by Henry Giardina
Perhaps the most famous entrance in film history happens when we meet John Wayne in “Stagecoach.”
The entrance of Wayne into the picture takes on a level of significance simply by being delayed. Like Rita Hayworth’s famous intro in “Gilda” (hair flip, the suggestion of bare shoulders) and Lana Turner’s in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (a pan starting from the ground up, revealing Turner in a towel) Wayne is objectified by the camera. He is turned into something without true agency. The camera reduces him to a beautiful object, in a way that is infinitely seductive to watch.
Was John Ford in love with John Wayne?
It’s a question you might easily ask after watching Wayne’s famous entrance on Stagecoach. And yet even saying the words feels cheap, easy. In the words of my father: “Everyone’s gay to you.”
But everyone has to be gay to me. That’s what gets me interested. More importantly: That’s what makes me empathetic. To see someone as human, they have to be gay or trans: Beautiful in that specific way that makes me care what happens.
Films do this well. Specifically Hollywood films from the high studio era, 1920-1960. “Stagecoach” is a perfect and well-worn example. It is not a long take but a rickety-smooth short take that feels long. The camera finding its balance, moving along an unsteady trail until it arrives at its focus. Destination: John Wayne. His face first obscured by dust and movement. Soon we are up close and we can see it for what it really is. The dust clear, the image is sharp. The prematurely worn, quintessentially male face gives way to an expression of uncertainty, surprise, even fear. It’s not what we were expecting.
This is the kind of shot that shows the hand of the author, which of course is the point. But what about the rest of it? The fuzzy, gauzy framing of Wayne as seductress-hero? It makes me wonder if John Ford knew what he was doing when he turned his muse into a subtly feminine creature. Because without that second of vulnerability at the tail end of the shot, would we care? Would we think about Wayne as a hero? Would we want to follow him? Would we even find him beautiful? Would someone like me, as if programmed, find the way to say deep inside of myself “yes, yes, that.”
This is where things get coded. Cinema teaches us how to want, what to want, how to be, what to be. It creates strict guidelines for us. Wayne is the hero that everyone thinks of when they think of Hollywood. He is masculinity, he is righteousness, he is Hero. Even if you try your hardest to hate him because of his many sins, watching his entrance in “Stagecoach” will cause a cold hand to clutch your heart and start you worshipping against your will. It is a bizarre alchemy that Ford has mastered.
Henry Giardina is a writer living in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker.com, The New York Times Book Review, the Paris Review Daily, and the Atlantic, among other outlets. He is a 2016 MacDowell Fellow and a 2018 Edward F. Albee Fellow.