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Stagecoach (1939)


Some movies are watershed films, taking a debased genre and reinventing it on a higher level — films like Birth of a Nation, The Kid, Citizen Kane, The Godfather… and John Ford’s Stagecoach.

Coming at the end of a decade of a cheap, low rent formula westerns — the Gower Gulch hack jobs that came in the wake of the collapse of the epic western cycle in the early thirties (The Big Trail, Cimarron) –Stagecoach infused these Saturday afternoon horse operas with mythic underpinnings and an emotional depth that never existed before.

This was Ford’s first oater since his silent 3 Bad Men from 1926 and Ford deliberately set out to fashion a classic western. Taking a shopworn premise, a stagecoach trying to make its way through hostile Indian territory to the safety of civilization in Lordsburg, Ford refashioned this action tale into a tale of storied redemption.

Ford populates his stagecoach with genre stereotypes — Dallas (Claire Trevor), the whore with the heart of gold; Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the effusive town drunk; Peacock, (the meek Donald Meek), a whiskey salesman whom Doc latches onto immediately; Hatfield (John Carradine), the elegant and proud Southern gambler and proponent of the South; Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the apoplectic banker anxious to get out of town with the his bank’s funds; Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), an upper crust pregnant woman out to meet up with her soldier husband; Buck (Andy Devine), the comic relief stagecoach driver; and Curly (George Bancroft), the sheriff out to prevent a shootout in Lordsburg. Ford takes these characters, puts them together in the enclosed space of a stagecoach and watches the cardboard characters pop and explode, exploring how their stereotypical veneers are melted away to reveal desires, needs, and regrets that were never explored in westerns before this one.

And then there’s the Ringo Kid — John Wayne’s first big role with John Ford. Wayne, after jumping Ford’s ship as a bit player, jumped at the chance to star in Raoul Walsh’s ill-fated The Big Trail in 1930, after which he was relegated to a decade of cut rate western fillers. Offered this last big chance with Ford, Wayne locks eyes with the camera and for the next 40 years he never let go. From his opening shot, holding up the stagecoach for a ride, his cinematic presence is breathtaking (even the camera operator couldn’t take it — as the camera tracks in to Wayne’s face, the camera goes slightly out of focus for a few seconds and, mistake or not, makes Wayne’s close-up all the more impressive). Wayne plays Ringo with a doomed foreboding worthy of Eugene O’Neill, and when he proposes that Dallas come with him to his half-finished ranch (‘A man could live there… and a woman‘) his longing is felt like a brooding ghost.

More than just character study, Stagecoach doesn’t skimp on the reliable genre action scenes. There is the obligatory final-reel western showdown on dark city streets and, most impressively, an exciting Indian attack on the stagecoach with unbelievable stunt work by Yakima Canutt, doubling the action as both an Indian who falls under the rampaging stagecoach and as Ringo, hopping bareback onto the careening horses and taking back control of the runaway stagecoach.

Here too is Ford’s first use of his iconic western location of Monument Valley. The towering buttes and the troubling sky pick out the tiny stagecoach rambling through the desert, rendering human affairs paltry and insignificant in the face of a dispassionate non-human environment. This fits in perfectly with Ford’s pointing out that the exemplars of civilization (Mrs, Mallory, Gatewood, Peacock) all have something to learn from society’s outcasts (Ringo, Dallas, Doc), who all prove stronger and sturdier against the malevolent forces of the Apaches and the cool and disinterested landscape than the denizens who make up this small western society.

At the end, when Ringo and Dallas are given a free pass to escape Lordsburg and head off to Ringo’s ranch, we are all grateful for their escape from Lordsburg — the big town that is gloomy, sleazy and corrupt. When Doc says, ‘Well, that saves them from the blessings of civilization,’ we all feel blessed. That is, until the movie ends and we are back in civilization ourselves.

DVD extras include comentary from a Ford scholar, a feature-length retrospective about Ford and Wayne, a documentary about the film, and a radio adaptation of the film.