The Old West is an invention, as fake as a ride at Disneyland. It’s a desert filled with paradoxes. A land of freedom from the ideals of traditional Puritan civilization, yet in this freedom, people default to tradition. A romanticized wilderness, yet most romantic of all is the idea that this land will once be settled, that men will erect ranches and build railroads. A conservative utopia, but a finite one, for the bliss of unclaimed territory always comes at the expense of nature—namely, the indigenous people, codified in this Old West idea as savages and brutes, extensions of the land, waiting to be tamed.
These themes are all magnified in 1939’s Stagecoach, John Ford’s paean for the Old West, for its idealism, individualism, and vast open spaces. Because of this, the film also embodies the very worst aspects of the western—its conservative idea of the individual, its wanton sexism, the way it shapes national myth, and above all, its racist hatred and exploitation of Native Americans.
Despite this, Stagecoach continues to be taught in film schools and celebrated as a milestone of American cinema. (We screened and discussed it in my own film studies program in 2018.) Ford’s western is not just an entryway into the director’s huge catalog of work. Alongside his 1956 film The Searchers, Stagecoach has come to represent, for many film students and scholars, a window into the American western as a genre and a force in early Hollywood filmmaking. In 1995, Stagecoach was enshrined in the Library of Congress, and in 2010, it was inducted into the prestigious Criterion Collection. The film has become Canonized, as inseparable from the American cinematic project as, say, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is from the English literary one.
In terms of film history, which is much different from film canon, Stagecoach is of tremendous importance. Westerns were traditionally filmed on location, renowned for their breathtaking shots of America’s deserts and wilderness. The genre was popular among silent films, including The Great Train Robbery (1903), the Harold Lloyd film Billy Blazes, Esq. (1919), and Ford’s earlier work, including The Iron Horse (1924). You don’t need sound to understand the drama of an armed hold-up or the thrill of a horseback chase. Yet when sound film technology emerged in the 1920s, these exterior shoots became difficult to wrangle. Location sound kept mucking up the dialogue, and the primitive recording technology meant that most of the picture would have to be dubbed over, so the genre greatly receded until the mid- to late-1930s.
In 1939, American audiences were flocking toward sweeping epics, romantic comedies, Technicolor musicals, and Errol Flynn. Stagecoach rode a wave of successful westerns, like The Plainsman (1936) and Jesse James (1939), and while Ford’s film was financially successful, it also garnered critical praise and awards. The film was immediately lauded by critics and fellow filmmakers; it was nominated for seven Oscars and was reportedly a favorite film of Orson Welles, who says he watched it 40 times before making Citizen Kane. Akira Kurosawa has cited Stagecoach as a major influence on his work, and traces of the film can be seen in those of Tomu Uchida, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino, and countless westerns since. The film was also Ford’s first western since 1926, and its success helped it establish the dominant look and feel for the genre and one of its most accomplished auteurs. Stagecoach launched another career too: It was Ford’s first starring John Wayne, who, after 79 films as a bit player or a B-movie lead, was finally launched to stardom.
Ford didn’t invent westerns, and Stagecoach was hardly the first to garner such critical praise. Nine years before, Cimarron had won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and before that, the western had been a highly successful film and literary genre. Everything in Stagecoach is a rearrangement of classic ideas about the Old West that had been knocking around in popular culture for nearly a century, in epic novels and dime-store paperbacks alike. Watching the film now, a first-time viewer will recognize every western cliché under the sun, from Wayne’s surly rifle-wielding outlaw to the drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell), from the tension between the wilderness and the homestead to the looming conflict with Native Americans. What Ford did was sensationalize and commercialize these elements and bring them together with his characteristically artful, efficient direction, clear and compelling storytelling, and unique eye for spectacle.
Yet Stagecoach remains a pastiche, where western archetypes are dutifully arranged like pieces on a chessboard and then pushed across the tiles, encountering conflict, heartbreak, and loss en route to their destination. The effect of canonizing Stagecoach is that the film becomes a synecdoche for every western produced in the 1930s, and as such, it’s easy to forget that Ford didn’t carve these pieces himself; he merely inherited the board. Ford is unwilling to do anything with them, either. Few of the characters evolve or complicate their social roles throughout the narrative—the drunken doctor, having successfully delivered a child, returns to drinking. The righteous convict, having taken his bloody revenge, returns nobly to jail. The loudmouthed criminal banker is hauled off by authorities, barking and bucking all the way. And the Native Americans ride, fight, and die, with the same rhythm fans of the western had come to expect. The only dynamic change comes from the Marshal (George Bancroft), who develops a begrudging respect for Wayne’s outlaw figure The Ringo Kid, and from Dallas (Claire Trevor), a disgraced sex worker who, at the start of the film, is run out of town, and by the end, agrees to marry Ringo and move into his ranch. Yet the Marshal still jails Ringo, and Dallas falls back into domestic life—and we’re reminded of the foremost contradiction of the western, that for all the freedom and reinvention the Old West offers, its characters crawl perpetually back into the same traditional roles, and all that freedom is, apparently accidentally, revealed to have been not very much freedom at all.
Stagecoach, which was released over 80 years ago, unfortunately remains a classic, celebrated by critics for its “timelessness,” its ability to “transcend” the western genre, and its textbook command of cinematic language. “Ford had given the pulp pleasures of the western the weight of legend,” writes David Cairns in an essay for Criterion’s release of the film.
Among the film’s—and Ford’s—diehard fans was French critic André Bazin, whose journal Cahiers du Cinéma inducted Ford into its hall of auteurs. Bazin’s essay “What’s New in the West?” in 1956 attempted to reclaim for cinephiles and serious academics what had until then been considered a genre awash in “puerility,” baseness, and simplicity. He writes, “The western sings of the strength, courage, and virtue of (American) Man, seized in this nascent state of the nation, where out of chaos must emerge the order, justice, and wealth of a future society. Hence the Manicheism of the western, a moral epic in which good and evil are affirmed together and so laboriously separated!”
What Bazin fails to consider is, in this moral epic, what is codified as “good” and what as “evil”? Are the “strength, courage, and virtue” of heroic American masculinity traits worth celebrating? And how much of the “chaos” of an emerging nation is the fault of the “American Man” in the first place? Perhaps it’s because Bazin is French, watching Hollywood westerns from an ocean away and separated hermetically from their historical context, but Bazin is utterly incapable of discussing the politicality of the western, of interrogating its sociological dimensions as well as its poetic ones.
More than any other genre, the western has subsisted on its technical achievements and poetic meaning over the decades, even as its themes and politics fell into irrelevance. Ford’s filmmaking will always be held up as a series of brilliantly composed works, like well-oiled machines, Stagecoach prime among them. Folks just can’t seem to let that one die. And in trotting the film out again and again as a landmark cinematic achievement, critics create a demented mythology that adds to itself like a snowball rolling down a hill. This blind art worship creates a feedback loop whereby Stagecoach becomes no longer a film, just an idea of one. In Roger Ebert’s glowing review, for instance, the history of the film and the careers of its director and star are part of the draw. He loves the chase scene, the vistas, and the cast, sure, but he also seems to be enamored with what the film will become and the larger body of work it represents. With this lens, Stagecoach—supposedly this titanic, singular achievement in the lifespan of the western—ironically becomes little more than a stop for Ford and Wayne’s career-engines.
The elephant in the room throughout all of Stagecoach’s glowing reviews, naturally, is the film’s treatment of Native Americans, a portrayal both abominable and inexcusable. Ebert tries to navigate this thin ice—clumsily, of course. When discussing the plot, he describes the characters moving through “Indian territory,” but when he discusses the film’s politics, he calls them Native Americans. Clearly, in Ebert’s mind the two terms are neither synonymous nor unified; the fictional “Indian” of the film can be distinguished from the real-life Native American.
Ford probably would have agreed with Ebert. To the filmmaker, his portrayal of Native Americans was divisible from his relationship with real-life indigenous peoples. He employed hundreds of local Navajos to play extras in the film as well as serve as crew members on set, a practice he would maintain for many westerns since. They were paid on a union scale, which was remarkable for the time. “[Ford’s] relations with the Navajo extras were very warm,” writes Cairns. “He even had a medicine man on retainer to arrange photogenic cloud formations for his camera.” Many critics will, and do, point to the on-set treatment of indigenous peoples as a point in the film’s favor. It’s tough to reconcile that supposedly great art was made with a racist agenda, so we have to cherry-pick the facts and even celebrate scenes like Ford and the medicine man, a circumstance that sounds more than a little condescending to the Navajo people.
I’d imagine Ford cast Native Americans in the film both as a courtesy and for the sake of realism. Yet these films celebrate Native death while furthering Native stereotypes. The portrayal of the Apaches in Stagecoach is barbaric, distinctly imperialist. The Natives in The Searchers are thugs and rapists. The off-camera niceties don’t matter; since this is the view immortalized in celluloid, it’s the one that will ultimately last.
“The film’s attitudes toward Native Americans are unenlightened,” Ebert wrote on Stagecoach. This is a point he insists on in his (radiant four-star) review of The Searchers, too, writing, “Today we see [The Searchers] through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians.” I’m not sure why the “unenlightened” portrayal seems to matter to him. The word suggests that, in 30 years, a nicer alternative would come into vogue. But by 1939 and certainly by 1956, it was far too late for an “enlightened” portrayal to make any difference at all to the indigenous people, who had already been slaughtered by the millions and whose lives and land had already been stolen from them. Critic Monique Jones, on the indigenous zombie horror Blood Quantum, wrote, “For Native Americans and First Nations people, life has already been a post-apocalyptic world. It’s been post-apocalyptic for many non-white groups in America and Canada, to be honest, but for them, they were the first to reckon with the apocalypse of their world—their way of life—literally disintegrating in front of their eyes.”
Watching Stagecoach and other Ford westerns, I thought about the post-apocalyptic state of America’s indigenous peoples. About how, like Navajo actor Brian Young wrote in TIME, the 566 or so federally recognized Native tribes in the U.S. don’t matter to Hollywood, a machine content to cast any Native persons as members of any tribe, to don sacred feathers and headdresses and help manufacture these stereotypes about Native peoples.
The settlement of the American frontier spanned from 1607 to the late 19th century. The first transcontinental railroad was constructed in the 1860s, spanning from Iowa to California. Hollywood’s conception of the Old West generally occupies the latter century of American expansion, as settlers moved west of the Mississippi and came increasingly and more intensely into conflict with indigenous tribes. In resurrecting this period in American history, essentially, Ford’s task—and the task of all western films of this era—is to justify the path of history’s arrow. Ford’s film does not display any ability to reconcile the harm America’s westward expansion had wrought, only the necessity of proving why such a genocide was warranted. This wasn’t ancient history at the time—the Battle of Bear Valley, the final time the U.S. army engaged Native Americans in combat in a state-recognized war, was in 1918. Stagecoach opens with some white guys in a sheriff’s office panicking over a threat by the Apache leader Geronimo; the real-life Geronimo died in 1909 as a prisoner of war.
One of the main reasons I find Stagecoach so contemptible and so unworthy of celebration is because of how integral its anti-indigenous racism is to its story, themes, and characters. Far from just appearing in the final reel, it’s inextricably linked to the drama. From the mention of Geronimo in the film’s first minutes, the tension of a potential Apache attack looms over the entire story. It’s the reason Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) wants to find her husband, why the gambler, Hatfield (John Carradine), joins the stagecoach, and why a cavalry regiment accompanies them to Apache Wells and then abruptly breaks off.
Like the bomb planted in the car in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the threat of the Apache assault is the ticking device under the hood of Stagecoach. Yet when the Sword of Damocles finally descends, it’s not played for suspense or horror. Ford pans left to reveal the Apaches a full minute before the climactic stagecoach chase begins, deflating the tension from the scene and inviting the audience to sit back and enjoy some action. The climax hinges on the spectacle of Native death. The film never regards them as anything more than savages to be murdered en masse, and we get plenty of heroic shots of Wayne gunning them down and closeups of Carradine where we can see the glee in Hatfield’s eyes as he fires his six-shooters into the Natives.
Our pack of gun-toting misfit travelers becomes analogous for the mission of westward expansion and the legions of U.S. cavalry responsible for the genocide of indigenous peoples. When the real cavalry rescues the group, it’s a holy moment. Cairns describes the sounding of the bugle as “Gabriel’s trumpet in answer to Lucy’s prayers,” coding the subsequent murders of the Apaches as the work of God.
Deeper than its hatred for Native Americans is the film’s overwhelming theme of manifest destiny. In the film, the characters travel from Arizona to New Mexico—an eastward journey in real life, but in Stagecoach, they’re nearly always depicted going from screen-right to screen-left. Ford’s sense of screen direction is remarkably inconsistent, but generally in a film, characters move left to right, the same way an English-speaking audience reads. That he constantly reverses this, especially for the film’s most pivotal moments—leaving town, meeting Ringo, arriving at Apache Wells, fording the river, and the final chase across the plains—establishes the visual metaphor of westward travel. It gives the audience a sense that the characters are venturing into uncharted terrain, that they’re staking out wild land, and are thus in the process of writing American history.
Western narratives throughout most of the 20th century could only conceive of popular narratology: Their stories favor singular heroes, usually white men, on linear journeys. The western genre sometimes indulges more complex narratives and more playlike prosceniums, in films like 1952’s High Noon, 1959’s Rio Bravo, and the Japanese-inflected Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, starting with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. But even in these films, the dichotomy of good-versus-evil prevails, as does the reliable iconography of lone gunmen, duplicitous frontier women, and the holy justice of the law. Until very recently, with outright revisionist, feminist, or post-western westerns such as Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and First Cow (2020), Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), the western was all about killers, justice, and the righteousness of the white man’s journey west.
This pioneering engine drives all westerns. Deference to the straight line, to the story of the journey and the hero. Stagecoach, in its arrowlike mission across the prairie, makes this progress tangible. Its cold parade of journey-kill-destination is made more sinister by Ford’s dedication to realism. Watching Ford’s westerns, you get the sense that you’re watching history—at least, a carefully created facsimile—and much writing on the subject, including a study from Chippewa sociologist JoEllen Shively, indicates that “Anglos” predominantly watch “cowboy and Indian” tales for their perceived historical accuracy as much as their entertainment value. In Stagecoach, we see archetypes but not caricatures, man but not God. The dialogue is notably utilitarian, used mostly for character development and rarely for humor or exposition. The stunts are real. The river they ford is real. The desert is real—so real that Ford shoots the stagecoach driving through Monument Valley three times.
By the time The Searchers came around, the patterns of the Ford western were familiar and beloved, including the anti-indigenous themes. The Searchers deals more acutely with racism and genocide than Stagecoach, and many of its supporters, including Ebert, point to its complex anti-hero, played by Wayne, as a sign that The Searchers is in fact a revisionist text rather than an orthodox one, and that the film’s popular perception as an anti-indigenous work has more to do with the racist tendencies of the rabble than it does with the film itself. The film, like Stagecoach, has been Canonized—meaning scholars and critics have highlighted it amidst the continuum of film history—and perhaps this inclination toward revisionism is an attempt to accommodate a more truthful history of the West within popular film history, even if it means yoking a radical message to a text that buckles under its weight.
The Searchers suffers the same problems as Stagecoach and is no more truthful or honest than a traveling Little Bighorn reenactment show. The film follows Wayne’s character as he pursues a Comanche tribe across the plains over five years, relentlessly searching for the niece (Natalie Wood) they stole from him. The character is a bigot and a virulent racist, a Confederate soldier who brags about never surrendering. I suppose the virtues Ebert sees in such a story depend on how much one appreciates Wayne’s drunken, pot-bellied performance as a gunslinging, racist asshole. Once again, the characters are devoid of nuance, the performances only capable of breaching vaudeville levels of enchantment and certainly falling short of realism. One cannot feel for the characters in The Searchers because they are not characters, like the gang of players in Stagecoach: They are cartoons, who react with bug-eyed, abject horror at the coming of the Comanche, who encounter no disagreement between men that can’t be solved by punching the other guy in the face really hard, and who discover Native corpses and shoot their eyes out to supposedly prevent them from entering the afterlife. Their losses are not the losses of people but of objects, by objects. They are tools of the drama, no more and no less. They are compounded signifiers of race, class, gender, and the Confederacy, and they hardly warrant a second thought. This base simplicity contrasts with the Ford western’s commitment to realism to make the anti-indigenous politics even more reprehensible.
I used to think of the Canon like a museum. Tight halls, friendly attendants, a cute café on the ground floor. The French New Wave exhibit is adjacent to the Chanbara exhibit, which has a huge display for Kurosawa. The next floor up houses the Italian neorealism stuff alongside the Russian socialist cinema, and there’s a huge new wing devoted to “elevated horror” movies from the likes of Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and Robert Eggers. It’s replacing the Woody Allen wing, which has been relocated to the basement. In the western wing, after a litany of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone pictures, is a model of the actual stagecoach Andy Devine drove. Maybe there’s a little plaque next to it that goes into detail about the film’s camera specs and where it was shot.
But the Canon, of course, is not a museum, and even repositories like the Criterion Collection only represent a fraction of its immensity. The Canon is a fluid idea, a shapeshifting mass that encompasses all kinds of films, usually determined of their worthiness by a simple equation: age multiplied by critical praise over time, with an added modifier if anyone involved went on to become a major Hollywood figure. There’s also a matter of who guards the Canon. Given that film and film criticism are predominantly white male institutions, there should be a constant push to restructure it.
Stagecoach’s attitude toward Native Americans is obvious. Its fear and racism toward them are part of the story. Yet for most critics, the depiction of indigenous peoples is recondite territory—so abstruse that they prefer to barely mention it at all. In the only paragraph on the subject in his 19-paragraph rave review, Ebert writes, “The Apaches are seen simply as murderous savages; there is no suggestion the white men have invaded their land. Ford shared that simple view with countless other makers of Westerns, and if it was crude in 1939 it was even more so as late as The Searchers (1956), the greatest Ford/Wayne collaboration.” Clearly the film’s politics didn’t bug him too much.
The question, ultimately, is how much anti-indigenous violence and hatred do we think is permissible? It seems, by the multitude of similarly enthusiastic reviews for Stagecoach, that there is a threshold for the amount of racism and genocide we can tolerate while still holding up a film as a cornerstone of the Canon. Stagecoach does not cross that threshold, apparently, although it seems that no critics are actually willing to acknowledge that there’s a line in the sand in the first place. Many American critics saw Stagecoach, and though hating and killing Native Americans is the engine of the entire story, the film’s raison d’être, they rationalized that somehow the film is worthwhile despite this. Somehow, the anti-indigenous politics are redeemed and perhaps even justified by the quality of the art. One can gush over the perfect screenplay structure and invisible editing of Stagecoach and perpetuate this cycle of forgiveness. The Canon doesn’t need Stagecoach. If, as Jim Kitses says, the genre is fluid, and “a western is a western is a western,” why not support and spotlight more subversive, honest films in the genre? Why do we need the heroic white cowboy? Burn it all, tear down the museum.
I’ll admit—I never liked westerns. They’re stodgy, simple, and dull, their politics have been proudly incorrect for 90 years, and I just cannot be smitten the same way Ford was with the West, the horseback riding, and the way a hero twirls a revolver in his palm. It’s a big, beautiful land that we stole and have used as an immense backlot to shoot pictures about why we needed to steal the land and kill the people who lived there.
CLEMENT TYLER OBROPTA is a Culture editor at MAYDAY. He studies film at the University of St Andrews with a degree from Ithaca College, and his work can also be found with Film Inquiry, The Slice, and Gen Z Critics. He also serves as photo editor with Wanderlust Journal. Fiction and photography found elsewhere.