A Return To The Western
Over the past several years I have become interested in the Western genre in literature and film. I had never seen the venerable 1939 film "Stagecoach" directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Claire Trevor until today when I had the opportunity to see the movie on a large screen in a beautiful theater -- the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland. It is a gift to be able to see classic films on screen in the manner for which they were intended.
Set in the 1880s, "Stagecoach" tells the story of a group of nine people making a treacherous journey through the Apache territory. In the course of the journey, the characters interact with and gradually come to know one another. They must confront their own prejudices as their past lives and stories are revealed. The acting is convincing, both by the individuals and in ensemble. The scenery looks authentic as much of it is. The musical score adds to the film, and the story is told briskly and holds the viewer's interest.
"Stagecoach" is more than an entertaining western. It is a story of the development of our country and of how people may learn to live together and to celebrate both diversity and unity.
I have seen an old Hollywood brochure promoting and explaining "Stagecoach" that still is worth considering. The booklet begins: "Our country is great. Our pride in what it stands for is real. Our gratitude for what it has given us is unquestioned." The booklet proceeds to describe the film as an incident in history and as a symbol of some of what is valuable in our country's development. Each person in the coach has his or her own past history while "ahead of each of them looms a personal future of much hope, but little certainty." The film includes criticism of the prejudices and biases of its characters. Yet it offers hope that America is broader than the biases of individuals and ultimately works to transcend them.
The western genre has had a long history and its fortunes have changed with changes in public sentiment and views of the United States. Through over-exposure and through the rise of an unhappy cynicism about the United States, past present and future, the western had a long decline. I have enjoyed revisiting and thinking about classic westerns and what may be learned from them in terms of ideals though which Americans may understand themselves. With this in mind, I was glad to see "Stagecoach" at last. While not the full story of our country, It still has much to teach a skeptical United States about some of our underlying values and aspirations and about the possibility of hope and development in our nation's future.