Structuring the Western
There are numerous ways to go about understanding structuralism. Here we will do so in the context of Stagecoach. The emphasis can rest on what many see as its "deeply anti-humanistic" aspect. (The Concise Encyclopaedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers) Thinkers including Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser and Claude Levi-Strauss emphasized the societal structures into which man (and woman) fits, rather than their freedom as individuals. While in different ways phenomenology emphasized perception and choice that belonged to the self, through thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, structuralists indicated the opposite. "Broadly speaking, the 'structuralist method' took issue with the notion that human beings could be conceived of as 'free' individuals in control of society." Structuralism argued, "on the contrary, that while individuals ('man') might experience themselves as the origin and source of all meaning, action and history and the world as an independent constituted domain of objects, in fact both individuals and objects were caught up in a system of structural relationships and it was this system that made the construction of meaning possible." (The Cinema Book)
We might think we individually use language but structuralists would contend that language is a system that we cannot easily individualize. The very fact that we learn language means that it precedes us, we don't precede it. "In Saussure's formulations it was a human creation that no single human could change." ('Structuralism, Annual Review of Anthropology') And yet "human freedom is constantly at work in language, modifying meaning. In the same way the structural study of myth, or of the language of the unconscious, attempts to understand the constantly changing values of signs in a code." So says Roger C. Poole, introducing Claude Levi Strauss's Totemism. From one point of view structuralism can seem stern and incarcerating, and many a great film in the sixties and seventies played up the sense in which (usually) man was at the mercy of structures not easily within his control, from The Round-Up to Burn, Illustrious Corpses to The Parallax View. All of them suggested the individual is weak next to the general nature of power, thus limiting the self. Such works indicate that to change society heroic action will not be enough; structural change would be necessary.
However, another aspect of structuralism concerns analysis of forms, viewing a work of art for example not from the point of view of characters with clear goals, with situations that they confront, but instead seeing the characters as functions within the narrative and situations as the necessary obstacles that must be overcome for the story to be told at all. Rather than talking about the director or the character, rather than speaking about director John Ford and the central figure in the film, The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), what matters more is, as Nick Browne says, "the spectator's place, the locus around which the spatio-temporal structures of presentation are organised. It is a construction of the text which is ultimately the product of the narrator's disposition towards the tale." ('The Spectator in the Text: The Rhetoric of Stagecoach').
The purpose of this short piece will be to indicate various ways in which structuralism can be a useful means by which to make sense of a film that can appear very humanist indeed. Few watching Stagecoach will see anything but a very clear and emotional message conveyed, but at the same time isn't there a very strong structure in which this is contained? By attending to structuralism's interest in binaries, in thinking through how the viewer makes sense of contrasting elements, so one can see that Stagecoach might easily be understood through a structuralist prism, taking into account Poole's claim: "our task then, as structuralists, drawing on these rich finds of linguistics, is to 'read off'... the langue and the parole in a given code, be it mythical, psychological, economic, social, literary or political." Poole adds, "it is to define the signified and the signifying in a given context within these codes. It is to carry out either a synchronic or a diachronic study of these codes... It is to learn to read off the opposition pairs in a code. Finally, it is to watch carefully for position and inversion in these codes." (Totemism) What does he mean by langue and parole, the diachronic and the synchronic we might ask; how can we understand these terms that come from the turn-of-the-century linguist Ferdinande de Saussure? Langue is the structure of the language, parole, its concrete use, while the diachronic suggests an approach that concerns looking at changes over time, while the synchronic proposes focusing on a particular moment in time. The diachronic can be very useful in understanding how languages have changed and formed, but a synchronic approach can allow us to comprehend its deeper structures. "To get a handle on this, he [Saussure] insisted that it was necessary to take a snapshot of language at a particular time and effectively produce a freeze-frame of it." (Oxford Reference) This needn't only apply to language, but also to other areas where one might wish to distinguish between the evolution of a discipline and the underlying structures that remains constant.
But enough of theoretical explanation for the moment; let us turn to the film's plot and see how structuralism can help us understand its workings. A group of characters boards the stagecoach of the title determined to reach their destination. But that wouldn't be plot enough: each character on the coach needs to possess clear reasons for getting to the other town. Yet rather than attending to the singularity of motivation, instead, we can focus on general functions they serve within the narrative to see the 'opposition pairs' in a code, whether this happens to be how characters are differentiated from each other to how the film works out strong differentiation to create a binary system more generally. The stagecoach can be distinguished from the surrounding landscape, the people inside the coach contrasted with the Indians who attack it who come out of that landscape, the notion of the town they come from and will be going towards (civilization), and the dangers of the interim (nature) that they must pass through.
In the coach itself, there are six characters crammed in. There is the virtuous woman looking to meet her husband in the other town, a dyspeptic doctor given to quoting the classics, a fallen woman, Dallas, with a strong personality, a feeble whisky salesman with a wife and five kids, a lean gambling gunman, a bumptious banker running off with the money, and also on the way they pick up a cowboy (Ring) escaping from jail who we are quickly told wants to avenge the death of his father and brother, an issue alluded to in his absence at the beginning of the film. There is also the coach driver and a marshal sitting up front next to him, protecting the coach, alongside a cavalry posse who are soon diverted elsewhere. What the film offers is a properly ragbag group of characters uniting in adversity, crossing a very dangerous terrain determined to reach their destination.
What matters isn't so much that the characters are individualized (with psychological depth, strong personal motivations and so on) but that they are distinguishable. Some might view cliche and caricature but a good structural analysis would be more interested in noticing that what matters is that the characters are quite distinct from each other. The important thing is oppositions. The doctor is antithetical to the banker; the cowboy fundamentally different from the cowardly whisky salesman, the virtuous woman from the fallen one, the marshal from the gambling gunman. A structural approach isn't interested in nuance of character but how each functions in contrast to other characters. As Peter Wollen says, discussing John Ford's films: "The protagonists of fairy tales or myths, as Levi-Strauss has pointed out, can be dissolved into bundles of differential elements, pairs of opposites." (Signs and Meanings in Cinema) Discussing Levi-Strauss and his interest in myth, Terry Eagleton notes "...mental operations, such as the making of binary oppositions, are in a way what myths are about: they are devices to think with, ways of classifying and organizing reality." (Literary Theory) Eagleton adds, "the mind which does all the thinking is not that of the individual subjects: myths think themselves through people rather than vice versa." Thus we shouldn't think in Stagecoach of what the characters are seeking, firstly, but how the structures make them desire certain things. Rather than paying special attention, for example to Ringo's wish to avenge his brother and father, we could attend to the oppositional focus of hero and villain, of a willingness to die for a higher goal versus fighting only to protect one's skin. Ringo goes to the town to make amends for his brother and father's death; the man who killed them, along with his cohorts, wants no more than to kill Ringo to get him off their backs.
But this oppositional aspect can also work through expectations dashed or altered. Think late in the film when the villains are waiting in the bar and where they expect Ringo to come through the door. First, the drunk doctor comes in as the gang members go for their guns, and the film plays a small trick on the audience as we might assume that Ringo is likely to be entering. The expectation is Ringo but the doctor arrives instead. This expectation is raised further a few moments later when the film cuts from Ringo saying to Dallas to "wait here" as he goes off to the bar, and the film cuts again to someone entering another door to the saloon. We expect Ringo even more this time than the last, but instead it happens to be the bumbling coach driver explaining Ringo will be along in six or seven minutes. The film plays a further trick on binary expectation when after the fight that we have cut away from, to focus on Dallas hearing the shooting, it cuts back to the bar and the villain entering through the main door. It looks like he has won the fight but, after a couple of seconds, he falls to the ground dead. In each instance the suspense the film works and the curiosity it generates is based on anticipating one thing and getting another: in each of the three instances, the film wants us to believe that it will be Ringo who enters the bar but he never does, even if he will end up victorious.
Interestingly the film does not concern itself here chiefly with either Ringo's motives or even his gunfighting prowess. It instead insists on playing up the binaries that we have seen earlier offered in characterisational terms but offered now in suspense terms. If Ringo had walked through the door we wouldn't have been surprised, but by countering our assumptions the film reveals its structural nature. Is it Ringo? No, it is not Ringo The film would have been far less suspenseful had it focused throughout on the Kid but instead by attending briefly to the men waiting for him in the bar it allows for that binary possibility that it will or will not be Ringo coming through the door on each occasion.
If this oppositional aspect works to generate character and also to create suspense, it also allows the film more generally to reveal its thematic one broadly associated with Ford's work and that Wollen notes when saying, "John Ford places and situates the individual within society and within history, specifically within American history. Ford finds transcendent values in the historic vocation of America as a nation, to bring civilisation to a savage land, the garden to the wilderness." (Signs and Meanings in Cinema) One can see how the timeless meets the timely: the deep myth that plays up binary systems is contained by a given narrative in a moment of historical time. We might have cowboys versus Indians, heroic cowboys versus villainous cowboys, a cowboy and a fallen woman, a moralistic banker and a doctor with a booze problem, but these can be transpositional elements easily altered according to a couple of ideas on which we can conclude: the Saussurean terms the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic. "It is axiomatic that in any linguistic communication terms are arranged in sequences. For example, in the sentence 'The baseman hit the ball to the boundary' there is a perceptible relationship between each word. The paradigmatic relationship entails a consideration of the fact that each word in a sentence (like the one above) has a relationship with other words that are not but are capable of being used and by being capable are thus associated." (Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory) We can easily change the sport and arrive at the same structure. Clearly, we can see the associative words here as pads, gloves, bat and bowler. Partly what stops a mythic structure from appealing stale is the manner in which the syntagmatic givens are constantly provided with new life by the paradigmatic possibilities.
Indeed, we needn't go very far to see this. Stagecoach is based loosely on a 19th-century short story by Guy de Maupassant, one that could serve not only French history in the original but also Japanese history too. As Richard Brody says, "Kenji Mizoguchi's displacement of the story 'Boule de Suif' to nineteenth-century Japan in Oyuki the Virgin and John Ford's displacement of the same story to the Wild West in Stagecoach" (New Yorker) shows its adaptability. Structuralist theory can allow us not only to see how from a certain point of view Stagecoach works, but also how easily its story can play out in various historical contexts. One sees the syntagmatic features as the core of the story, the mythological aspect if you like, which are then offered paradigmatic variations through time and place, through setting a similar story in a different country during a different period. If Levi-Strauss thought that "myths are machines for the suppression of time", we can see myth can be released from that suppression by constantly being transformed anew. In this, one notices similarities between the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic and the other terms we have offered, parole and langue, the diachronic and the synchronic. If langue is the cinematic structure (however much looser it happens to be than in a linguistic one), parole can be seen as the individual films themselves that make up cinema. If Stagecoach is a western at a certain moment in time what we might wonder is its synchronic features, which it shares with a story by Maupassant that has nothing ostensibly to do with it. Structural analysis can allow us to ignore the very things we see in from of our eyes (character, plot and genre for example) and look at various principles that sit behind these immediate perceptions. Stagecoach seems at first glance monumentally American but that is partly because of the paradigmatic feature of Monument Valley that the characters pass through; a deeper look, a structuralist analysis indicates, shows the film needn't be especially American at all.
© Tony McKibbin