There are innumerable critical choices involved in the production of a great film, but one of the most apparent (and important) is determining how an important character first appears. It can happen in a flash, or slowly build to a satisfying reveal, but however achieved, much of a movie’s success can hinge on these moments. Heroes, villains, and anyone in between; the first impression is often how we remember them for the rest of our lives, so filmmakers had better make it count. How to Make an Entrance hopes to celebrate some of the greatest film character entrances of all time by attempting to examine and explore why they work so well — and along the way, perhaps reintroduce readers to some classic cinema friends.
The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939)
With one epic push in, John Ford’s camera not only introduced the world to a movie star, but perfectly summed up one of the main characters of his western classic, 1939’s Stagecoach. John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is a classic American cowboy: brave, optimistic, and honorable, but also full of youthful cockiness, some rebellious spitfire, and a thriving sense of adventure — a man made for exploring the wild frontier and resisting its cruel nature.
So what does this shot do in order to give the audience all that information? Context is always important when examining the specifics of any film, and so it’s important to know at what point this introduction occurs. The titular stagecoach has just departed from a small town in the Arizona Territory carrying an assortment of sad-sack passengers, each with various woe-is-me stories, and is on its way to Lordsburg, New Mexico, aware that they will be crossing through countryside that has been very recently subject to attacks by Apache warriors. The overall sense is one of impending danger and failure, as nearly every passenger has good reason for a gloomy outlook. In other words, spirits aren’t exactly high.
With the crack of a gunshot, their chances are about to improve. Enter the Ringo Kid. By now the audience has learned from the Marshall that Ringo is an outlaw, having recently escaped from prison to hunt the men who murdered his father and brother — but what sort of man is he?
Heroically framed dead center against a scenic Monument Valley backdrop, it is immediately clear that Ringo is both important and someone to root for. He dwarfs the mountainous ridges behind him, towering above them like a legend, and his open stance and casual cocking of his rifle portray a supreme confidence beyond his years; Ringo is instantly a person of authority, and a valiant sort at that. Director John Ford seems to echo this sentiment so much that his camera can’t wait to reach Wayne’s sturdy face in pure admiration, rushing in so fast it barely has time to maintain focus. Instead of the middle haziness coming off like a mistake, however, it winds up perfectly punctuating the shot with a sense of pristine clarity; it’s no wonder Ford decided to leave it in. We know that this man will be the rock of the group, an Everyman who will be relied upon later in the story not only to protect with his gun, but also with his sense of justice.
Ford never had a problem letting his camera linger a bit, and here is no different. The audience is treated to a masterful, subtle change in expression that spins everything that has come before: Ringo’s self-assurance gives way to genuine surprise at seeing the Marshall aboard. This small nugget is vital, the last brush stroke of the portrait — Ringo is not only strong, but also vulnerable. The myth is ultimately revealed to be a man, and thus the later tenderness he expresses with such sincerity will ring true. In fact, not a single note of Ringo’s character hits as false due to the care put into these few seconds, allowing viewers to more easily immerse themselves in the events on screen, free from questions of behavior logic. That folks, is how to make a movie.
Until Stagecoach, John Wayne had been relegated to a mostly B-movie existence by a studio that didn’t have much faith in his future, but thanks to John Ford’s persistence and filmmaking skill, it’s now hard to imagine the part of the Ringo Kid being played by anyone else (sorry Alex Cord and Kris Kristofferson).
That’s how to make an entrance.
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