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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

John J. Michalczyk and SJ Raymond G. Helmick

While the ashes of the Holocaust were still fresh, Polish Jewish attorney Raphael Lemkin put a name to the tragedy that had decimated his family – genocide. The twentieth century was brutally scarred by the massive scale of genocide and its manifest forms of ethnic cleansing, massacres, and atrocities. We ask how these horrors can be visually translated to the screen while both maintaining their authenticity and serving as commercial «entertainment». Through an analysis of a series of poignant films on the plight of the Native Americans, the controversial Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and its legacy, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the Hutu-sponsored massacres in Rwanda, the reader can grasp the driving mechanisms of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The oft-repeated, «Never again» rings hollow to our ears in the wake of these tragedies in a post-Holocaust era. The films discussed here, both features and documentaries, are set in an historical context that sheds light on the dark side of humanity and are then discussed with the hope of better understanding our frailty. In the end, however, we ask can the «unrepresentable» ever be represented?
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Stagecoach (1939) and the Image of “Indians” in John Ford’s Films: Marilyn J. Matelski


Marilyn J. Matelski

John Ford is one of the greatest, if not most enigmatic, directors in American film history. Much has been written about his work, and he often disparaged both the analysis and the author. He once was quoted as saying,

Everybody asks the same questions, all you people. And I’m sick and tired of answering them, because I don’t know the answers. I’m just a hard-nosed, hard-working…ex-director, and I’m trying to retire gracefully.1

But despite similar self-disclaimers throughout his career, John Ford remains an iconic figure, a directorial genius making American culture “come alive” for millions of people. Stagecoach (1939) is included amongst his signature Westerns, bringing together a cast of diverse characters, all seeking a new life on the frontier. Some, like Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and Dallas (Claire Trevor), have been driven away in shame; others, like Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), are running to a hopeful future they feel is waiting for them. But in the end, according to Marshal Curley (George Bancroft), “they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.”2 This classic has been popular for more than seven decades, and heralded as a popular history of America’s westward migration.

The core of the story—traveling within Indian-dominated lands—portrays Native Americans as ruthless savages who are less than human. Comments like, “If there’s anything I don’t like, it’s driving a stagecoach through Apache territory,” “We’re all going to be scalped…massacred in one swoop,” “Geronimo...

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