Genre Theory and John Ford's Stagecoach
The analytic theory posited by Robert Warshow in his essay "The Westerner", itemizes the elements necessary for a film to belong to the genre of the "western". Most contentiously, he mandates that the narrative focus upon the individual hero's plight to assert his identity, and diminishes the importance of secondary characters and issues, or any tendency toward "social drama." (431) He states that it is subtle variations that make successive instances of a genre film interesting, yet limits this variety to "minor variations in the characteristics of the actors who play the hero's role." (430)
It is my belief that while exhibiting many of the traits itemized by Warshow, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) also exhibits variations in characterization, symbolism and even moral focus which project it dangerously close to what Warshow would view as a "social" film. It would be nearly impossible to declare Stagecoach a non-western by either Warshow's own generic criteria or the expectations of the genre viewer, yet the film clearly conveys the more individuated social concerns of its director. While Warshow claims that this perversion of the norm threatens to make the genre uninteresting, I believe the contrary to be true. Subverting the expectations of the genre, while still functioning within the language of the "western" is what makes Stagecoach a powerful film, and legitimizes the notion of genre itself.
The traits cited by Warshow as compulsory for the "western" are extensive. Most elements concern the figure of the melancholy cowboy hero, who is certainly present in Stagecoach in the personage of Ringo. The hero usually exhibits a certain leisure, an ambiguity of occupation, a nonchalant mode of interpersonal relations, and is easily recognizable by his unchanging dusty white clothes. Other elements expected by the "western" viewer include the importance of the vast landscape in relation to the men upon it; the figures of the morally ambiguous marshall, the cultured Eastern lady, the understanding yet fallen prostitute and the "bad guy"; and the conflict between nature and civilization, usually represented by Apaches and white settlers respectively. Lastly, the most general and material characteristic of a "western" is its setting on the American western frontier in the late 1900's. Each of these motives is evident in Ford's Stagecoach ; however, there are several conventions of the "western" which the director intentionally manipulates, which exceed altering the traits of the actor who plays the lead role.
The first convention varied by Ford is the hero's expected relationships with two different types of women. The generic first lady is the refined Eastern "schoolmarm" character. She represents the paradigm of civilized virtue, and as such fails to understand the cowboy's need for revenge, to do "what he has to do." (457) In contrast, we usually encounter the highly-sexualized saloon girl or...