It is worthwhile to discuss, in a historical materialist fashion, John Ford’s attitude towards the American Indians and his treatment of the residents of Monument Valley. This author would like to suggest an addendum to previous criticism, an understanding of the context in which Ford’s pictures were released in based on a comparative literature analysis by Kalinak and a grasp of the economic arrangements that Ford created in Monument Valley when filming his pictures.
When this author was instructed by Dr. Kathryn Kalinak on Ford’s Westerns, she held up for comparison with STAGECOACH Cecil B. DeMille’s UNION PACIFIC, also released in 1939. De Mille’s picture traffics in typical racist caricatures of Indians, using nonsense babbling for speech, inaccurate costuming, and derogatory representations. By contrast, STAGECOACH features real American Indian costuming, actors, language, and customs. As Dagle points out in her essay, FORT APACHE portrays the American military leadership, personified by Henry Fonda, as racist, incompetent, and ultimately solely at fault for reigniting a conflict with Cochise and the American Indians that closes the film with a Little Bighorn-style quagmire (Dagle 117). Ford’s inability to go further in narrative terms regarding Indians is problematic and was best represented by his later film CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), a predecessor of pictures like DANCES WITH WOLVES that pales in comparison to the coincidental Communist East German Westerns such as those starring Gojko Mitic.
Yet that is symptomatic of the studio system, addressed below. As was the case with his casting of Stepin Fetchit, Ford did often find himself utilizing racial stereotypes that were detrimental in terms of media representation. But exactly despite this, Ford also paid Fetchit a decent wage. Perhaps one of the more notable instances of Ford’s off-screen racial politics was described by James Stewart in Peter Bogdanovich’s DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD documentary where Ford publicly shamed the actor in front of the entire set for expressing racist views. Like his bullying of Ward Bond and John Wayne, Ford’s sentiments remained fundamentally and essentially informed by his Fellow Traveler Liberal ideals, perhaps not politically correct at all times but certainly opposed to chauvinism and gleeful to ostracize those who practiced it. These flaws give greater definition to what a Fellow Traveler was, warts and all.
When Ford journeyed to Monument Valley, the repeated canvas of his Westerns, he was operating within the confines of the studio system. This included a closed shop acting union that was still segregated due to casting choices informed by audience preferences. When STAGECOACH was produced, Ford was unable to cast American Indians from Monument Valley as stars in his picture unless they previously had been admitted to the acting union.
But within these confines Ford was able to do a great deal of good. He helped the Navajo tribe develop a land rental system that was favorable to their interests and has helped the Monument Valley Park remain a financially-competitive location shooting set. He was unable to hire residents for starring roles but was able to, and did, hire them as extras, subordinate roles, stuntmen, and as other talent, paying them decent wages. He would send all commerce possible through their trading post and other outlets from which they could profit. He considered himself a guest and cared about his hosts, trying to do what he could. McBride includes in his biography a scene in the production of one of Ford’s films where the director wept when a stuntman was badly injured during one of these productions. Churchill is adamant in his works that reservations effectively function as internal colonies of America. Yet Ford’s actions towards these colonial subjects certainly went against the grain of the typical Leninist description of imperial administrations.
With all these points in mind a more honest critique of STAGECOACH is tenable. The more overt racial politics, described by Dagle and Berg, are white supremacist, particularly in regards to the demonization of American Indian sexuality and its presentation as a threat to Euro-American femininity. The film, the story of a motley cast of characters on a stagecoach journeying across the western expanses plagued by attacks by Indians, is classical Hollywood cinema romance.
But the more subtle elements are quite progressive in comparison to DeMille’s work, creating a dialectical relationship that Mao Tse Tung would describe as a contradiction. The banking and financial sector is thoroughly demonized for greed. The sex worker is the major heroine of the story and is chased out of town by a pack of Christian women not unlike the temperance movement that was reviled by Irish Catholics of Ford’s day. The Mexicans in this wild west are virtuous, good people while the Europeans are either outlaws, outcasts, or scoundrels. Despite his more overt sexism regarding the aforementioned white femininity, Ford’s portrayal of sex work remains radical.
This can be only attributed to one thing, the fact that Ford’s pictures, as with the Popular Front itself, attempted to create a populist appeal for Communism that included problematic elements. In this effort, the Communist Party adorned their banners with white supremacists and slave holders while toning down their verbiage about class warfare and anti-colonialism, going as far as Earl Browder saying he would work hand-in-hand with J.P. Morgan to sue for a peaceful society! We should see STAGECOACH as a cultural relic, like the Wallace vice presidency and presidential campaign, of a counterfactual to what became the Cold War and the anti-Communist political consensus in American domestic and foreign policies.
This in turn helps us better grasp the meaning of THE SEARCHERS, a film that is at its heart about the failures of the American Revolution and the Old Left. Though it grapples with racial politics in the early years of the New Left, having been released in 1956, the method and grasp it has of these issues can and should be seen as an Old Left worldview, complete with the problematic elements that worldview entailed during the Popular Front years.