Friday, January 22, 2016

Now That You’ve Seen The Hateful Eight, Go Watch Stagecoach

I don’t foresee The Hateful Eight (2015) ushering in a new renaissance of gritty revisionist westerns; rather the film was an homage to a sentimental and almost forgotten genre of American cinema.  It’s as if popular culture is too self involved with technology and portraying Americans as superheroes than remembering our historical roots of rugged individualism, pioneer spirit and yes, it has to be mentioned, slavery and genocide.
But put aside those contemporary social issues and take a moment to see what the western genre accomplished.  Hollywood took our actual history, the settling of the American West, and turned into myth, no different than Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Three Musketeers.  We took our meager 200 years of history and created uniquely American heroes with a new set of heroic values.  Cowboys became our knights, our noble heroes, carrying six guns instead of swords and fighting for freedom and justice in an untamed wilderness that would one day become our country. 
Which brings us to Stagecoach (1939), directed by the great John Ford, a seminal and genre-defining western that also introduced John Wayne who remains to this day as synonymous with westerns, old Hollywood and a certain political attitude embodied by conservatives and proponents of the 2nd amendment.  It’s hard to write about westerns without mentioning politics, which is a tribute to how deeply entrenched this genre is in our national identity, and what is amazing to me is it was in large part created by Hollywood, and iconic movies like Stagecoach.
The first thing you notice when watching this lovely black and white film from a modern perspective is the verisimilitude, all of this is actually happening in front of your eyes.  They built a western town, that’s actual dust the horses are kicking up, there’s no green screens and now that I mention it, there are horses everywhere.  In 1939 horses were still in everyone’s memory and it was not uncommon to still see them in daily use pulling carts or delivering milk.  I imagine for us it would be like seeing a CD walkman or a landline.
The movie is only 95 minutes long, but John Ford can tell a lot of story in that time; the movie moves at a faster clip than what you’re used to.  The plot is very similar to The Hateful Eight (except with no swearing and far less poisoned coffee); seven strangers ride a stagecoach through Apache territory and have an adventure.
Those seven strangers are a drunken doctor, a pregnant lady married to a cavalry captain, an elitist banker, a southern gentleman gambler played by the inimitable John Carradine (David’s father), a dance hall floozy (it seems unkind to call her a whore), a whisky salesman and the outlaw Ringo, as played by John Wayne.  Up top we have the sheriff who wants to bring Ringo to justice and the driver, played with a whiny cowpoke enthusiasm by Andy Devine, who enjoyed a 50-year career in movies and TV.  Consider that for a moment, can you think of any modern actor who you think will last half a century without imploding?  The only one that comes to my mind who has a chance is Neil Patrick Harris.
There’s a lot of drama crammed into 95 minutes.  The tensions include: the Indian threat, the stagecoach has to race to the next safe town, Ringo wants to avenge his father’s murder and the sheriff is determined to stop him, the courtly romance between Ringo and Dallas, the dance hall floozy, and to make matters worse, that lady’s gonna have a baby at any moment.  All this happens as they ride through magnificent Monument Valley landscapes. This was the image we were presenting to the rest of the world, and you can see our cultural DNA being woven before your eyes.
It’s so important to watch this film in context; John Wayne wasn't an icon, he was just a tall handsome cowboy who lit up the screen with his undeniable star-power.  There aren’t that many actors left who possess that indefinable combination of looks, acting ability, physical presence, charisma and audience appeal.  What we get instead are attractive mannequins that score well with focus groups and accountants and are presented to us as stars.  John Wayne was someone the audience chose, and that makes all the difference.  There’s no way a modern studio would invest in a wild card like John Wayne today, it’s too risky.
The other item is to note is the incredible stunts that would also be impossible to make today.  There are no wires, OSHA or protective pads, what you see is what you get.  When Yakima Canutt, the world’s greatest stuntman, leaps from the roof of the stagecoach and onto a runaway horse, that’s exactly what happened.  It’s almost absurd to watch how unsafe the stunts are from a modern perspective, but that’s yet another reason why you need to see this movie.
The legacy of Stagecoach is how much it resonated and influenced so the movies that came after it, and continues to do so to this day.  Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was one long chase scene through the desert, but John Ford did it first.  Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993) is an almost exact recreation of John Carradine’s performance as the elusive Mr. Hatfield.  John Ford’s movies inspired George Lucas, who was created a certain franchise that ultimately led to that one movie that came out last year that you might have heard about.  And when Quentin Tarantino announced the plot for The Hateful Eight, my first thought was “this is his Stagecoach”.



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