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  • "Free From the Blessings of Civilization":Native Americans In Stagecoach (1939) and Other John Ford Westerns
  • Peter Yacavone

The past two decades have seen a welcome exposure of the colonialist and frankly racist representations of Native Americans in classical cinema, and in many ways John Ford has appeared to present an easy target, particularly with John Wayne in the starring role. Frequently, however, this perspective is grounded less in detailed analyses of films like Stagecoach and The Searchers as audio-visual and ideological wholes than in relatively isolated responses to images and sequences. There is still a clear need for a more accurate examination of Ford's treatment of Native American peoples throughout the entire body of his Western films, and this article attempts to outline some key aspects of such an approach.

At the outset, we must ask why it is Ford who has been so regularly the subject of criticism in this context, rather than other prominent directors of Westerns such as Anthony Mann or John Sturges? Why Ford, rather than his creative predecessors Owen Wister, Frederic Remington, D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, and William S. Hart (the biggest Western star of the silent era)?5 An unapologetic colonialism, a tendency towards sexual prurience in their images of Native Americans, and (except in the case of the ambivalent Remington) an enthusiastic white supremacism is well-documented in the case of each of these artists – giants in the formation of the cinematic Western – yet they are only cursorily dealt with in recent cultural examinations of the genre. Why is Stagecoach (1939) so regularly treated in this context, when Western Union and Dodge City—both triumphal celebrations of Manifest Destiny—were produced in the same year, as was DeMille's patently colonialist Union Pacific?

The treatment of Ford appears to have been proportionate to his status as the definitive Hollywood 'Western auteur.' Joan Dagle has noted "the ease with which 'John Ford', 'Western', and 'Classical Hollywood Cinema' can collapse into interchangeable terms" (Dagle 103). To hold Ford accountable is, by proxy, to hold both an industry and a genre responsible. This homogenizing tendency began with Andre Bazin, in his "Evolution of the Western" (149-50),6 and was cemented in connection with Ford's preliminary role in the creation of John Wayne's politicized and 'reactionary' celebrity. These factors ensured that Ford, however much he was revered by leading French and British theorists of the day (e.g., Peter Wollen), would become a stand-in for 'Hollywood' for subsequent generations of ideology-focused critics. Ford's own baffled, defensive response to charges of racism at the beginning of this probing in the late '60s was bound to be unsatisfactory (Peary 69, 106, 116; Eyman 488; Bogdanovich 94, 104). Regarded as a chief architect of the Hollywood Western, Ford was taken to be a primary source of its ideologies: thus Jacquelyn Kilpatrick's confident assertion that "more than any other filmmaker, Ford was responsible for the ideas Americans had about Native Americans" (60).

This is a questionable judgment, not least because, as Kilpatrick herself observes, it [End Page 32] does not take into account the roughly 400 films featuring Native Americans between 1910 and 1914 alone (22), before the beginning of Ford's career, nor the hundreds made earlier, catalogued in the Moving Picture World of 1911 (Bush 60), containing outrageous racial stereotypes. Based on surviving descriptions, only three of Ford's many silent Westerns definitely featured Natives,7 while from 1927-1939 (the entire early sound era), and from 1940-1946, Ford made no Westerns at all. How, then, can we take Kilpatrick's assertion as self-evident? Her perspective seems to stem from the fact that Ford has become the aesthetic and historically inescapable wellspring for our understanding of the cinematic Western today. Any reevaluation of the national 'Myth of the Frontier' in the U.S., as it appears in cinema and in fiction, must confront Ford, and, when it does, must reckon with the distinction between mythic elements that move through Ford and those that originate in Ford.

Joan Dagle rightly suspects the reductionism that positions Ford as 'representative' of Hollywood cinema; not only his cultural...


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