Director: John Ford
Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, George Bancroft, Louise Platt
Plot: A stagecoach of mismatched people desperate to get to New Mexico travel through dangerous Apache territory, learning something about themselves in the process.
To the modern viewer, Stagecoach might not seem like too much of a film to get excited about. Trapped in 1939, it is a Western pulled right from the swash-buckling hero days. However, especially to appreciate the genre that Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood revitalised in the 60s, it is important to return to the classics to understand how the Western has evolved and grown as a popular genre in American history.
Stagecoach has a few significant historical facts that make it a good Western to begin your journey into the classic era of the genre. For one, this is a film that has actually been remade twice, once in cinemas in 1966 and one made-for-TV example in 1986. Both remakes are reportedly dreadful. However, the interesting thing about the remakes is that the director of the 60s example actually went out of his way to track down and destroy the original 1939 movie. So threatened was he by the film he was setting out to compete against that the only way he felt his movie could survive the test of time was to genuinely seek out and eliminate the competition. Thankfully the 1939 Stagecoach endured, because lead actor John Wayne has a private copy stored in a safe, which he duplicated to make sure this classic Western survived this scandal. Comparing the remakes to the original really does set in stone how great John Ford’s Western is. The plot is so straight-forward and simple, but as the two following reboots proved, the content of Stagecoach is actually tricky to get right. Stagecoach also sees one of the first great stunts in movie history. In the climatic fight between cowboys and Apaches, Yakima Canutt, stunt coordinator and perhaps the uncredited hero of this film, undertook a dangerous stunt that saw his character shot from a horse. The stunt actor fell backwards off of his horse and underneath the trampling hooves of the horses behind him. It is such a simple shot, but breath-takingly visceral knowing the context. And even without the context, this great movie death adds a bite to the action, making the iconic shootout feel that more adrenaline-pumping. It would have been a crying shame if Canutt’s risk-taking was lost because of a petty director threatened by the talents of John Ford.
The story is so elegantly simple that, on paper, you wouldn’t think too much of John Ford’s supposed classic Western. A group of people are heading to New Mexico on a Stagecoach for various, important reasons. Pregnant upper-class lady, Lucy Mallory wants to find her soldier husband, so he can be there for the birth of his child. Claire Trevor’s prostitute is being chased out of town by judgemental townsfolk. Drunken and infamous Doc Boone is uprooting to find pastures new, hovering around another passenger who is a whiskey salesman. And gambler and sleazy Southern gentleman, Hatfield, attaches himself to Lucy Mallory, perhaps his intentions impure. Just as the stagecoach sets off, news hits the passengers of Geronimo, a dangerous Apache running riot on the trip there. The passengers, too desperate to get to where they are going, decide to push on regardless, aware, with every passing mile that they are walking that bit closer to their likely deaths. And Stagecoach moves away from a tense thriller and becomes a character study of the people trapped in a Stagecoach. The characters interestingly grow, break away from stereotype and surprise the audience with every passing scene. The high class citizens like Lucy Mallory and a banker going along for the ride turn out to be snobbish fools and the people not given any time, like the alcoholic doctor or the prostitute, grow into more three-dimensional, likeable characters. Claire Trevor provides great work as the prostitute, always kind to those around her, even if she is met with disdain. One scene sees the stagecoach driver orchestrate a vote as to whether they should push on through Apache territory and the prostitute isn’t given a vote. She never wanted to be on the coach in the first place, trapped to undertake this perilous journey against her will. It is an interesting watch, John Ford’s true intention of this film, not the battle with the Indians like most Westerns, but the dynamic between social classes. The social commentary here is way ahead of its time, which helps keep Stagecoach a fascinating and vital film for modern day viewing.
And then, of course, we get John Wayne swaggering into proceedings. Stagecoach marks the film that really shot Wayne to the halls of fame, the film that first made Hollywood realise the star on their hands. Wayne had been around for just over a decade previously, starring as uncredited bit parts in all sorts of films. Even when he started getting lead roles, they were B Movie naff Westerns, the kind where he quietly formed his stock hero character, yet never got the chance to show us what he was made of. But the second the stagecoach finds Wayne, his character stranded in the desert when his horse dies, it is clear to see we have a hero in the making. There is something about the actor’s presence, his delivery, his hard yet twinkling stare… John Wayne is an undeniable mesmerising presence. Ringo the Kid, his character in Stagecoach, is a cracking play on the traditional hero figure too. While Wayne’s character has the motivations of the usual Western hero – he wants to track down and kill the man who killed his parents in New Mexico – he is depicted in a more interesting way. As soon as the Stagecoach picks him up, he is arrested for breaking out of prison, kept in chains for the majority of the movie. Gone is the holier-than-thou hero, and replaced with something darker, more motivated by personal vendettas. However, another twist in the hero motif, is the fact that Wayne, drawn to Claire Trevor’s character, without realising she is a prostitute, becomes driven by settling down with her in his ranch. The hero is someone hungry to uphold justice, continue the battle… John Wayne is a man with one last personal job to do, but his soul is hungry for a domestic life. This is where John Ford focuses his movie, the romance between a girl deemed scum by society and a man, twisted by revenge and doomed to life imprisonment, but screaming to settle down with this girl. No, this isn’t the best of Wayne, but it is a great opening gamble for the actor, detailing exactly the kind of hero he could bring to cinema. Overnight, he was made a star.
Of course, hindsight is unavoidable with movies as old as Stagecoach. As much as the remakes went down like a bag of bricks, there is that urge to see what a modern film-maker would make of this great screenplay. The ensemble approach to the story is great, with all-round cracking performances keeping the movie constantly flowing and exciting, but there is a sense that Ford focuses on certain characters more than others. It would be great to break open Hatfield more, perhaps explore what drives Lucy Mallory’s insecurity. The banker is set up as a selfish thief and then left to quietly stew in the shadows, occasionally insulting the other characters. It would have been nice to see the bit players brought out into the open a bit more and explored deeper. Then there are other scenes that could have done with a touch more subtlety. John Wayne marches in and declares his love: part of you wants to see that romance slowly develop over the course of the film. And then there is the fact that, as the Apaches descend on the stagecoach, one wonders why they never shoot at the horses. Man, I would have been a great Apache.
Final Verdict: Stagecoach is a true testament of the early Western film-making, a great entry by John Ford and a wonderful career-maker for John Wayne.