Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
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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