complex than it has to be. We don’t understand (or need to understand) what those different calls mean, or why Wayne orders his men to go through the particular maneuvers he does, but we do recognize depth beyond our ability to perceive it. That depth seems important, in exactly the way that Stagecoach had to remain shallow. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon also has a scene with prominently burning stagecoach, I noticed, which the old John Wayne kicks to pieces in disgust. There’s also a scene (which I particularly treasure) in which a stagecoach rides up and over and down a piece of steeply sloping ground, and the wagon almost–almost!–tips over. It’s not fake; that thing almost tips over. But it doesn’t.

 

These are lovely little intertexts; what Stagecoach made into a symbol without form (you knew they were going to get there, didn‘t you?), Yellow Ribbon is fascinated with for exactly its physicality, for the fact that if you burn a wagon, it will burn up. If you drive it recklessly, it can fall. And putting John Wayne in the central roles in both films, of course, just establishes the link all the more firmly. The Ringo Kid he plays in Stagecoach will always be a kid, always be just one step ahead of “the blessings of civilization” as Doc Boone puts it in the film’s last lines. John Wayne in Yellow Ribbon, on the other hand, plays a man on the cusp of retirement and death, a Captain Nathan Brittles that can burn if set on fire, a man brittle enough to break. “Old soldiers,” he muses. “How they hate to grow old!” But in this film, they do.