“Shall We Gather at the River?” is a Methodist hymn that became an anthem in John Ford’s movies. It speckles the soundtracks of Stagecoach, Wagon Master, and My Darling Clementine. But the song’s religious utopianism (“Soon our happy hearts will quiver / With the melody of peace”) also makes it a perfect target for parody.
“There’s no more time for praying!” John Wayne barks at a funeral party that’s singing the ballad in The Searchers. It’s a remarkable moment, not least because Wayne is usually the voice of traditional values. Ford has allowed his resident moralizer to turn sarcastic.
In the pessimistic Vietnam era, the irony turns darker: The Wild Bunch‘s famous opening sequence has parishioners chanting the song before getting mauled by gunfire. The solemn tune also provides the backdrop for a morbid lynching in Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High — highlighting the moral hypocrisy of the town’s churchgoers. Grimly enough, these later uses were somewhat appropriate, as the composer, Robert Lowry, wrote the song after having a vision of the apocalypse.
Years later, the influence of The Wild Bunch and Hang ‘Em High can be seen in films that use upbeat music in deliberately counterintuitive ways. In 1992, Stealers Wheel’s peppy “Stuck in the Middle” provided for the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs. In Face/Off, John Woo has “Over the Rainbow” playing during one of his balletlike massacres. Even a by-the-books thriller like Kiss the Girls gets in on the act by using Little Richard’s “Goodnight, Irene” during its climax.
Take a look at where it all began — Hang ‘Em High.