Saturday, November 19, 2011

#70 AFI's Top 100 Movie List - # 63 Stagecoach

Last night I decided to get started on one of the more ambitious tasks from my 101 Tasks in 1001 Days List: #70 - watching all the movies on the AFI Top 100 Movies List. This is something I'm really excited about because there are a lot of movies on the list that I've wanted to see and never have.

I learned from my friend Katieschmatie's first movie watching experience from her 101 task list (she's trying to watch all the Oscar Best Picture Winners) to not start with a super long war movie. I'll work my way into those. I had several criteria when trying to decide on a movie. Not too long. Not an Oscar Best Picture Winner (might as well watch those with Katieschmatie's company!). Available on Netflix Instant. And I wanted to watch one that I hadn't seen before.

At 1 hour and 36 minutes, and #63 on the AFI list, Stagecoach (made in 1939), seemed perfect. Also, I found the description Netflix gave unintentionally hilarious: "Stagecoach passengers and a notorious outlaw escaped from jail must consider banding together to fight vicious Apaches rumored to be lying in wait." Ahhh... a typical old Western with its fantastic stereotypes and racism.Why not?!

As the beginning credits rolled I informed my husband: "Oh hey! It's got John Wayne in it! Maybe it won't be too bad!"

The very first thing established is the dire threat of vicious Apache attacks, led by the infamous Geronimo. The fear of these attacks are verbalized throughout the entire movie, but not a single Apache warrior is seen until 25 minutes before the end of the movie. They are the constant and consistent threat... but, like the Stagecoach passengers, I started thinking that they were never going to show up. As a deliberate ploy to give the audience the same sense of security as the characters, it works pretty well.

The characters are all complete archetypes. There's Mrs. Mallory, an old Western Mean Girl, who is both popular and snobby, protected by the Cad, named Hatfield, who becomes reformed in order to keep an eye on her. The Doctor is a complete drunk. The Prostitute, named Dallas, has a heart of gold. And of course, there's the Rebel Hero, named Ringo and played by John Wayne. Ringo treats Mrs. Mallory and Dallas exactly the same, despite Dallas' shady past and in complete contrast to the way the other men in the stage coach treat Dallas.

The dichotomy of how Mrs. Mallory is treated by the other characters, versus the way Dallas is treated was one of the most interesting points of the movie to me, because it's behavior that continues into modern society. A known slut, Dallas is kicked out of her community by self-righteous old ladies, Mrs. Mallory won't sit next to her at dinner, and the gentlemen of the stage coach ignore her. The social ostracizing of Dallas for being sexually available is something that still happens today.  Ringo is the only one to treat Dallas as though she has any worth. While the gentlemen fawn over "the lady," it is obvious that being a woman isn't enough to make a female a "lady." Only if she behaves in a socially acceptable manner will she be accepted into their "polite" society. I put "polite" in quotes because their behavior towards her is so abominably rude.

But Dallas keeps a stiff upper lip all throughout, doing her utmost to be friendly to Mrs. Mallory and attempting to help the "lady" as much as any of the gentleman do. When it turns out that Mrs. Mallory is pregnant and ends up having her baby during their journey, Dallas stays in the room to help with the birthing and watches over Mrs. Mallory as faithfully as any best friend afterwards. It helps bring Mrs. Mallory to the eventual realization that Dallas is just as human and worthy of respect and dignity as herself. A message I heartily approved of and was surprised to see in a movie from the 1930's. I did not think that any of the "respectable" characters would change their minds about Dallas. Particularly poignant was when Mrs. Mallory told Dallas to come to her if Dallas ever needed anything; and then Mrs. Mallory's lips twist as she realizes that if Dallas ever actually makes good on that promise that Mrs. Mallory will be socially ruined. Dallas herself obviously doesn't want to put Mrs. Mallory in that situation, and the continuation of the status quo - as well as the inhumanity of the status quo - is acknowledged.

Stagecoach was quite often very funny. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes just because of my own reaction to what I considered over-acting or over-dramatic moments. The long moment that the camera lingers over John Wayne's face after he tells the other members of the party that  his father and brother were murdered was supposed to be dramatic, but was mostly just awkward silence and therefore funny to me. The drunken doctor's method of sobering up in order to deliver Mrs. Mallory's baby was very humorous: he had the other men force feed him black coffee until he threw up, so that he could empty the alcohol out of his stomach. One of the best moments was when the town's banker said: "What's good for the banks is good for the country." Considering today's banking environment, I found that utterly hilarious - especially later in the movie when he turned out to be a corrupt thief!

But, to me, best moments happened when the Apaches finally showed up. Dramatic music thunders out of silence as they are shown sitting horseback on a ridge overlooking the stagecoach, still as statues. They don't move an inch. But there are two shots of them shown looking over the stagecoach with extremely dramatic music, just in case you weren't sure that their frozen stance precedes extreme violence. But we don't see them attack the stagecoach yet, oh no! Not nearly dramatic enough.

Unaware that the Apaches are so close, although the stagecoach occupants know the Native Americans are nearby, the coach moves quickly but without fear. Then, out of nowhere, an arrow suddenly thuds into the chest of one of the men! The screen flips to the Apache charge... which is just coming over the hill. So somehow, an Apache managed to shoot an arrow yards and yards away and over a hill and hit a man sitting INSIDE a covered stage coach. There, however, the incredible Apache marksmanship ends, because as soon as they start shooting guns they can't hit anything. Not the coach, not the horses, and not anyone in the coach - despite the fact that there are at least fifty of them converging on the stagecoach and shooting constantly.

However, whenever one of the three white men shoots his gun, an Apache falls. This led to what I considered the most laughable moment of the movie: John Wayne lounging on top of the stage coach and hitting an Apache every time he fires.

I was tearing up I was laughing so hard at the ludicrousness of Hollywood's stereotypes. The Native Americans can shoot a man sitting IN a stage coach from over 200 yards away as long as they use a bow and arrow, but hand them a gun and put them within 10 feet of the stage coach and they can't hit anything.  John Wayne, on the other hand, can lounge on top of a moving stagecoach and is still a dead shot. Fantastic.

This was actually a very complex movie - there were so many little plot lines that I haven't even gotten into - and quite entertaining. I don't think it always meant to be entertaining in the ways that it entertained me, but being unintentionally hilarious is not necessarily a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie and it's gotten me excited to continue watching the movies on my list. Not only that, it has me excited to watch more of the Old Westerns, an outcome I had definitely not expected.

My horizons already feel broadened!

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