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Stagecoach, John Ford, and Redemption Comedy

 By Paul Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe

Work in progress

© 2022

 

Stagecoach (1939) with John Wayne making his decisive bid for stardom is generally acclaimed as John Ford’s seminal achievement in moving the shoot-‘em-up Western to its place as the premier local color genre in American film history. As such it draws heavily on the Bret Harte tradition and its depiction of the tough and vulnerable real people who carried America into the Empty Quarter and laid the foundations for what would become improbable but major cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Denver and a developed if decentralized regional agricultural and natural resources economy. Equally improbably, the Western reality depicted in Stagecoach would cover a very limited time period, starting no earlier than the end of the Civil War (and much more frequently seen as beginning in the Grant Administration) and ending no later than the Teddy Roosevelt dedication of National Parks in the first days of the 20th century (for most purposes ending considerably earlier.)  And even that short period would be divided into distinct periods, the most important period marker being the absence or presence of a transcontinental railroad in the vicinity. 

For our purposes here, however, we will be using Stagecoach as the single exemplar for the definition of a sub-genre of comedy very infrequently recognized, Redemption Comedy. And since we are treating Stagecoach, then, as serious literature, it is only right that behind John Ford we recognize Ernest Haycox for the original story, Dudley Nichols for the screen play, and Ben Hecht for his work from both.

Obviously for a literary work to be Redemption Comedy, something has to be redeemed—and a very great number of works of serious literature make extensive use of a redemption motif. The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan coincidentally also premiering in 1939 comes obviously to mind, as do Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flats by John Steinbeck, also works of the late Depression Years.  But whether any or all of these can be considered formal Redemption Comedy requires more than a motif. Redemption Comedy is created and developed as a patterned artistry for works as wholes.

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Toward a Formal Definition of Redemption Comedy

The Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies (ITCHS) has proposed a general “quadrilateral” understanding and perhaps neo-Aristotelian definition of Comedy and potentially of its various sub-genres.

Like Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, the ITCHs definition of comedy in general focuses on an appropriate “comedic line”—what kind of character is involved in what kind of action. Aristotle’s definition gives some emphasis to appropriate language and other literary devices, exemplifying true and ersatz devices for tragedy, but never defines exactly what makes for appropriateness of language or other dramatic elements. The ITCHS definition of comedy is similarly vague.

However, when ITCHS moves on to defining sub-genres, the vagueness is replaced by very definite “special language” characteristics. Light comedy emphasizes a special language of humor, typically “classical” humor whose major variants are Word Play, Incongruity, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain. Vitalist Comedy replaces classical humor with vitalist, Langerian humor, the humor of Tenacity, Creativity, Potential, and Performance. While defined by Langerian forms of positive approval, almost all vitalist comedy begins with Bergsonian laughter against non-viable forms of human behavior.

For Redemption Comedy, humor whether classical, Bergsonian, or Langerian, is not the dominant special language feature. This lack of special language humor perhaps explains Redemption Comedy’s largely ignored status within comedic art. Like light and Vitalist Comedy, however, it too has four major variant special language features as examined later in this essay.

Comedic line and special language can be seen as modern recasts of Aristotelian concerns. However, ITCHS sub-genre definitions have additionally come to include two other key determinants, each of which can be analyzed as a quadrilateral of four major variants.

If there is a comedic line, there is also a comedic Other or oppositional line, what line of action contrasts with or opposes itself to the comedic line.  Typically, the central figure in comedy is closely identified with the comedic line and blocking figures are identified with the Other, oppositional line.

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Aristotle’s definition fairly ignores oppositions. Theatre at the time had not been fully elaborated, and the rules of the Athenian theatre competitions limited the acting company to a chorus of dancers and at most a few major characters. Theatric elaboration since has made Oppositional forces to the basic generic line much more necessary to the definition of new sub-genres.

And at the sub-generic level, a full-bodied definition must also consider Spirit, the Spirit in which the generic line, its opposition, and its special language are viewed, viewed prospectively by the author and appreciatively by the audience. At a very high level of generalization or abstraction, we can focus on–yet again—four major variant Spirits.

All of these quadrilateral analyses tend strongly to consider combinations of two of the four variants to define the general feel that combination gives to the play, film, or other literary work as a whole. This predilection for combination is least true for Spirit. Often it seems that Spirits are either dominant or not, and that a single Spirit dominates the work. For Redemption Comedy, however, it seems that two redemptive spirits can be co-dominant, with their own synthetic feeling imparted to the work.

Without further introduction, then, we consider redemptive comedic line and its variants of Special Language, Other or Oppositional Form, and Spirit.

The Redemption Comedic Line and its Seminal Exemplars

The Redemption comedic line is a line of being bought, being brought out, or being carried out of slavery or rescued from impending enslavement. It should be made explicit that Redemption thus requires some outside agent or agency, which does the action, as well as figures that are redeemed by that agency.

The great literary protype for Redemption Comedy is probably the Old Testamental Book of Exodus, the story of God acting with a strong out-stretched arm to lead the Hebrew people out of Egyptian bondage and into a seminal relationship to that redeeming God in the Sinai desert.

A second great Redemption Comedy is put forth in the four Gospels of the New Testament, a spiritual redemption where the Exodus redemption had a foundational physical outbringing, and an international redemption where the Exodus redemption had been the redemption of a specially Chosen People. The Redemption Comedy of Exodus is not a redemption out of bondage into licentious liberty but a redemption into a jealous God’s worship through obedience to special revealed laws for that Chosen relationship. The Redemption Comedy of the Gospels is a redemption out of bondage to sin and death and into freedom, but again not a licentious freedom but rather a chosen love-servanthood to Christ in all things. At least from a Christian perspective, the Redemption Comedy of the Gospels is not at odds with the Old Testamental Redemption. Rather the Redemption of a Chosen People is a first step culminating in the later spiritual redemption available to every human being. Both of these redemption stories are among the most read and cited in all literature, but we will largely limit ourselves to reference to Exodus to give broader understanding to terms useful in defining Stagecoach’s Redemption Comedy.

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That then is what we mean by Redemption. But we must also define what we mean by Comedy. Following ITCHS redefinition of Comedy, we will be assuming that Comedy is a patterned action that asserts a faith in the destined success or survival of humanity. That success or survival can never become a proven fact. That success and survival, however, is a strong visceral faith that keeps people going in the roughest of times and circumstances. As such, Comedy is the hands-down eternal box-office favorite genre. A great deal of that box-office success comes from light, fluffy work which leaves the audience glowing, happy, and fully energized to get on with it. However, comedy can also be serious and dark and may leave the audience somewhat drained as well as determined to carry on. One of the central forms of darkening is the creation of a virtual future for the full work of art after the final curtain or after the close of the literary work.  As part of that virtual future, Dark Comedy contains a clear sense that continued success and/or survival will be possible only at continued and continual additional substantial cost.  Redemption Comedy may also be light or dark, but notably Redemption Comedy moves strongly toward the serious and the darkened, especially through the recognition that Redemption comes with additional costs after freedom from bondage has become an accomplished fact.

The comedy of Exodus is the comedy of a stupendous if unmerited success of becoming God’s Chosen People. The comedy of the Gospels is the comedy of a stupendous if unmerited success of attaining eternal life and adoption into God’s family. Exodus’ Redemption Comedy comes at an on-going cost of obedience, and failure of obedience implies long-term magnified suffering along with survival. New Testamental Comedy also requires obedience, implies magnified suffering from disobedience, but focuses on continuing victory grounded in God’s and Christ’s continuing willingness to forgive and restore.

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Redemptive Comedy Special Language

We must move fast throughout this essay, and we highly recommend rereading parts or the whole after one has gotten a general sense of what such quadrilateral analysis can do for the definition of a new sub-genre. We are now in search of Special Language, recurrent if highly varied and often disguised forms of discussion that are the appropriate central concerns of Redemption. We should expect only very high-level generalizations to limit such discussion to four major variants.

Redemption requires an outside active agency that bears costs of redeeming the redeemed. Therefore, Generosity will often be at the center of redemption accounts.  What prompted the Generosity exhibited in the redeeming act?

Along with Generosity, there is a natural human proclivity to ask, “What’s the catch?” what is expected in return for the redeeming act. Put another way, Obligation becomes a central issue of redemptive discourse. What kind of Obligation are the redeemed under?

Thirdly, it can be imagined that the redeemed while still in bondage can continually dream of the possibility of Redemption, in which case they will be focusing on the Rewards of being set free.

Perhaps as an afterthought, they may also think about the Risks. Slavery is a dirty word for a dirty reality.  But one can be secure in that dirt. If one is at the bottom and thoroughly exploited, job security is typically not an issue nor is a place to sleep and at least enough to eat to keep going and working. These and much else suddenly become personal Risks with redemption.

There may be other topics that come up with respect to Redemption, but with an elastic understanding befitting the high level of generalization, these four seem to cover the bases.

Now four analytic variants like these are interesting in that a single statement can, in fact, belong to more than one of the variants; the variants are, in fact, inter-penetrable. And that suggests that we need to understand combinations of the analytics, and with the combinations, synthetic rather than analytic effects on the work in which the combination is dominant.

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To get at combinations, we display the four analytic variants on a circle divided into six wedges, each wedge representing one of six combinations of two analytics. (See Figure 1.)

Redemption Special Language Circle

Diagram

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Figure 1

Three of the four analytics—Risk, Rewards, and Obligation—are placed in adjoining circle segments, or in other words, in a half circle.  One of the four cannot be so placed.  Instead, it is placed in alternating segments in order to complete the set of six combinations of two variants.

We call the variant that is not graphed as a half circle the “Natural Intensifier” of the system. In this case, Generosity is the natural intensifier.  The Natural Intensifier is the analytic least likely to be recognized as itself and thus most likely to be sensed only as an intensification of its dominant partner. Thus, Generosity plus Obligation is likely to emphasize the Obligation while the Generosity is likely to be taken for granted.

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We later assign rubrics to the various circle segments, helping us understand and remember the combinations for themselves.

Emphasis on Risk and Reward is basically Shrewd calculation. 

Emphasis on Risk and Generosity emphasizes Investment, investment of both parties in the redemption.

Emphasis on Risk and Obligation emphasizes the Burden of redemption.

Emphasis on Obligation and Generosity emphasizes the essentially Asymmetric relationship necessary to redemption.

Emphasis on Obligation and Reward emphasizes the Contingent, strings-attached character of the redemptive act.

Emphasis on Rewards and Generosity emphasizes the Blessing of redemptive freedom.

Let’s quickly consider the Exodus example to clarify what we are saying. Exodus doesn’t much discuss the risks of redemption. The narrative has a God-centered perspective in which the risks are entirely from not accepting redemption. God takes care of all other Risks.

Rewards, on the other hand is constantly assumed and often discussed. The Hebrews have been suffering and crying out to God for 400 years.  He has led them out with a mighty arm.  Isn’t that reward-centered enough in itself?

To determine dominant combination, we are then left with a choice between Generosity and Obligations. God mentions his Generosity.  The Hebrew people are long on complaint and short on gratitude. Not a particularly apt area to find dominant special language.

On the other hand, God having redeemed Israel at the Red Sea, the account moves swiftly down the Sinai coast to Mt. Sinai, and from Mt. Sinai on, God establishes what the Hebrews consider one Obligation after another on them as now God’s people. Central to all are the Ten Commandments, much closer today to THE OBLIGATIONS of being human.

So, we would say that Rewards and Obligations together are the dominant special language characterizing the account as a whole. That assertion makes tautological that the Exodus redemptive comedy is moreover Contingent Redemptive Comedy.

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Other, Anti-Redemption, Oppositional Forms

There is more to a Redemption Comedy than the Redemption line. There are also other, oppositional forms “appropriate to” but opposed to the Redemption line. What appropriately works against Redemption?  Again we find four high-generalization major forms which we again range on a six-segment circle and establish rubrics for each of six combination of two dominant oppositional forms.

Greed works against Redemption. Moses cries out for God, “Let my people go.”  Greed won’t go along.

Deception also works against Redemption. Slavery is often based in an original deceiving and enslaving act.  The Hebrews came into Egypt deceived to think that they were the welcomed family of Egypt’s great administrator-preserver, Joseph. Deception can also work strongly to keep slaves enslaved. Pharoah at points seems ready to accept Hebrew emancipation.  That turns out to be deceptive.

Exploitation is closely related to Greed, the two form a “wing” within the quadrilateral. But Exploitation is the other side of the Greed coin, and it is the exploitation that the Hebrews feel when they turn to God for redress.

Conventionality often compliments Deception to become a second wing within the quadrilateral. Conventionality doesn’t admit its own character. It just asserts, “Well, that’s how it is.  Live with it.”  Convention can turn its back on injustice quite easily. “How many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”

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We have placed these four Anti-Redemption forms, analogous to Redemption special language forms, into a circle, labeled with rubrics for synthetic forms. (See Figure 2.)

 

Anti-Redemption Forms Circle

Diagram

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Figure 2

In the Exodus account, there are actually two sets of anti-redemption forms, one for the last days in Egypt and one for the begrudging Hebrew acceptance of a covenant relationship. We limit ourselves here to the first.

We’ve already indicated that Greed and Deception are major counter-lines to the Redemption Comedy of Moses and Aaron before Pharoah. Exploitation is certainly emphasized in the Hebrews returning to God.  It is also emphasized in Pharoah’s demand to make the same number of bricks without straw.

Conventionality (the Natural Intensifier of the system) is perhaps assumed but not emphasized.  Slaves are slaves are slaves. That’s how it is.  Live with it:  Probably Pharoah and his councilors thought such thoughts, but the Exodus account is not concerned with emphasizing them.

So, we have a close literary call to make here. If Greed and Deception are the dominant anti-forms, then we are watching Aggrandizing-enslavement Redemption Comedy. If Greed and Exploitation are dominant, then we are watching Tyrannical Redemption Comedy. If we assume that Greed has to be one of the dominants, these are the possibilities, and without putting too fine an edge on our analysis, that leaves us with some type of Redemption over Aggrandizing Tyranny Comedy. 

(This is the easy, compromising route.  For ourselves, if forced, we’d note that the Out of Egypt Comedy ends with Pharoah’s final deception, letting the Hebrews go, but then sending his army to bring them back—and God’s counter deception as the walls in the Red Sea collapse on the Egyptian host.  Tyrannical, yes. But for us, even more centrally Aggrandizing (and thus, deceptive) Enslavement Redemption Comedy.)

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Spirits of Redemption Comedy

Everything we have said about the type of Redemption Comedy exemplified in Exodus stands or falls on its own merits.  But given the conclusion of Exodus as Contingent and demonstrating Redemption over Aggrandizement, (at least up until the crossing of the Red Sea), it can be hoped that it is increasingly clear that there’s still something missing, the spirit in which we are to perceive these conclusions.

More precisely, what major spirits are appropriate to Redemption Comedy, and which of these are dominant in Exodus?

Redemption can be seen as a matter of Graduation, passing the final test and receiving certification. Especially the certification is freeing, as in students waiting to get “the piece of paper” which they think of as education.  Ge the paper, and you’re free.

Redemption can also depend on Merit. And often the slavery is the slavery of others not respecting the merit.  The recent film Midway has a fine example, a pilot named Best who unfortunately seems best at taking risks no other peace-time pilot in his right mind takes. Best is threatened with blocked advancement or even possible demotion.  But then comes Pearl Harbor and Best ends up leading six dive bombers on the Japanese fleet and its aircraft carriers off Midway. Best’s career is ended by a malfunction in his oxygen supply, and he is permanently grounded. But not before having the merited distinction of being the only pilot in the navy to have successfully divebombed and disabled (later destroyed) two aircraft carriers in a single day.  That can be a powerful Redemption.

Redemption can be a matter of pure free gift, Grace. Manumissions in ancient Greece and Rome are often presented that way in history, or else as matters of Grace recognizing and rewarding merit.

Again, the Natural Intensifier can easily be ignored.  It is also possible that full Redemption has to be more than a piece of paper or an official certificate from the Acropolis. Real freedom has to be learned by a slave who may have forgotten all about it, about freedom, that is.  And one way or another, that full Redemption ends up taking Nurture, to grow the slave into the freedom.

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We have placed the Redemption analytic Spirits in a circle with synthetic rubrics labeled. (See Figure 3.)

Redemption Spirits Circle

Diagram

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Figure 3

Now Spirit is pretty ephemeral, too easily ignored and very hard to do justice. And for something as important as the Exodus narrative, a discussion of Spirit can easily get contentious. In the short space available, let us then simply suggest one of the possibilities of a dominant synthetic Spirit.

It is quite easy to see the entire Exodus narrative as by the Grace of God. He chooses Moses, Moses doesn’t choose Him. And He chooses Israel to be the Chosen People for reasons of his own.  And he gives the Hebrews victory after victory without any indication that they have deserved it.

It is also easy to see the Hebrews as the slaves that they have been for 400 years. They don’t have much of a social system.  They certainly don’t have a government. They don’t have their own property until Egyptians press wealth upon them. They don’t have an economy or even an agricultural base for survival. As slaves, it is hard to say they have anything needed for survival with freedom. In Exodus, God rather systematically gives them a whole blueprint for a life as his freed chosen servants. They need all this nurture, all this tutoring, and beyond that, they seem to need to learn a great deal in the school of hard knocks. It considerably darkens any comedy that can be said to exist in Exodus that by the end of the book, they are failing again. The rest of the Old Testamental canon shows this virtual future of learning the hard way—if at all—is a virtual certainty.

Whatever controversy may depend on a fuller argument, this short argument would have the synthetic Spirit of Exodus to be Grace-Nurture. In Figure 3 we have given this an odd double rubric, Led Out and Educated. The oddness is that we are saying the same thing twice, once in Anglo-Saxon derivatives and once in Latin. To be educated is to be led out of ignorance.

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Putting the Exodus Argument Together

From all this, we would conclude that Exodus is not simply Redemption Comedy, though Redemption is written all over it and written inside its guts as well.

We can be much more specific, having analyzed it with appropriate quadrilaterals. And what we come up with is something like this: The biblical Exodus is a Redemption Comedy—a very dark Redemption into freedom to be God’s people. It is Redemption over aggrandizing enslavement, Redemption contingent on obedience, Redemption by Grace and through Nurture. It is thus extremely personal, a journey of each slave from aggrandizing domination into an educated knowledge of the God who has called each of them to obedient, life-long service.  By the end of Exodus, many have failed in this educative enfranchisement, but Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua are still left to lead a new generation whose education will continue in the desert for 40 years, but who will ultimately enter the Promised land.

But Does Theory Work for John Ford’s Stagecoach?

Exodus is surrounded by historical and religious complexities that continue to be centrally important 35 centuries later. What we have written purports to be a disinterested literary analysis based in a guiding theory irrespective of these historical and religious complexities. That’s the kind of thing solid literary criticism can provide. We hope we have largely succeeded in our attempt.

But can a theory wending its way through historical and religious complexities of the highest order be at all relevant to ordinary literature, even to secularly acclaimed but religiously unencumbered literature?

John Ford’s Stagecoach allows us to provisionally answer this question. There is no doubt that Stagecoach is a milestone in cinematic history, moving the shoot-‘em-up Western to a new serious literary level and becoming seminal to a major cinematic local-color genre. There can be no question that Stagecoach was immediately appreciated not just by theatre audiences but by the film industry itself, winning Oscars for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and for Hageman, Harling, Leipold, and Shuken for Best Musical Scoring. And there can be no question that Stagecoach became formative to both John Wayne’s and Andy Divine’s careers as quintessential Western figures and to John Ford as dominant director in Westerns.

If the theory has been reasonably explicated, we should be able to simply embody the theory in practical criticism of Stagecoach.

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A Comedic Redemptive Line

In early John Wayne movies like Randy Rides Alone (1934) it is hard to say we are looking at a dramatic product at all. Motion pictures had achieved sound, but they still looked back on the tradition of silent movies—long on action, short on dialogue, long on melodramatic music if a piano was handy and bereft of symbolism. Often described as shoot-‘em-up Westerns, such talkie films were little more than an excuse for violent spectacle. Stagecoach moved decisively passed that tradition.

But Stagecoach still remained long on travelogue features, most notably majestic Arizona landscapes that became a John Ford trademark. There are long scenes that do little but consider the fact of stagecoach travel in the years immediately after the Civil War and, in this case, the violence that sometimes erupted between American nationals and disgruntled Indians, often symbolized in a climactic cavalry charge, as here the charge of 6th Cavalry Company E. Dialogue became intermittent and could be thought of as unimportant as could all deeper issues of metaphor, symbolism, and other “literary” interests. Underneath all this, however, John Ford moved decisively in favor of literary dimensions.

One would expect then that emphasis on Redemption in Stagecoach would have to be mainly carried in a redemptive comedic line, and this is indeed the fact. The central Redemption of Stagecoach is of course the redemption of the stagecoach itself from the attack of Apaches led by the great chief Geronimo himself.  

But that superficial reality—which tended to be like the superficial shoot-em-up Western—was only the general frame in which multiple other Redemptions provided the real literary interest of the film.

Perhaps the most visually obvious of these Redemptions is the Redemption of Mrs. Mallory and her baby. She has taken this stage, as she has taken all other forms of transportation available to reach Arizona from Virginia, but now she is late in pregnancy and it is with great effort that she consistently resolves to put joining her cavalry officer husband ahead of all other considerations for herself and the expected child. She and the child are redeemed by Dr. Boone and Dallas in the midst of the final journey to Lordsburg, and as often happens with the redeemed, the baby gets a new name, Little Cayote. At a deeper level, Mrs. Mallory enters the process of forming a new, more gracious self in response to Dallas—the fallen woman—who has put aside every insult to care for mother and child.

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From a literary and dramatic perspective, however, Mrs. Mallory is not very near the center of the film, much as she is a significant exemplar of the Eastern-Gentlewoman-Become-Strong-Pioneer-Woman tradition in American Studies.

Instead, it is her deliverer, Dr. Boone who is most redeemed from the devils within. Thomas Mitchell earned an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, (and a National Board of Review Award for Best Acting,) a role that he both comically and humanely carried off with.  Boone is lost in drink at the beginning of the film and far from full sobriety at the end. But in between, he has exhibited a true gentleman character particularly with respect to Dallas, a philosophical temper that defies the dangers and hardships of the West, and an ability to get hold of himself in more than one medical crisis. We don’t get much of his backstory, but it evidently includes an honorable tour as medical staff to an elite Civil War Cavalry and as private general physician.  In the end, it is his advice which guides Dallas to a new life and his support that allows Marshal Wilcox to transcend duty into generous frontier justice. Boone doesn’t really get a new name, but he gets a new respect as Doc.

Dallas, the fallen woman, is redeemed from a life that is fairly graphically adumbrated at Lordsburg.  As she says, “You gotta live,” and that hasn’t been easy for a child orphaned by massacre on Superstition Mountain. She doesn’t have a last name, but presumably she gets one south of the Border. She is redeemed by her own humility and by Ringo’s unfailingly naďve but bone-real courtesy—and ultimately by his love.

And that brings us to Donald Meeker in his wonderfully adept role as Samuel Peacock, the man with a name no one remembers. Doc gives him the name –or at least the title—Reverend simply on the basis of his meek behavior and habit of referring to everyone as brother or sister.  He is the hard-working traveling salesman, making the best of very bad realities for the sake of a wife and five children back home in Kansas City—no one remembers which one. To the extent that he is redeemed, it is ironically by an arrow in the throat or collar bone. Patched up, he reverts to type, nameless but inviting Dallas to visit wife and family back east.  Doc probably had the title-name right all along.

At least since Gov. Winthrop’s fleet arrived in Boston Harbor, America has had backstories of high wealth and accomplishment back east and on the other side of the Atlantic Pond. In the Puritans, these prestigious people had also become outcasts, essentially without country, in this case because of religious faith.  In Stagecoach, Hatfield represents this pariah tradition.  In the West, he is seen as an unscrupulous gambler with a dubious reputation as a gunfighter.  He chooses—and that’s the important point—to risk his life to play a courtier role that befits his former self, the talented and disciplined Confederate officer in Mrs. Mallory’s father’s regiment.  He gives his life gladly to serve her and her soon-to-be child.  He never achieves a first name, and that seems fine to him in his return to his ante bellum self.

And then there’s the Ringo Kid, ironic that Wayne achieved real stardom precisely in a servant’s role.  But servant he is and a providential one at that. He is redeemed by constant idealism, by fantastic athleticism, and ultimately by the love of a woman who both owes him her life and gives him one. Like Peacock he is a man whose name no one remembers.

Perhaps Redemption Comedy normally has a variety of redemption focuses. That’s certainly true for Moses, Aaron, Caleb, Joshua, and the Hebrews generally in Exodus.  It is also true incidentally for Damn Yankees a musical twenty years junior to Stagecoach, the story of Joe (who doesn’t seem to have a last name), Joe Hardy, the star baseball player he becomes, the nameless befuddled Washington Senators he joins, Lola, the devil’s assistant who learns to care and whose only sobriquet is “the Ugliest Woman in Providence, Rhode Island.” Damn Yankees ends with Washington winning the pennant, the devil deceived by Lola into redeeming Joe from damnation, and Joe returning home as “just Joe.”

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Redemption Special Language in Stagecoach

As Redemption Comedy, Stagecoach is not long on humor. And its serious attention to evils of Western society may suggest that it should be classed as drame and not associated with comedy at all.  The many redemptive comedic sub-lines of the work, however, clearly delineate a comedic as well as a redemptive movement to the whole.  (We should also note superlative performances of Andy Devine as Buck and Thomas Mitchell as Doc with their attendant consistent humor.)

But more generally, as indicated earlier, Redemption Comedy substitutes special language of Risk, Reward, Obligation, and Generosity for light comedy’s humor of the mind (Word Play, Incongruity, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain.)

All four of these special language emphases of Redemption are present in Stagecoach. Risk is constantly being assessed and made to drive decision and action. Reward for the Ringo Kid is specifically mentioned and the rewards of long-term stagecoach driving provides a great deal of Buck’s humor. Obligations are heavily emphasized in all decisions to continue forward on the scheduled route to Lordsburg and in Ringo’s sense of unalterable purpose in getting there. Generosity and its rejection are constantly at issue from the Ladies Society back home to Ringo’s innate generosity to women and Hatfield’s generosity to the values of a defunct society.

But if we have to ask which two of these four special language forms is dominant, we may conclude that clearly Risk is absolutely in the lead. This is particularly true if we include in “language” body language and visual-ization. As soon as we do, it is obvious that Ringo jumping from horse to horse to control the stagecoach team is one of the most memorable of Hollywood images, a statement of supreme Risk, intensified, of course ,by Apaches attacking from all sides. Careful examination of the film, however, shows Risk coming up in very small elements as well as very large, as, for example, Doc extending his arm to Dallas and leading her to the stagecoach with an apt reference to the guillotine.

Comparatively, there isn’t much on rewards, as Buck’s monologue on the rewards of a stagecoach career emphasizes. (There isn’t much reward for cavalry service either, as emphasized in Gatewood’s repeated attacks.)

In between these extremes of Risk and Reward, Stagecoach does spend considerable special language on both Obligation and on Generosity.  The direction of the plot, however, strongly emphasizes Generosity over Obligation. Perhaps the symbolic center of that special language is Ringo, sitting very uncomfortably on the floor of the overstuffed stage insisting on a generous recognition of women—not just gentlewomen—as the rightful recipients of male solicitude.

If we take Risk and Generosity as the dominant special language features of Stagecoach, the two in synthetic combination point to Investment. There’s a thief in the coach, but the dominant motif is of very diverse Americans working together, investing in a new civilization that they are simultaneously creating.

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Anti-Redemption Forms

If Stagecoach’s impetus is investing, redemptive comedy, what are the forms working to block that impetus? Well, there’s the Ladies Society, the embezzling banker, social prejudice, evidently injustice toward Ringo, renegade Apaches. Theoretically, these somehow fit within one or more forms of Greed, Deception, Exploitation, and Conventionality.

Gatewood, the embezzling banker makes himself obvious, makes a bid for social and political dominance over his fellow travelers, and, of course, exemplifies Greed. By and large, however he is shunted aside and even ignored. 

Exploitation seems never to come up, though it probably would from the Apache perspective.

That leaves Deception and Conventionality. Neither is obvious, both are pervasive.

The Deceptions of Stagecoach are largely the deceptions of the harsh, Western world. Geronimo has perhaps deceptively jumped the reservation. We really don’t know because it isn’t presented.  There is, however, repeatedly presented a stagecoach schedule. The schedule seems matter-of-fact.  But at every point it proves deceptive. Similarly, the cavalry at the outset seems perfectly real and reliable. Reports on cavalry deployments are, however, consistently false. Similarly too, the telegraph unites the West—until of course it ceases to work after one word, “Geronimo.” Lordsburg isn’t evidently the Lord’s town, and the greatest dangers lie beyond the ferry that was supposed to symbolize safety.

If Conventionality is an anti-form, it is opposed to the investing redemptive drive of the whole.  The Ladies Society women don’t see themselves that way, nor does Doc’s landlady.  But their Conventionality works consistently against the generous confronted with daunting risks. Gatewood doesn’t see himself opposing generous progress, but, of course, he doesn’t have a generous bone in his body. And sadly social prejudice is not left behind when the stagecoach leaves town but instead infects all the early stages of the journey, working against the diverse social entente necessary for survival.

The anti-forms of Deception and Conventionality add up to Dissembling. The great redemptive successes must work their way through or around Dissembling and false reality.  The final scene in Stagecoach finds Doc and Wilcox dissembling and Ringo and Dallas driving away behind a matched pair of horses, suggesting that the way through has been found.

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Spirit

The anti-forms of Stagecoach are unusually muted.  Spirit isn’t muted but it is almost always ephemeral, hard to spot, hard to distinguish or delineate. Spirit is the breath of life, and like the wind, it blows where it listeth but is itself invisible.

Having a quadrilateral of appropriate spirits, however, can make comparatively short work of its determination  For Redemption Comedy, the available spirits are Graduation, Merit, Grace, and Nurture.

 In Stagecoach, Graduation is not a factor. The closest thing to graduation is Ringo’s assumed return to prison with a longer sentence.  The next most reasonable graduation is Dallas’ assumed and ironic graduation to the busier brothels of Lordsburg. Neither of these graduations is fulfilled. Dallas will graduate to “wife” and Ringo to “husband,” but that is a virtuality of the future and quite limited in its central interest in the plot.

Similarly, Nurture is not significantly suggested by the plot nor is it ever the center of attention. Lack of nurture is emphasized both for Ringo and for Dallas. As Westerners, the other characters are consistently independent of one another, learn little from one another, and thus cannot be said to seek or receive Nurture. Dallas asking Doc for advice is about as close as Stagecoach ever gets to a Spirit of Nurture, and Doc denies his right to give any.

That leaves Merit and Grace. There’s a great deal of merit in Stagecoach: merit in risk-taking, merit in marksmanship, merit in athletic daring.  In most senses, the charge of Company E symbolizes the generous merit that made the West. 

And that leaves Grace, and its emblem is Mrs. Mallory in prayer as bullets in the stagecoach run out.  John Ford cared a great deal about music, and Stagecoach won a Best-Scoring, Music Oscar for Hageman, Harling, Leipold and Shuken.  Listen to the sound track carefully, and determine where you first hear the bugle charge sounded. It has been marvelously buried into the musical text so that when Mrs. Mallory asks if anyone’s heard the charge, we as audience have and haven’t heard it at the same time. 

It’s by the Grace of God and of the cavalry, of course, that Stagecoach carries on to a full comedic rather than tragic ending.  By Grace, a doctor and a nurse are provided for Mrs. Mallory and Little Cayote. By Grace, Hatfield’s and Ringo’s impressive firepower is added to stagecoach defense. By Grace, a sheriff who cares replaces a nameless stagecoach shotgun. By Grace, a man who thinks of others as brothers and sisters quietly moves toward defusing squabbling and toward decisive influence. In the end, not only by Grace has the stagecoach been saved but also by Grace redemptive chapters have been completed toward the building of the West.

Spirits of Grace and Merit we have called synthetically Fitting. If Spirit is always one, however, the Spirit of Stagecoach is Grace.

We started this essay without a definition of some strange thing called Redemption Comedy which inexplicably was claimed to substitute special language, anti-form, and spirit for the traditional concept of laughter providing the essential character of comedy. We end with Stagecoach delineated as quintessentially that kind of comedy, and moreover, a more fully defined redemptive comedy based in investment, opposed by a dissembling and deceitful world, and impelled by a Spirit of Grace. The combination says a lot about the genius of John Ford as Americanist director.

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See also  Romantic Comedy: John Ford/John Wayne’s Hondo

 

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