Skip to main content

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."

- - -

* 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.

Popular posts from this blog

Back to Basics: Dry Summers, Figs, and a Chunk of Cheese

What do we know about simplicity? Figs from our tree. Figs. The taste of summer, the taste of home; my immigrant home. Our backyard tree is heavy with fruit. In the mornings I go out to pick what is ripe; figs for breakfast, a treat straight from the tree; flesh and seeds, refreshing and sweet, grainy resistance and softness at the same time. Figs, the color of their skin, purple with blotches of green or white stripes where they have cracked. The reds and browns inside bring up memories: a summer spent in Normandy, France, with my parents, my brother, and my maternal grandmother. Life was about food in its basic, original form, about mussels and figs and cheese; it was about the ocean and its tides, gigantic but predictable, and about history. We visited Bayeux to see  the tapestry which tells the story of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings;  we spent a day or a half at  Arromanches,  saw a documentary on D-Day and the landing of the allied forces on the b

Another Word for Fast Food? Trzesniewski (Pile On 1)

The other day I passed by a new Subway sandwich place which had opened a few blocks from our house. As I was reflecting its green and yellow sign images of foot long chunks of white bread came to mind, mayo smeared on one half, mustard on the other; ham, provolone, pickles, jalapenos, onions, peppers, olives, tomatoes in between and a bag of chips for sides... People in America like to pile on. I also thought of my favorite fast food place in Vienna, which goes by the unspeakable name of Trzesniewski. The original Trzesniewski opened in the first district more than one hundred years ago. Its oldest location is tucked into a narrow street off of Graben. Other outlets are scattered around town. Trzesniewski sells open face sandwiches, slivers of rye bread (white or wheat? no, you do not get to choose!), topped with spreads made from either egg or tomatoes or cucumber, pickle, salmon, herring...  The more elaborate creations come with two or three spreads, applied next to each other

Ban on Plastic Bags Bugs L.A. County

Paper or plastic? Bag from South Africa. My friend recently came back from a trip to South Africa and brought me a reusable grocery bag. It is from Woolworths, one of the largest retail chains in South Africa; it is made by a community project and serves as a symbol of the company's commitment to sustainability and social development. I will think of this whenever I use my new bag. Thank you, dear friend! The Woolworths bag is not my first reusable bag. I carry two baggies which fold up into packs smaller than a deck of cards in my purse and a bunch of bigger ones in the trunk of my car. To me this feels like an easy way of making a difference environmentally. Others seem to have a harder time. When the county of Los Angeles recently introduced a ban on plastic bags for its unincorporated areas the new ordinance was met with resistance. Shops bemoan that paper is more expensive than plastic. They charge customers ten cents for every paper bag. Shoppers complain about the t