This paper will examine two films by John Ford of different time periods which proved to be very successful in influencing the world of films during their respective periods. It is interesting to examine the two films Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) which are of different time periods and represent the turning points in cinema during the time of their respective releases. The world of cinema, especially in the context of America can be significantly gauged by keeping track of the path that the two films followed in regard to the issues that they addressed and their popularity and success in the world of films.
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The film Stagecoach made in 1939 by John Ford has been considered to have revitalized and credited western films in lifting the film away from the mediocre westerns and to have ushered in a genre of golden age which is known to have lasted up to the end of the 1970s. This was Ford’s first film after sound was introduced and it is also the movie that introduced the Monument Valley in being a vital part of the mythic landscape of America. This film also introduced the legendry actor John Wayne towards stardom and to the ultimate position of being one of the greatest icons of western films. Film historians consider 1939 as being a turning point whereby films became of much better quality with the portrayal of ideological inflections that became integral amongst most films of that year. The same year also saw the release of another of Ford’s film, Young Mr. Lincoln and his first Technicolor Western movie Drums Along the Mohawk.
The film is indeed revolutionary and influential in being a story of salvation that elevated western films from being low grade and cheaply made to a genre of seriousness and of higher levels of sophistication. The themes and archetypes are of rich Western tradition with in depth and multifaceted characterizations that brought about greater popularity and profitability. By the year 1939 the genre of Western films had considerably declined and fallen out of support, and Stagecoach enhanced the genre in enabling its rebirth. This was despite the fact that the same year had also seen the release of a few other Western block busters such as The Oklahama Kid, Dodge City and Union Pacific.
Stagecoach has classy screenplay by Dudley Nicholas and portrays the story about the dangerous adventures as experienced by a group of people who board the stagecoach that covers the vast tract across the Indian territories flanked by the frontier settlements during an unexpected Apache rebellion. The story was based on the short story The Stage to Lordsburg written by Ernest Haycox and also bears some similarity to the story Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant. This story relates to a prostitute named Boule de Suif who travels in a stagecoach through war torn and Prussian occupied France during the Franco Prussian War along with some refugees who happen to be well known affiliates of the French bourgeoisie. It is pertinent to note that Ford also included in the story lively western role models from The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte.
The film has very effectively portrayed the vivid, widely varying and colorful characters in the context of clash amongst social classes that are thrown into the film as being a matter of fate that becomes confined closely for some time amongst the group. All the characters in the film represent their respective social types which they claim to represent while acting out the given relationships. Stagecoach portrays the ordeal of nine passengers who undergo a journey in the stagecoach and are together put into a dangerous position in which their real characters are put to test and revealed. The different social themes and issues such as shame, greed, childbirth, alcoholism, social and sexual prejudice and redemption and revenge are aptly depicted in the movie in making it into an exciting and adventurous story.
The Searchers is another of Ford’s films that was made in 1956 and is regarded as being a masterpiece of American film making and is also admired and is influential in being the best of his films. This was the 115th feature film that he made and by this time he had already been the Best Director Oscar four times. All these awards were for movies that pertained to social comments instead of being quintessential westerns. The film is characterized with having deep nuanced themes that include individuality, racism and above all the typical American character. The film portrays a marked opposition between civilizations as exemplified by domestic interiors, caves and homes, and the wild wilderness of the frontier. The film has a gorgeous and dazzling on location Vista Vision cinematography which also includes the eye catching Monument Valley red sand stone rock formations. The movie has beautifully captured the good looks and the isolated dangers of the frontier. But during the time when the film was released it was not appreciated for the modern, sophisticated and visually striking photography and was not recognized by critics as a masterpiece. It did not receive any nomination for Academy Awards and was rather ignored with the grand success of the super star studded and glamorous movie, Around the World in 80 Days that won the Best Picture of the year award.
The screen play of the film was adapted by Frank Nuggent from the 1954 novel of Alan Le May which bore the same name. The film got its due share of praise only after about fifteen years when it was reassessed by critics and film directors as being a milestone in cinema. A number of producers and directors then, in tracing their attraction with the film and with the iconic John Ford, reflected his works in their respective movies. The trade mark line of Ford in the film “that’ll be the day” was popularized by the Beatles.
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The story of The Searchers is complex and emotional about the Comanche massacre in portraying this hate ridden and perilous mission and Homeric style odyssey of self discovery. The film also explores the theme of sexism and racial prejudice. The story meanders around examining the internal psychological unrest of a crusading man who is portrayed as being fiercely independent and obsessed with hatred and revenge in regard to his missing two nieces for whom he searches frantically amongst savages over a period of five years. Through out the film one can feel the echo that he has to somehow find them. Most reviewers of the film have sensed a powerful although unspoken issue in the plot in maintaining that the character Ethan Edwards was in deep love with Martha, the wife of his brother. They also maintain that it was this love for her that drove him towards searching for the children and then to take revenge against the perpetrators. Critics also allege that there is no depiction in the film that does not indicate such an intimacy between the two. This is assumed as being the strongest motivator for the lead actor to indulge in the kind of behavior on his part as seen in the film. It is noteworthy to see that all references in this regard are only visual and nothing in this regard is spoken between the two.
John Wayne plays the role of the Duke in the film and was very impressive in expressing the emotions that were essential in such circumstances. He has played many major roles in several westerns throughout his career as an actor of repute. His role in this film has been described by himself as being his most favorite and is seen as his best acted performance.
Barry Keith Grant, John Ford’s “Stagecoach”, 2003, Cambridge University Press.
Roger Ebert, The Searchers (1956). Web.
Tim Dirks, The Searchers. Web.