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Words of 1939: "Our National Debt Is Something Shocking"

"A foul disease called social prejudice." Mud wagon used in Stagecoach.

In 1939 director John Ford squeezed seven people into a stagecoach and gave them a rough ride across the desert. The group encountered Apaches; had to deal with the premature labor of a traveling woman; needed to figure out how to cross the river after Lee's Ferry had been burned down.

Sounds hard enough. But what makes matters really bad - and the movie a classic - are the group of seven, their personalities and biographies, and "a foul disease called social prejudice" (words of Josiah Boone, an alcoholic doctor). The seven are: a prostitute, a dishonest banker, a pregnant cavalry officer's wife, a Confederate gambler, a whiskey salesman, the doctor, and a fugitive outlaw. Tensions between these characters run high from the beginning but as life goes - or is it just Hollywood? - they are softened towards the end.

Stagecoach* is one of my favorite movies. On a recent trip to Sequoia National Forest a few hours north of Los Angeles I learned that the Lee's Ferry part of the film was shot right there, at the Kern River. The modified mud wagon which was used as a stand-in for the stagecoach in the river scene is on display in the back yard of Kern Valley Museum in Kernville. A poster of John Wayne at the back of the coach pays tribute to the actor who played Ringo Kid, the fugitive outlaw.

After our return from the River Kern we watched the movie again. It is as pertinent as ever. To this day our feelings towards prostitutes, alcoholics, and gamblers have hardly changed; bankers still make away with their clients' money; compassion may still be found in the good, the bad, and the ugly. Finally, to quote John Ford's Henry Gatewood, the embezzling banker: "Our national debt is something shocking."

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* To watch Stagecoach on YouTube click here.


debi said…

Hollywood and old age may be the only two things that truly cause a softened growth of character.

I love westerns, also. The horses and landscapes of the southwest with all its organic and savage impediments to survival make great stories, especially when stellar character arcs are woven in.
Thanks, Debi.

The landscape of the American Southwest is a big part of my sweet spot for Westerns too. For me it has to do with the vastness of the deserts, canyons, and mountain ranges. The emptiness and virginity of the landscape are an invitation for projection. Grievances and hopes, resentments and aspirations - there is room for it all.

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