I’ve written about my love of old black-and-white movies from the 1930s and 40s, and how their simple human stories remain relevant to our lives in a way that many computer-spectacle films do not. For that reason, I often showed my daughter the works of Buster Keaton and Preston Sturgess, Frank Capra and John Ford, Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch – and the other day, we watched John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach.
For those who don’t know, the film tells the story of a mismatched assortment of travellers – a cross-section of rich and poor, men and women, lawful and criminal – travelling across the desert in the titular vehicle at a time when Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath. The film gives us a concise but clear introduction to each character, and why they must take such a dangerous journey; most of them are running to or away from something, and their time is running out.
One passenger, a proper Southern lady in the last days of pregnancy, is trying to get to her husband in the Army – only to hear that he has been sent into battle, and she spends the journey not knowing whether she is a widow. Another passenger also comes from Confederate aristocracy, a gentleman gambler who fled West after the Civil War, and he looks after the lady who represents his lost home.
The coach also includes a local prostitute named Dallas who has been driven out of town; a stentorian banker with a dark secret; a meek salesman, and a doctor-turned-drunkard. Riding atop the coach, next to the long-suffering driver, is the sheriff, there to protect the passengers but also to look for an escaped fugitive.
The fugitive is the legendary Ringo Kid, who escaped from prison to avenge the murder of his family. The sheriff knows and likes Ringo — who isn’t a hardened criminal, but simply a kid who got into trouble – but must find and arrest him all the same.
All these people of different classes, who would never be seen together in everyday life, must squeeze uncomfortably together for the dangerous ride. Shortly outside of town, though, they run into a man whose horse went lame on the trail – the Ringo Kid himself, in the role that made a star of the young John Wayne.
The sheriff places Ringo under arrest, but as the stagecoach encounters flooded rivers and hostile natives, he unshackles his friend, knowing they need his capable hands on their side. Their mutual dependence only further complicates the sheriff’s dilemma: does he let Ringo have his vengeance, honouring their friendship and punishing the killers, yet betraying his duty and perhaps seeing his friend killed? Or does he arrest Ringo, betraying their friendship but saving his friend’s life and fulfilling his oath?
Ringo, for his part, forms a gradual friendship with the prostitute Dallas, not realising what she does for a living. When the group stops at a house for dinner, Ringo sits beside her and shyly tries to make conversation; the other passengers move to the far end of the table from her, and Ringo thinks it’s him they’re avoiding. He mumbles in embarrassment that no one will forgive him for his past, not realising how much she can relate.
Later, after the group has fought off an attack together and delivered the lady’s baby, Ringo asks Dallas to marry him, if he survives the gunfight ahead of him. She must turn him away – not because she doesn’t love him, but because she does, and doesn’t want to break his heart.
Of course, as my daughter pointed out, Ringo and Dallas have only known each other a few days – old movies often require you to suspend disbelief in that area. In most eras, though, marriage was both a stage of life and a job, not defined by one’s transient feelings of attraction but by one’s willingness to sacrifice for the other. Ringo and Dallas each saw that the other was brave, kind and determined, and they were pulled together not by lust but by admiration.
The other characters are painted with similar complexity and an underlying tragedy. The gambler dotes kindly on the lady in her infirmity, yet snaps irritably at his fellow passengers. He was raised to be a gentleman, I explained, yet that also means he sees himself as superior to everyone else.
Similarly, when the lady goes into labour, the doctor must sober up and help her deliver – but no one thinks he will stop drinking. When the Southern lady thanks Dallas for caring for her through her delivery, she begins to say, “If there’s ever anything I can do ….” and then stops, unsure how to finish the sentence. They both know they can never see each other socially, and there’s no promise they could make that would not be false.
Let’s pause a moment to address some common objections to classic films; for example, that in this and many other Westerns, the Apaches are the villains. From our armchair perspective we can see the centuries of injustice to Native Americans, and declare them victims and the settlers oppressors. Most of the people living at that time, however, did not act like characters in a centuries-long drama to please future historians, any more than most of us are doing regarding climate change or mass extinction. Most people today have limited choices and are simply looking out for their families, just as most settlers and natives alike were then. Also, settlers and natives lived in peace, intermarried and learned from each other, far more often than they fought over the centuries, but those days don’t make for suspenseful movies.
I know people who objected to the “political correctness” of films like Dances with Wolves, which portrayed natives as good and whites as fools or villains. Me, I loved seeing that excellent film present a native perspective – along with earlier examples, like 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn — just as I love watching Stagecoach do the same for the settlers. All people see the world from their own limited point of view, and all films will show some perspectives and not others. Nor is Stagecoach completely one-sided; it opens with a sympathetic native, whose people are also victims of Geronimo, and the white soldiers trusting him.
I also talk to people who can’t watch old movies because of the way they depict women, and it is true that they did not show women and men as interchangeable. The women in Stagecoach did not utter sassy quips, defeat men in hand-to-hand combat or kill people without pity. They did, however, endure tragedy with quiet strength, nurse the suffering and wounded, protect a new-born from death and provide the voice of reason during male arguments.
I have heard other modern people question why they would watch films in black-and-white when they could see films in colour, or watch silent films when sound has existed for almost a century.
Many have similar attitudes toward technology in general, thinking that newer means superior; why see a 2-D movie when 3-D exists, or a normal screen when gigantic screens exist? Different technologies, however, are appropriate for different things, with films just like anything else; just as there’s still a place for bicycles in an age of cars or books in an age of computers, some older technologies still fill certain roles best – and might be more durable in the long run.
Buster Keaton’s hour-long train chase in The General is a masterpiece of comedy and suspense communicated through physical action; it would not be improved by the addition of sound, any more than a dance routine would be improved by a sports commentator narrating the action. Silent films, also, could be shown around the world, their basic human stories equally understandable to people of every language. Only the advent of sound cut peoples off from each other.
Black-and-white film, likewise, is not inferior to colour, but more appropriate for some stories — as shown when some misguided soul tried to remake Psycho in colour, or when some modern company garishly colourises classic films. It forces the emphasis away from visual spectacle and towards characters and dialogue, especially with the simple, minimalist sets of many classic films. And black-and-white film has a stark beauty all its own, as seen in films as different as City Lights, The Third Man and Schindler’s List, none of which would be improved by colour.
Finally, when I see old movies in the cinema these days, I often hear people laughing during serious moments, and when I ask why, I’m told the films are “corny” and “unrealistic.” It’s a strange accusation, for all films are unrealistic to some degree – compared to say, security camera footage — and more realism does not automatically make a film better. The films often cited as “realistic,” moreover, seem to involve lots of internal organ splatter and casual cruelty – things that aren’t part of my daily reality, or yours.
As a film critic I occasionally defended films with graphic violence or nudity, and still do, but more often I found that such content cheapened the characters. I welled up with tears at the shy tenderness of Ringo and Dallas’ courtship, and I can’t imagine having that same reaction to seeing the most intimate parts of their anatomy displayed Godzilla-sized on a movie screen.
When films imply rather than show adult material, they generally become more subtle, able to ignite more of the viewer’s imagination – in other words, they become better films. They also become appropriate for all ages to see, so cinemas become a safe space for all people equally in a pluralistic democracy. Only when the mass media became countercultural did it stop making media for the common man and start making it for a hip elite – not coincidentally around the time that the wealthy elite began to separate from the rest of us.
Occasionally I see critically-praised films today, and I find them sometimes worthwhile (most recently The Favourite) and sometimes disappointing (most recently Mary, Queen of Scots). I’m not too highbrow, either; I’ve defended many modern superhero films as both artistically underrated and a revival of the hero myths of classical times. Few recent movies, however, show as much depth or complexity as films from the 1930s and 40s – and those films were made with perhaps one per cent of one per cent of the budget of a film today.
Their scripts, often written by working-class intellectuals and erstwhile novelists, took on poverty, homelessness, crime and injustice, portraying society with a darkness that seems shocking to us today. In It’s A Wonderful Life – one of the only black-and-white films most people have seen – the hero spends most of his life under the tyranny of the town’s wealthy man, and as seen in the alternate universe, everyone hangs precariously close to a life of grief, or crime, or failure, kept out of it only by the nobility of everyday choices.
Finally, most of these films are relevant to people’s lives today, in a way that most modern films are not. I think of friends of mine back in the USA, who have had to deal with gang shootings in their neighbourhoods, layoffs at their workplace, who have served their country proudly overseas but who can’t afford their medical bills at home. Most of the films and television I see today dos not deal with their problems – but films 80 years ago did.
Imagine a film about a returning veteran encountering disdain and unemployment, remembering that he is good with a gun and realising that crime pays very well. Such a film could reflect a painful reality for many Americans today, and would no doubt be controversial, as Breaking Bad was. Yet such films were made in abundance in the 1930s, such as Twentieth Century with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
Or imagine a film about sex workers organising to testify against the gangster that sells their bodies, with one of the women going public on behalf of the others, knowing she will be killed for doing so. That too could be a difficult film to make – but that was 1946’s Marked Woman, with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, and while of course the women’s profession is alluded to discreetly, the story was clear enough.
Or imagine a film in which an unemployed couple on the verge of homelessness inherits a bit of farmland, but who have no idea how to run a farm – so they find more homeless wandering the roads of America, some of whom know how to farm or can learn, and they bring them to work together. Many Americans today are in this position and could benefit from a movie like this to teach them – and they have one, in 1936’s Our Daily Bread.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the Great Forgetting of modern times, how most modern people have abandoned the communities and traditions of our forebears. In the same way, the simple rituals of self-reliance and neighbourliness, democracy and organising, courtship and friendship, have grown scarcer in this age of lonely indulgence, and as our resources grow scarcer we will need these things again. Many movies from that era provide just that, offered in fictional stories that were created to give people a template for people to follow.
It’s not just that such films show common people enduring hardship and injustice, but that they rise above them with determination and kindness, working with their peers and settling their differences like adults. They portrayed the alleged lowest of humanity – criminals, prostitutes and the homeless – as heroes, and the highest – bankers and aristocrats – as capable of the foulest injustices. The heroes don’t always win in the end, but they leave this world having done their duty. That, I think is what people mean by “corny” and “unrealistic” – made in a time when despair was a constant temptation, they are life-affirming, hopeful, and intentionally, unapologetically inspirational.
They set an example for people to follow, and in an era when we interact more with screens than with people, and when few people remember how to work together or build a better society, examples are what we need more of.