Stagecoach has never been one of my favorite John Ford movies, but that’s only because Ford made so many good movies that something has to rank farther down the line. Still, it’s everything that everybody says it is: the first modern Western, a perfectly cast, perfectly detailed ensemble piece, a not-too-pushy allegory about the opening of the West, the movie that made John Wayne a star, and just a gaudily entertaining picture in general. But while watching it last night it struck me how much of a woman’s picture it is: Claire Trevor’s top billing wasn’t just a default move owing to the fact that she was a bigger star at the time than any of her male cohorts. It really is her—or rather, her character, Dallas’—story, with Dallas’ liberation from her life as a crib prostitute the one indispensable movement in the entire picture. Even beyond that, Stagecoach, which never strays far from its central proposition that empathy is the supreme virtue in human society, is a physical demonstration of feminist, or at least feminine, values—values which form the bedrock of practically every great movie I can think of, from Broken Blossoms to A Day in the Country to Contempt to There Will Be Blood. American movies went to pot at about the same time (and for many of the same reasons) that feminism lost its way, and instead of guys growing the fuck up and becoming reasonable about subjects like sex and money and emotional confrontations, things got turned around and it was the women who wound up changing, with far too many of them turning into the same kind of entitled, short-fused, sexually psychotic clowns we are, with the end result that the same culture which once paid good money to see Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and A Woman Under the Influence now gets wet over Kick-Ass and Sex and the City 2.
Ah, well—at least some of us are safe from the blessings of civilization.