Genre Theory and John Ford's Stagecoach

Powerful Essays
Genre Theory and John Ford's Stagecoach

The analytic theory posited by Robert Warshow in his essay "The Westerner", itemizes the elements necessary for a film to belong to the genre of the "western". Most contentiously, he mandates that the narrative focus upon the individual hero's plight to assert his identity, and diminishes the importance of secondary characters and issues, or any tendency toward "social drama." (431) He states that it is subtle variations that make successive instances of a genre film interesting, yet limits this variety to "minor variations in the characteristics of the actors who play the hero's role." (430)

It is my belief that while exhibiting many of the traits itemized by Warshow, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) also exhibits variations in characterization, symbolism and even moral focus which project it dangerously close to what Warshow would view as a "social" film. It would be nearly impossible to declare Stagecoach a non-western by either Warshow's own generic criteria or the expectations of the genre viewer, yet the film clearly conveys the more individuated social concerns of its director. While Warshow claims that this perversion of the norm threatens to make the genre uninteresting, I believe the contrary to be true. Subverting the expectations of the genre, while still functioning within the language of the "western" is what makes Stagecoach a powerful film, and legitimizes the notion of genre itself.

The traits cited by Warshow as compulsory for the "western" are extensive. Most elements concern the figure of the melancholy cowboy hero, who is certainly present in Stagecoach in the personage of Ringo. The hero usually exhibits a certain leisure, an ambiguity of occupation, a noncha...

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...r variations within the working out of a pre-established order." (461) However, his theory seems too eager to limit a genre film to achieving the same end in every incidence. I believe that Stagecoach reveals that it can be more constructive to achieve something new through the use of the conventional mode. It seems that it is only through the creation of an ostensibly new product by each recurrence of a generic form that a genre can continue. Theorists who deny the possibility of retaining enough of the original mode to make the film recognizable as part of a genre, while still capitalizing on the full range of variation available through plot, characterization, and style, underestimate the audience's capacity to simultaneously make connections and receive a new product. I believe an audience would rather be challenged than spoon-fed another "creative" recreation.