Into the West: Landscape Rhetoric in Stagecoach

Our readings on classical narration this week seem focused on character, particularly in Browne. Bordwell makes a strong case for character as the central cause of action in classical Hollywood, but I see a gap, perhaps one particularly important for Westerns: what is the rhetoric of the landscape or location? Thus the rabbit hole I want to go down is minimally related to the themes Bordwell and Browne focus on, but might illuminate some gaps in their essays.


I’m thinking particularly of the scene in Stagecoach that begins at about 0:15:00 (at least in this YouTube version of the film)—the long shot/take of the western landscape as the stagecoach departs, followed by the column of cavalry. It’s remarkable (IMO) for the length of the take, which extends well after the cavalry has passed as the coach and soldiers diminish into the landscape, and for the stationary camera. Most other long takes in the film seem to be tracking shots (as in several cases of people walking and talking) or possibly-faked tracking shots (like those of the coach traveling).

The landscape shot is also notable for its depiction of space. There are also shots during the chase scene that emphasize the expansive landscape, but none quite like this one. The depth of landscape is striking, recalling the Hudson River School of painting, which places humans in the “middle landscape” and is tied to exploration and expansionism in 19th-century American culture.


Asher Durand, “Progress” – note the title and the wagon train in the middle landscape


Much could be said about the cultural connotations of such a shot in an American movie, and I’m sure someone better informed than I would have even more comments on the landscape shot and the western genre. But I want to touch on two things: the rhetoric of this bit of landscape in Stagecoach, and (at least briefly) the contrast between it and the way space is depicted in Deadwood.

Bordwell looks at narration as the meeting of fabula, syuzhet, and style* (156). In classical film narration, he writes, syuzhet is generally linear and fabulae are character-driven. Narration tends to be covert once the situation is set up, particularly when the action is driven or information conveyed by characters (something Browne also dwells on). However, the “communicativeness of classical narration is evident in the way that the syuzhet handles gaps” (160). The primary gap-handling strategy he’s interested in is the montage and its ability to facilitate a skip in time.

But what are we to make of this landscape shot? As a simple statement of plot—the coach has left town—it’s too long. There’s a sense of digression from the main course of events, as in a montage. But it’s the opposite of a montage in a technical sense, even though it also facilitates a skip in space and time, by transitioning to scenes in/on the coach and implying that a great deal of space has been traversed. At the same time, the implied observer is stationary at the edge of town. We take the position of civilization at the edge of the wilderness, our attention split between the column of riders and the seemingly limitless landscape.

I’d argue that the film is using the viewer not so much to re-enact the work of the narrator (as Browne suggests, 140), but to reconstruct/narrate Stagecoach’s ethos—nostalgia, American exceptionalism and the frontier, a particular vision of heroic-but-untamed masculinity (e.g. Ringo). This isn’t far off what Browne’s arguing, but transposed to the level of ideological identification rather than character identification.

Deadwood diverges from Stagecoach (and presumably other classic westerns) ideologically as well, in addition to obvious aesthetic differences. Deadwood rarely features these sorts of wide landscapes, favoring grit, as we’ve discussed before, and close spaces that conceal all manner of sins. (This week’s episode contained an exception: Jane’s view down the hill of Wild Bill’s burial.) The difference is so noticeable as to seem a repudiation of both the aesthetics and ideology of the classic western. The landscape has been dramatically constrained, and within four episodes the western frontier hero—Wild Bill—is dead. It would be incorrect to say that this is a farewell to American exceptionalism, but it’s hardly a story driven by the nostalgic optimism of the endless landscape.


* Where fabula is the events of the story and syuzhet is the way they’re arranged in the storytelling.

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