Thursday, February 6, 2014

Notes on Stagecoach by John Ford, USA: 1939 (Berlin Filmfestival I. -Retrospective Aesthetics and Shadows

There is no book where you can learn as much about cinema than through the films by John Ford or Yasujiro Ozu. When, like Wim Wenders said Yasujiro Ozu was a sanctuary of Cinema, one can say the same about John Ford. I discovered the films of both masters around the same time for myself and Stagecoach was one of the first films by Ford where I discovered that Ford was by far more than a great storyteller. It is well known that Stagecoach re-established the Western as an A-genre. For me, it is more important that Stagecoach is also an exemplary Road Movie. In Road Movies, a voyage if in a car or like here in a carriage became pure Cinema, Cinema and voyage became one.
It is neither Fords only great Western nor Fords only Road Movie (remember his early masterpiece Pilgrimage from 1933), but it is a great film to begin your journey with the films by John Ford. Stagecoach as a journey through the mythological landscape of the American west and this other Road Movie from Japan, Hiroshi Shimizu´s Arigato-san from 1936, a journey through a very concrete Japan of the 1930sare films I always come back to them. They help me to understand a lot of films which are made decades later. The most recent masterpiece by Aparna Sen, Mr. And Mrs. Iyer for example has affinities to both, Fords poetic western/Road Movie and Shimizu´s journey through a Japan shattered by by an economic depression.

In the critical reception of John Ford, especially Stagecoach – there is always the stupid misunderstanding of Ford as a racist. The natives we see in Stagecoach as a threat, remain anonymous. More important Ford characters, the sympathetic or the non sympathetic are still far away from the perception that they are invaders in this beautiful country. In other words they are still occupied with themselves. The white society in Fords films are full of discrimination. The true heroes of this film are not John Wayne´s Ringo or the sheriff, but first of all Dallas, a prostitute which is chased out of town and an always drunken Dr. Boone. They are the characters who are really confronted with challenges and they grow with them. Finally it is Dr. Boone who has to help another woman in the carriage to deliver a child. It is a very funny but also moving moment when Boone has to make some efforts to get sober and how he has to deal with his fear being not able anymore to work as a doctor. Impossible not to fall in love with Thomas Mitchell´s Boone or Claire Trevor´s Dallas. Like often in Fords films, the outsiders, the misfits are often the most important people in a community when they get a chance to proof it.
As Fords characters emerge during this cinematic journey, we will see later how Ford´s sight of the American west will develop to a much more complex one. As it is known that finally Stagecoach re-established the western 1929 again, Ford finally also invented the sub genre we call “end time western” with his late masterpieces The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Two Rode Together. Elements of a more critical sight of the confrontation between the white invaders and the Natives begins already 1948 in Fort Apache, by far the masterpiece of his cavalry trilogy. The first western who really revealed racism were the western by John Ford. No American director had the courage to use John Wayne for playing an open racist like in The Searchers.
The cinema of John Ford is finally a kaleidoscope of American history. The movement from a mythological western to the avantegarde of the "end time western", And western, by the way are only one chapter in the rich work of John Ford.
Like I mentioned his early any less known masterpiece Pilgrimage would have been as well a great introduction to Fords cinematic universe. Stagecoach was on of three masterpieces by Ford made in 1939. The others were Young Mr. Lincoln, one of the finest bio pic in the history of cinema and Drums Along The Mohawk”. With the exception of Pilgrimage (1933), the 1930s were for Ford mostly a time of experimenting with different genres with different influences. With Stagecoach and the other mentioned films, Ford was finally established as one of the leading figures in American film history and the next 30 years of American cinema are not even thinkable without his contribution.

Another film by Ford will be screened in this retrospective: Grapes of Wrath, his dark and grim Steinbeck-adaption.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Saturday, Feb 8 Cinemaxx 8, 18.00
Saturday, Feb 15 Zeughauskino, 21.00

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