Archetypal America

In honor of the release of  the Archetypal America workshop recordings, I offer this post on one of my favorite films, Stagecoach. The course recordings can be purchased as a digital download here:

“The main American theme, I think, is freedom. It’s about individual freedom in opposition to or in tension with collective freedom.”  -Ken Burns, documentary film maker, “The Civil War”

Throughout American history the archetypes which populate our myths and legends and capture our imagination are the Rebel, the Revolutionary, the Liberator, the Scout, the Pioneer, the Cowboy, the Explorer, even the Outlaw: all of them perpetually moving forward in pursuit of their idea of freedom, both on behalf of the common good and at the expense of it. While many of these archetypes appear from the very beginnings of our history, the conflict between the various notions of freedom—personal and collective—solidified in the American psyche in the years leading up to and following the Civil War. They continue to impact us and our ideas of ourselves to this day. Few films capture these American themes and tensions as well as John Ford’s masterpiece, Stagecoach.


Stagecoach is high on my list of the 10 Best Movies of All Time. I’ve seen it at least 20 times, probably more. Without fail, something about it captures and holds with every viewing, so much so I save it on my DVR, along with Singin’ in the Rain and a few other films, so I can view them again whenever the mood strikes me.

Stagecoach_movieposterStagecoach was released in 1939 which many film historians consider to be a landmark year in American filmmaking. Stagecoach was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar along with Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ninotchka. Stagecoach’s director, John Ford, was nominated that year, as was character actor, Thomas Mitchell, who won for his portrayal of alcoholic Doc Boone. Mitchell also appeared that year as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in GWTW and as a cynical reporter in Mr. Smith.

I don’t ever need to see Gone with the Wind again. It never really appealed to me and now I find it overblown, patronizing and embarrassing. Sue me.

I know The Wizard of Oz by heart and I’ve used it several times to teach basic archetypes but I don’t need ever to see it again. Ninotchka has what is arguably Greta Garbo’s best performance and director Ernst Lubitsch’s best film and it’s fun to watch late at night  if I can’t fall asleep. (In an odd way, Lubitsch is a really—I mean really—sophisticated version of Mel Brooks. Both use comedy to mock Nazi-ism and Fascism and all totalitarian forms of government. (Wouldn’t Harvey Korman be a fabulous Donald Trump?)  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has the performance that James Stewart should have won the Oscar for but didn’t. He won the following year for the wonderful The Philadelphia Story, which as good as his performance is doesn’t quite match his work in Mr. Smith, Harvey (another of my top 10) and Anatomy of a Murder—a must watch if you’ve never seen it.

Enough about these other memorable films, back to Stagecoach! (Sometimes like my friend and mentor, Caroline Myss, I wish I could share all of the movies I love with all of the people I love.)

In my opinion “Stagecoach” (1939) “Holiday” (1938) and “You Can’t Take It with You” (also 1938) capture the American myth and the constellation of American archetypes more fully than any films that have followed. Shot as the depression was coming to a close and just before we entered into World War II, these three films form a template for the American myth that has never changed.

All of them deal with inequalities of class and income and their influence on political leanings but Stagecoach does something the other films don’t. It places vengeance ahead of love—and this has been a theme of American movies ever since (“Some things a man just can’t run away from.”) This value or moral code of the obsessed loner, continues today in the popular Batman movies, no more so than in The Dark Knight Rises—the masterpiece second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

I happened to catch an NPR interview with Glen Weldon, author of The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of the Nerd Culture in which he said
“Batman as he is now perceived—the grim, grave Christian Bale version– he is the personification of masculinity as it would be envisioned by a twelve year old kid who got his lunch money stolen a lot. He’s unbeatable in a fight; he is jacked, laconic, and gruff—and that’s who this character is to them. “Batman must be the dark hero—the things we don’t want to admit—the rage we feel when we get cut off in traffic; the isolation and loneliness.

“In 1970, they decided that they would turn him into an obsessed loner. He has to become obsessed, and I would argue that at the same time the comic book industry was abandoning kids and going after the obsessed nerds, people who collected comics. Nerds like me can look at a character like Batman who . . .  is not great with people and who keeps to himself and is obsessed with something, and see a vision of us. That’s the connection that we feel.”

I listened to this interview I realized that somehow Batman had his roots in the John Wayne characters in “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers,” and “True Grit.” It also describes Shane, all of The Magnificent Seven, Dirty Harry, and Michael Corleone, right up to Leonardo Di Caprio in The Revenant.

Stagecoach also speaks to the present moment in the characters of the crooked banker (the 1%), his punishing wife (the religious right) and in the sacred American belief that sometimes you have to take the law in your hands. The Marshall turns the other way and, in fact, condones, John Wayne’s hunting down and executing the Plummer brothers in much the same way that Gotham, Police Commissioner, James Gordon, turns a blind-eye to Batman’s quest for vengeance.

Another part of the vision in this, as in all of John Ford’s best films is that the people on the margins—the prostitute, the alcoholic doctor, and the whiskey salesman—have infinitely more compassion than the self-righteous banker and his wife. This theme permeates our sense of ourselves as Americans and is a major issue in this year’s presidential campaign.

To me, Stagecoach, like all great works of art, is timeless. It doesn’t date. Somehow it manages, like all great art does, to mirror us and challenge our better selves to respond to this moment in history in much the same way that this film does.

The course recordings can be purchased as a digital download here:

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