The John Ford Western vs. The Classical Western

WARNING:

CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM:

1939 Film (Stagecoach)

1956 Film (The Searchers)

1962 Film (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)

THIS  POST IS VERY LONG.

PLEASE READ IT IN ITS ENTIRETY.

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After a relatively long pause from blogging, I decided that I would discuss a genre that, to many of us, is lost in this day and age. The Western genre of film took on many changes throughout it’s relatively long life cycle. However, nobody affected the Western genre the same way John Ford did. In fact, if it wasn’t for him, the genre would have been dead after the talkies were introduced. He reinvented the genre to the extent that people such as Orson Welles or George Lucas took example from. The Star Wars saga, The Firefly TV show, Serenity and many other space westerns were a direct result of what Ford had contributed to the Western genre. The following analysis provides insight into the evolution of the genre as well as the evolution of the Ford film. Enjoy!

The three feature-length films I have chosen for this analysis were Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  Before I discuss how each film complied and diverged from the classical western film genre, I will discuss the formula, the characters, icons, conventions and the social function of the stereotypical western.

On a general note, the concept of the Western began to grow since the late 19th century. A variety of key elements during that era were, as quoted from West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning, “…immigration, travel and urbanization.” The story formula of the western began with the element of immigration in which the protagonist (the immigrant) sets forth to find a new hope or a new frontier to explore. This idea of immigration is the precursor to the element of travel. The exploration brings us forth to the element of urbanization which takes on a more symbolic meaning in the western genre. Urbanization symbolizes the fast paced social and political evolution of the new world. In many instances the symbol of urbanization gives rise to the antagonist (mainly due to political or social injustices) and proposes a dilemma for the protagonist. Ideally, the story has the protagonist become part of the problem and eventually has the central character confront the problem and reign victory over it. As far as the basic convention of the story in the western genre is concerned, the storyline is generally very linear, in other words it has a beginning, middle and an end. More specifically, the stereotypical western follows the Classical Paradigm narrative structure; it starts off with an exposition, a problem arises, followed by the rising action, climax, falling action, final confrontation with problem and finalizes with the solution to the problem.

The Western included three basic sets of characters, the hero, the villain and the community. The stereotypical western hero was a role intended primarily for the male. The hero was personified as a man of few words who resides in the middle of nowhere and is either a cowboy or a gunslinger. This ambiguity and mystery that encompasses the character adds suspense to his persona and ideally makes him a favorite amongst the audience as it is in the audience’s best interest to be surprised. The main goal of the hero is either to secure the justice of the community or to protect the community from being destroyed by one-sided political, social and/or economic decisions.The color of white is commonly associated with a character that personifies the messiah as it is representative of light and new beginnings. In the Western, the hero typically wears white clothing (most commonly the cowboy hat). The Western hero is also the epitome of masculinity in which physical strength outweighs the power of intellect. The Western villain is usually one of two characters, either a hired hand to restructure or destroy the social, political, and/or economic order of a community, or a group of rebellious tribesmen (most commonly the Native Americans). No matter which of the two evils the villain happens to be, the most common attributes to the villain are “egotistical self-interest”and revenge. The reasons for the villain’s negative intentions are typically shrouded from the audience; this way the western villain is broadcasted as a single-minded individual who has one purpose in his repertoire and that is to destroy all that is good. The villain is also a masculine role because, in classical western theory, the only person or persons that can challenge the western hero is/are men of the same physical strength and attributes of the protagonist. In other words, the hero and the villain are, as I like to call them, identical opposites of each other. Evil is usually symbolized by dark colors. The same can be said about western villains in which, for example, a black cowboy hat or dark colored clothing may symbolize the antagonist. The community is a central character in the western genre as it encompasses the reasons for the villain and hero to exist. The community is typically a collection of different people all living in one town. They are represented as physically weak which grants the invitation of the villain into the town even if the town does not welcome him. Due to the physical weakness of the town compared to the villain, the town welcomes whole-heartedly the hero onto their territory to help them fix the problem. The town usually consists of “sissy” men and physically weak but attractive women. The conflict in the town and the female beauty provides the protagonist with enough reason to help the town.

Many icons appear in Western films. These icons or signatures help the audience members configure each film into a category. As was mentioned before, a prevailing icon in Western film is the juxtaposition of white and black in which white stood for good and black represented evil. The time period is another icon of the Western film. Most Western films took place after the American Civil War and did not surpass the mid-19th century. This time period was also known as the American Old West.  The color icon also translates into an icon of racism in these films. Since racism was prevalent during the time periods in which the films took place, it was appropriate to incorporate this icon into the western genre. In other words, people of color were always illustrated as weak or evil such as the Native Americans, African Americans and Mexican Americans. Westerns were filled with action and most notably had fistfights and gunfights at the end of the film to determine who the victor was. As a general rule, the gunfights were purposely dragged on, to increase suspense in the viewer’s mind. In times of chase scenes, another staple or icon of the western film genre, the backdrop was often filmed on location and not in the studios. The most notable locations of these backdrops were valleys and deserts located in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California and other southwestern states. The idea was to juxtapose the hero with these backdrops as if he was also facing the wilderness to prove his fearlessness and once again remind the audience of his masculinity. The way people dressed functioned as an icon as well. The cowboy or gunslinger typically wore a bib shirt, pressed trousers, a white Stetson hat, gun belt, a revolver or a rifle and boots with spurs. The villain usually wore the same thing, unless he was Native American, in which case they would wear tribal clothing such as buckskins, moccasins, an arrow holster and other equipment. However, the only difference between the two cowboys or gunslingers would have been the color of their clothing. The most notable animal icon in the Western is the steed or hero’s or villain’s main form of transportation and/or accompaniment. The steed elevated the hero or villain, literally and figuratively, above everyone else which exposed these main characters as figures of authority or power.

The social function of the Western film genre kept on changing since its introduction in the early 20th century. As a general rule, the stereotypical western was a very simple film to watch because it was more about the action in the film as opposed to what was being said in the film. In the early 20th century, as was mentioned before, many people mainly from Europe, moved to the Americas. Many of these immigrants did not speak a word of English and so the Western film was designed around that consideration and made simple. The simplicity of these films helped the immigrants to ease in into the new world and provided them with a temporary refuge. On the other hand, the Western film also instilled new ideals into these newcomers. The Western film genre reflected early American ideology and subliminally conveyed messages to the people in regards to heterosexuality, the alpha male, the passive female, racism and the work ethic.

Stagecoach

The film Stagecoach was directed by John Ford and released in 1939. It was the first sound western to be released after several decades of silent westerns. This film was responsible for re-establishing the western genre as an A-list film and thus revived the genre for decades to come. Although a very different Western for the time, the general story formula of Stagecoach remained unchanged in terms of the linearity and the Classical Paradigm narrative. The film had a concrete beginning with an establishing shot of Monument Valley, the venue in which the film would take place in. This was then quickly cut to the sheriff’s office in which a telegram notifies the townspeople of an upcoming attack, providing the viewers with the problem. The introduction and gathering of each central character entering the stagecoach served as the rising action. The climax quickly followed as the stagecoach entered the Dry Fork Way station in which a love connection began to unfold between the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and Dallas (Claire Trevor), thus giving the hero a new impetus to keep the stagecoach safe from an Apache attack. The climax includes a second part which is evident in the stagecoach’s second stop at the Apache Wells Outpost. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) learns that her husband was wounded and collapses on the floor from shock. It is soon revealed that she was also carrying a baby and goes into labor. This part of the film physically weakens Lucy, but physically and psychologically strengthens and prepares Dallas, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and most of the other crew for the upcoming Apache attack on their trip to Lordsburg. This literal and symbolic preparation of the crew finalizes the climax with the Apache attack on the stagecoach which brings the story into the falling action and final confrontation phases. After all of the ammo was depleted and all hope seemed to escape the crew from the Apache attack, the sudden arrival of the cavalry unit brings an abrupt end to the attack. In the end, the Ringo Kid finally confronts the Plummer brothers and kills them in a gunfight, gets together with Lucy and walks off into the sunset. Both of the confrontations finalized the film with the solution to the problems introduced at the beginning.

The film began to differentiate from the stereotypical western with the unique set of characters in the film. If we refer to the three major climaxes of the main character, the following information is relayed, “The first stage presents the overall goal of the character, the second illustrates the obstacles that keep the character from achieving that goal, and the third stage is the confrontation of the character with the obstacle and the eventual solution to the problem.” To put it simply, the main character, in the end, must exhibit a kind of “baptism” or change to remain the main character in the eyes of the audience. Interestingly enough, and unlike many westerns preceding Stagecoach, the film consisted of three main characters. These three characters were the Ringo Kid, Dallas and Doc Boone.

In the beginning of the film, at the sheriff’s office, the telegram introduced the main conflict in the film, the upcoming Apache attack on the frontier. Apart from the main conflict, the Ringo Kid is introduced by the marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) as an escapee from prison and on the road to avenge the death of his family committed by the Plummer brothers. Even before the audience sees Ringo, the audience is invited into his private conflict and immediately begins to identify him as a central character. Once we meet Ringo we are notified of the two obstacles that would keep him from achieving his goal, the first is his steed galloping away from him and the second is the marshal arresting Ringo and keeping him on the Stagecoach until they reach the next jailhouse. The first conflict is solved almost immediately as he joins the stagecoach crew. The second problem would require Ringo to prove himself in some sort of confrontation in front of the people who see him in a negative eye. The confrontation between the stagecoach crew and the Apaches, gave Ringo the opportunity to prove his goodness and bravery. After the Apaches are defeated, although legally Ringo is still under the penalty of law, morally he has achieved his right to face the Plummer brothers in a final showdown. In one of the quickest gunfights in western film history, Ringo defeats the Plummer brothers and is finally cleansed of his past burdens, becoming a changed man and reinstating his status as one of the main characters.

Dallas was introduced as a prostitute that was being kicked out-of-town by the Ladies Law and Order League. Her main conflict was lack of acceptance amongst her community due to her unorthodox way of life. Her main conflict had her banished from the town of Tonto and essentially gave her access to the stagecoach that was travelling to Lordsburg. At this point Dallas’s main goal is clear and that is to start a new way of life. As Dallas enters the second stage of her character development she faces an obstacle of people all commuting to Lordsburg on the stagecoach. Every person on the stagecoach either ignores her existence or does not refer to her as a lady as they do in regards to Lucy. All of this would change once the Ringo Kid becomes part of the crew in which case he sees a different light in Dallas, a positive light and begins to form affection towards her. Ringo’s kindness and affection towards Dallas begins to act as a catalyst towards her “baptism” and provides her with a boost of confidence. This confidence would prove to be useful at the Apache Wells Outpost when Lucy goes into labor and Dallas becomes Lucy’s and the baby’s caretaker. Essentially, by this point, Dallas has faced her biggest conflict since most of the crew begins to see a maternal and positive side to her. However, it would not be until the aftermath between the crew’s confrontations with the Apaches that would fully baptize Dallas in which case she garrisons the baby from harm’s way understanding that her life may have been at stake. This act of bravery and her association with Ringo at the end of the film makes her part of the cast of main characters.

The final character that may be considered a main character is Doc Boone. His beginnings are very much related to the story surrounding Dallas. The only difference was that Doc Boone was an alcoholic who fails to pay his rent, in which case, the Lady’s Law and Order League also decided to banish him from town due to his problems. In search of a new life and with news of a whiskey salesman joining the crew of the stagecoach, Doc Boone becomes part of the crew as well. Doc Boone’s major conflict revolves around the concept of acceptance just like Dallas. He simply wanted people to accept him for who he was; however, his addiction to alcohol was keeping him from achieving that goal. Doc Boone’s “baptism” occurs at the Apache Wells Outpost station when Lucy goes into labor, in which case, he quickly sobers up and helps Lucy through her labor. The success of the birth brought a new light to Doc Boone. After that moment, most of the crew found a new trust in him. Since that moment he persists to drink but responsibly. His complete transformation would not occur until after the Apache’s attack in which case he protected the stagecoach with his life by participating in the gunfight as well.

These three characters exhibited change towards the end of the film, rendering them as main characters. With the exception of the Ringo Kid, Doc Boone and Dallas were atypical western main characters for several reasons. For one thing Dallas was female and female characters are expected to take on a passive role in which they simply exhibited love and support towards the male lead. All of these attributes were evident in Dallas; however, her heroic actions at the outpost station and during the attack showed a more masculine, in terms of confidence and bravery, side to Dallas. Doc Boone was depicted as a wrecked individual, both physically and psychologically, but it was his sudden heroic acts towards the end of the film that rendered him as a strong-willed and brave individual, attributes that are vital for the western main character. Based on this analysis, every other character who did not exhibit these attributes was considered to be part of the community or a cast of helpless or weak individuals. The villain in this film was the Apache tribe lead by their leader named Geronimo. Their danger was evident since the beginning of the film and although the final confrontation included a grand fight sequence, the villain in this film seemed almost unimportant because of the underlying goals of each main character in the film. For this reason, the villain in this film is not typical of the villain in the general western genre.

As far as icons were concerned, many of the typical characteristics that represented western film were evident in the film. For starters, the color white is evident of good and the status of the hero. The Stetson hat that the Ringo kid was wearing was the color white. Dallas was blonde haired. The light color of her hair symbolized her saint like status. At the Apache outpost, Doc Boone unbuttoned his suit to reveal a white shirt, the color of which symbolized hope for Lucy and her baby. In fact, when the Apache confrontation occurs, Doc Boone’s suit is completely off only to reveal the entirety of his white shirt which symbolized his bravery during the fight. The issue of racism was also evident in this film in which the Native Americans were viewed as evil and the Mexican Americans were viewed as valueless and weak. The backdrop to the action scene in the film took place in Monument Valley, Arizona a very popular venue for John Ford. The Ringo Kid juxtaposed with the backdrop instilled a kind of grandeur into his image and instantly makes him a favorite amongst the audience. An icon that was not very evident in this film was the animal accompaniment of the hero. This may be explained with the addition of two other main characters and the stagecoach that connected all of the main characters as a form of transportation but also as a key plot device.

The same social function that persisted in the stereotypical western was somewhat evident in this film. To start off, the idea of heterosexuality is very strong in this film as was depicted by the relationship between Hatfield (John Carradine) and Lucy and the relationship between the Ringo Kid and Dallas. These relationships were portrayed as rightful and as models for people to follow. As was mentioned before, the idea of the alpha male and passive female were a bit diluted in this film. In fact the concept of change was a primary point in the film as opposed serving as an unchanged individual. The film’s function was to broadcast the idea that it was ok to make mistakes and no matter what gender role you are, the ability to change and learn from the mistakes committed will make you a better individual. Racism was an integral part in the film as it reflected the current time period very well. Segregation was still a huge issue in America during this time and so the film attested to this reality by portraying it in a minimal fashion, small enough not to be noticed the first time.

The Searchers

The film The Searchers was directed by John Ford and released in 1956. The film’s story structure began to differ from earlier Ford films. This redefined story structure was not evident until the mid to late portion of the film in which the famous letter scene takes place. The general structure of the film starts off like any other; the establishing shot welcomes the audience to Texas (shot in Monument Valley), introduces Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) as the main character appearing in the distant sunrise, his destination brings us to meet his family and the neighbors of the Edward’s family. Initial conflict arises, when Comanche’s were being suspected of attacking, killing and abducting homesteaders. Eventually the Edward’s family is mostly slaughtered with the exception of Ethan, Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), Debbie (Younger – Lana Wood, Older – Natalie Wood) and Lucy (soon found to be killed) (Pippa Scott). A culmination of men group up to find Debbie, who has been abducted by Comanche chief Scar, and rescue her before anything happens to her. The rising action of the film is essentially the search for Debbie, a journey that takes about five years to complete for mainly Martin and Ethan. However, after Ethan shot and killed Futterman (Peter Mamakos), a man who claimed to know information about Debbie’s whereabouts for a price, the film takes a drastic leap about four years since their arrival at the Jorgensen’s homestead. In this scene, a letter is handed to Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) to read in regards to Martin’s well-being and status. When Laurie begins to read the letter, the film goes through a series of flashbacks, essentially flipping back and forth between present and past. After three flashbacks, the film returns back to the present in which Lucy has finished reading the letter. The sudden lapse between rising action and falling action in the film disrupts the flow of the Classical Paradigm narrative which accentuates order over any other structure. However, after the letter scene, the falling action is concluded with the appearance of a young soldier notifying of hints of Scar’s tribe not far from the homestead in which case, Marty takes the lead and eventually finds Debbie (a second time) and rescues her. The film is then concluded with Ethan coming to terms with his hatred for Comanche and accepting Debbie as part of his family once again and the wedding ceremony between Marty and Laurie. The film’s story structure becomes rebalanced towards the end as it stops diverging between different time periods which is why it was ok for it to deviate from the Classical Paradigm narrative structure.

Upon first glance, the character set in the film is very reminiscent of the character types in stereotypical westerns. Basically, the hero is a lone wanderer or former Confederate soldier who makes a grand entrance into the story in front of a sunrise backdrop. This mise-en-scene highlights the character as important, fearless and forthcoming. In fact his personality is very much reminiscent of the archetype western hero in which case racism plays a huge role. Although racism was nothing unusual in western films, this film delves very deep into the subject matter by introducing a hero-villain relationship unlike any other. For the first time, audiences would begin to see racism as a catalyst of both Scar and Ethan. Racism fueled their thirst for revenge. For example, Scar’s sons were killed by white men and so he took retribution by killing the white man and kidnapping the white females to eventually turn into wives for every son he has lost. As a second example, Ethan’s mother was killed by Comanche’s, ever since that episode, Ethan has held a deep hatred for the Comanche’s. Based on these two observations, the hero and villain are essentially nonexistent because they are essentially the same people with the same intentions based on the same reasons. This interconnectivity between the two characters is where the stereotype is broken because, for the first time, the hero is somewhat of a bad person. Other than the main character of Ethan, everyone else seems to fall into the role of the community. The women are viewed as passive, physically weak, worriers and supporters. The women also serve the purpose of providing Ethan and Marty to complete each of their pilgrimages; for Ethan, avenging the death of his mother and avenging the death of Martha Edwards (his one and only love) served as his main purpose for his quest. Marty would be fueled to find Debbie by his duties as an older brother and by his love interest Laurie (even though towards the end she lost hope for the search); this made him determined to search as fast and as thoroughly as possible so he could return to Laurie without a guilty conscience and marry her. It may be speculated that Marty could be considered to be a main character; however, from the beginning of the film and until the end of the film, Marty has been portrayed as naïve and optimistic individual who never had any reason to change as an individual. On the other hand Ethan Edwards had the overarching conflict of searching for Debbie and battling his racism. As a matter of fact, his eventual communion with Marty helped Ethan to change right before he was able to kill Debbie.

This western film included expected icons and some of the icons were never observed before. The most obvious icon in the film is the time period it takes place in such as the mid-19th century. This time period marked great turmoil between the homesteaders and Native Americans in the West. In fact, the film is based on a novel that is based on a true story of a girl named Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped by a Comanche chief and forced to marry him when she became of age. The time period falls within the range of periods for the stereotypical western to have taken place in. The icon of color changed substantially in this film. This time, the hero enters the story while wearing a black Stetson hat. This new image was jarring because it foreshadowed an evil intent hidden within the main character. As was explained previously, the icon of racism was prevalent throughout the film. The icon of majestic backdrops is prevalent throughout most of the film. The film was essentially about a journey in which such backdrops were necessary to convey a sense of danger and suspense as the film went on from beginning, middle and end. The icon of the steed was evident in the beginning of the film most likely to create a false impression of the main character in the eyes of the audience. Usually the steed was a symbol of grandeur, trustworthiness and courage. The latter was true except for sensibleness which we perceived throughout the entire film. In fact, the film concluded with Ethan walking into the sunset as opposed to riding out into the sunset. The idea of not having a steed, symbolically brought Ethan “back to earth” and exemplified him as a changed and “ideally human”. This sort of icon was not typical of everyday westerns of the time.

The issue of racism was increasing during the time period that the movie was made. Events such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Emmett Till’s murder, Brown v. Board of Education and other events began to unfold during this time period. The film represented this movement towards equality by delving into the very act of racism and how it corrupts an individual (Ethan Edwards and Scar in this case). Apart from this underlying social function of the film is the social function of heterosexuality which is represented in every relationship in the film.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a film directed by John Ford and released in 1962. Many aspects of the film defied the conventional western. One of these aspects was the general story formula. The film begins at the aftermath of the conclusion of the story with the arrival of Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles) into the town of Shinbone for a funeral of a friend named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). After the editors of a local newspaper ask the Senator for an interview in regards to the individual who died, he refuses at first, but then decides to tell the story. Immediately the film backtracks into the past and introduces the audience to the story. The flashback sequence follows the Classical Paradigm narrative throughout most of the film. The story begins with the assault on the crew of passengers by Liberty Valance and his gang. One of the passengers turns out to be a young Stoddard migrating from the east as a student of law. The conflict arises immediately as soon as Stoddard begins to preach the law to Valance who demonstrates that the gun and physical violence outweigh any law in this territory. After the knockout, the film continues with Stoddard being brought into the town of Shinbone into a mom and pop eatery owned by Peter and Nora Ericson. Immediately, Nora and eventually Hallie tend to the wounds of Stoddard in which case he gets revived and forms an immediate attraction to Hallie. After his revival the supposed central character of Tom Doniphan is introduced. As the story continued, Stoddard became acquainted with the town and began to understand more and more about the problems surrounding the town such as the constant threats induced by Valance and his gang. The rising action in the film is Stoddard’s determination to educate the town about the history of their country and how law functions. His attempt to strengthen the town was done in hopes of destroying the conflict that is Valance. Apart from Stoddard’s duties, Doniphon, a regular local and favorite in the town, decides to enter the rising action by strengthening the lawyer in a physical sense because he knew the only way to defeat Valance was through violent means. The climax is reached after the elections takes place in the town for someone to represent statehood in which case Valance’s attempt to force a win from the people of the town backfires due to law induced technicalities. This infuriates Valance and forces him to almost kill Dutton Peabody (the newspaper editor played by Edmond O’Brien) and then has Valance challenge Stoddard to a gunfight. Later that night the falling action arises with the shooting and death of Liberty Valance. The falling action of the film continues on with the immediate guilt that overcomes Stoddard as he is the one who is known to have shot Valance much to everyone’s satisfaction. This new conflict that he faces within himself is then resolved towards the end of the film when Doniphon tells Stoddard that he was responsible for the death of Liberty Valance (in an embedded flashback) and encourages Stoddard to continue on his campaign trail. This new revelation brings us to the conclusion of the film in which Stoddard becomes elected to represent the town of Shinbone and eventually becomes governor of the state. However, the conclusion does not end there because Stoddard had a kind of guilt instilled into him in regards to Doniphon’s death. Immediately, the story gets back into the present in which he decides to open a practice in the town of Shinbone instead of continuing on his campaign to becoming the President. The double flashback sequences takes away from the actual reality of the story and forces the audience to see Stoddard’s perspective of the story. This new take on story telling violated the linearity that was found in most Westerns.

This film took a new direction in terms of character creation. The typical western main character was clearly defined by Doniphon’s persona. He was a physically experienced, macho, independent and prejudiced gunslinger. If this film followed the typical western genre formula then Doniphon would have been the man who changed towards the end of the film and would have been kept alive. Instead, we see Doniphon and Valance end up in a “horizontal” position at the end of the film and Stoddard’s character in a “vertical” position (standing tall and victorious). This was very unorthodox especially given the fact that for the first time the idea of law prevailed over settling a problem physically. Stoddard, a tall and lanky man, prevailed and changed towards the end of the movie through his patient and calculated behavior. Doniphon, a tall and muscular man, turned to drinking and depression after understanding he had lost the person he loved which assumingly brought about his demise. This was part of the reason I believe that Doniphon played a community role and not a major role in the film. The other reason has to do with him acting as an instructor on how to live in the West for Stoddard. His training provided Stoddard with everything that the lawyer initially never had. Once Stoddard absorbed all of the positive attributes of Tom, he became a greater man, he became a changed individual. For this reason, Stoddard was the main character in the film. The villain in the film represented the stereotypical gunslinger outlaw. There was no backstory behind him; he simply killed for the fun of it. Like in many Ford film’s the women, once again, played very submissive roles. To put it simply they served as the love interest of the men and acted as indirect promoters of the men’s actions. As far as the rest of the community is concerned, the following Michael Coyne quote explains it pretty well, “Liberty Valance, is a community Western in which the ideal of community darkens and sours irrevocably.” In other words, the general community is seen as lazy and incapable of defending for itself no matter the circumstances.

The color icon, as in many Westerns, is also evident in this film but in a different way. The use of color in this film is actually accentuated by the use of lighting in key points of the film. Shadows are decisively used in the attack on Peabody scene and the gun duel between Stoddard and Valance. Shadows highlighted the points of mystery and suspense in the mise-en-scene. During the gun duel, more of the light was used on Valance to signal his vulnerability to being shot. Stoddard on the other hand was veiled by the shadows, thus making him hard to kill. This new use of colors was something that was not evident in many Western’s before Ford’s time, especially in a black and white picture. Hallie and Stoddard usually wore light colored clothing such as the white apron, signifying them as holy and untouchables. Doniphon and Valance usually wore darker colors signifying their fall or demise. One of the icons that were not very evident in this film was the majestic backdrops usually used in Westerns. This could be explained by the nature of the narrative of the film in which the story is told from the perspective of a memory. Memories could be false at times and so the director, keeping this in mind, shot most of the film in a studio to give it that artificial or false look.

As was mentioned for the previous film, this 1962 film was a work of social commentary as well as a work of art. The Civil Rights movement began to take many positions in the eyes of the government around this time. This marked a time in which words spoke volumes over violence and ultimately brought about change in the coming decades. Although the film did present itself on the more prejudiced side with the disconnection between the whites and the Mexicans and the African Americans, it did serve as a messenger of hope for people in the coming years.

Conclusion

Since the beginning of film history, Western’s created a world of refuge and excitement for its viewers. Once John Ford entered the genre, he essentially reinvented it. Ford provided the new genre with a sense of class in which characters experienced conflicts and changed in different and drastic ways. The way he shot the Westerns deviated from the B-list films by creating a new science in the realm of color and cinematography in general. The stories in his Westerns took place in the past but found their way into the present with the ideas and social commentary presented in each film.

If you would like to read up on some of the source material I used for this analysis, refer to the following list:

  • Butler Jeremy G., Television: Critical Methods and Application (Alabama: Routledge, 2006)
  • Chris Cabin The Searchers: A Critic’s Review AMC Filmcritic, 5 Feb. 2006. Web. 3 Feb 2012.
  • Darby William John Ford’s Westerns: A Thematic Analysis, with a Filmography (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2006)
  • Eckstein Arthur M., Peter Lehman The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2004)
  • Grant Barry K. John Ford’s Stagecoach(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Lamar Howard R. The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)
  • McMahon Jennifer L., Steve B. Csaki, The Philosophy of the Western (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2010)
  • Michael James T. Script Analysis for Actors, Directors, and Designers: 4th Edition (Maryland: Elsevier Science, 2009)
  • Shapiro Michael J. Methods and Nations: Cultural Governance and the Indigenous Subject (Hawaii: Taylor & Francis, Inc, 2003)
  • Tasker Yvonne Action and Adventure Cinema (London: Taylor & Francis, 2004)
  • Verhoeff Nanna, West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006)

If you have any question, feel free to leave a comment or message me on sarcasmjew@gmail.com.

– The Jew

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4 thoughts on “The John Ford Western vs. The Classical Western

  1. That really is a long post! It took me five minutes just to scroll down to the comment section! Hahaha just kidding! I do like Westerns, and I will try to get through this essay some day, as you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it. Can’t really read it while at work though.

  2. This was a joy to read, thanks. I’m teaching both Stagecoach and Liberty Valance in a class about movies and American culture, and I found both your exposition and your bibliography very helpful.

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