A Movie That Made Me Me
I was nine and ten, and I was eleven and twelve, watching the 1939 film “Stagecoach” at least once a year on our 1949 television’s 12-inch screen, sitting on the floor and thrilled to my bones and in my heart every time. In those early days, stations had little programing, so they relied on showing classic movies again and again, to my great joy.
“Stagecoach” follows an ancient path of storytelling: a mixed handful of characters on a dangerous journey, each personality revealed by the turns of the tale, and this particular tale takes its stagecoach through Apache country in the American Southwest in the 1880s.
One of the passengers is a young man who has escaped custody in order to hunt down the dangerous Plummer Boys – who have murdered his own brother, and this young man’s name is Ringo, and he is played by another young man named John Wayne.
I unabashedly admit that when Wayne played his first scene, when the stage met him on the desert road, horseless, carrying his saddle and a rifle, and he became the seventh passenger, he also became my hero and an extension of myself. I thought: I could BE him. I WANTED to be him, not the actor, but the man in the movie, Ringo. Oh, to someday move as he moved, in a deliberate way that also contained manly grace. To be what he was, a good man, a bit toughened by life, but left with a sense of humor and a surprising tenderness.
This Ringo, who was my model, was the only passenger who treated the prostitute among them as a worthy woman, worthy of kindness and respect. It touched her. I could do that, I thought at ten, eleven. I could grow to be that. I was already kind. I could surprise a woman some day, win her. She could trust me. I was already trustworthy. I just needed to grow. I needed some years to grow more confidence, and then I could make my way in the world as Ringo did, taking his time, moving gracefully, never nervous or awkward and always ready for a laugh or a fight – but only a worthy fight, a good against evil fight.
Of course, the Apaches attack the stagecoach, and seeing the fluidity of Ringo in action stopped my breath. Maybe I could learn that, I thought, that knowing efficiency of motion, that courage and grace under pressure. I could learn to do that, I hoped, if I kept Ringo as my model and never forgot him.
Tomorrow, in school, I would walk down the crowded, booming hallways more slowly, more contained, I thought. My shyness would lessen. I would feel that. My fear of bullies, well, I would be ready. Not keyed up and tight, but steady, and calm and ready for anything.
Of course the cavalry rescues the stagecoach, but when the passengers arrive in town, as night settles, Ringo realizes he has to face his toughest challenge of all: The mean-hearted, murdering Plummer Boys.
Ringo was not fearless. I could see that he knew he might die, but he was steady. He was teaching me. Steady, Jerry, be steady and face it, whatever it is. Even that damn impossibly tall ladder in my father’s store, changing the sale signs by reaching nearly to the high ceiling to pull them down and raise the new ones, my knees visibly shaking, stomach tight, groin sending a tingling message of DANGER, DANGER! I would do it differently next time – slow and deliberate, and I would make a face like Ringo, maybe scared but stalwart and steady.
As I remember, there were three Plummer Boys, impossible odds, walking straight for Ringo on that dark street. When would they shoot? When would they shoot?!
The shooting began, and after firing his first shot, Ringo throws himself down on the ground to make less of a target and keeps cocking and firing his rifle because he KNOWS what to do and does it in that deliberate and fluid motion. He knows – like someday I would know, just simply know and not hesitate or flinch or wonder but KNOW like Ringo.
He kills the evil, murdering Plummer Boys. He thinks he now has to go back into custody, but the sheriff surprises him, says that he’s free, lets him have a buckboard and his new girl-who-loves-him, and they go off to the ‘little ranch’ he told her about, and maybe someday, I thought, I’ll have a little ranch and a loving girl and I’ll make it happen because of a movie I saw, and because of the touchstone I have carried in my head and heart called Ringo.