Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Flag Raising

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) (last scene)
dir. John Ford

Stagecoach (1939) (first scene)
dir. John Ford

"Stagecoach proper begins with riders galloping hell-bent-for-leather almost directly toward the camera, in a long shot. This shot then dissolves to an army outpost on the edge of nowhere, hitching rails to frame left, tents and camp furniture and a flag staff to frame right. A bugle blows. The stars and stripes ascend the pole in the background while the riders pass back-to- front through the frame. A more visually and dramatically central flag raising occurs at the end of Drums Along the Mohawk, another 1939 John Ford film involving frontier outposts, besieged settlers, sinister aristocrats, newborn infants, and courage tested by combat or contest. And it concludes, almost as Stagecoach begins, with a display of the national banner.

Few of the Revolutionary-era characters who watch its ascent in Drums have ever seen the flag before; the symbolism of its stars and stripes must literally be explained.


I take the intertextual links of Ford’s 1939 trilogy as indicating that something equally momentous is at stake in Stagecoach. Yet exactly what is hard to specify – and largely because of Ford’s own fairly complex treatment of “history.” Though Stagecoach is the first film of the set, it is simultaneously the “earliest” and the “latest.” While its historical period is roughly one hundred years later than Drums, Stagecoach nevertheless takes place in what is arguably the least civilized of the three settings [Young Mr. Lincoln is the third], as if temporal and social progress cannot be equated. Moreover, each of the three films features instances of historical “frame breaking” – the flag-raising scene in Drums – which indicate quite clearly that Ford’s invocations of history are always metaphorically addressed to a contemporary moment and audience. (Hence the standard view of Stagecoach as premonitory of World War II.)

This eternal Emersonian presentness, while not exactly ignoring or collapsing history, has the effect of compressing it – bringing “that past” into “this present,” thereby lending the present some of the exigence, the urgency, and the hopefulness of the past, when that past was “now.” Conversely, such compression also attributes to the offscreen present some of the hindsight clarity with which the present ordinarily imbues the historical past. The flag carried aloft in Drums is the same flag we barely notice at the beginning of Stagecoach, is the flag that Ringo and Dallas effectively leave behind at film’s end, its promise compromised by the film noir darkness of Lordsburg, a darkness that subsequently shadows the flag’s apparently more hopeful ascension in Drums."

"That Past, This Present: Historicizing John Ford, 1939"
Leland Poaguem


  1. Won't lie, expected the second picture to be from Mad Men.

  2. I've barely watched a new movie in weeks. Caught in a Mad Men loop.