- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
t was very, very far from being the first Hollywood Western, nor is it necessarily the best movie Western, and it’s certainly not the most original Western. In fact, many of its characters and situations were clichés even back in 1939. It is, however, the Western that, more than any other film, set the pattern for all the classic-era movie Westerns that came after. Whether or not you've ever even seen it, when you think of an old school Hollywood Western, you're at least partially thinking of John Ford's "Stagecoach."
It didn’t exactly reinvent the genre, but it showed what it could do. What "42nd Street" did for musicals, “Psycho” and “Night of the Living Dead” did for modern horror films, and what “Star Wars: A New Hope” did for latter day space operas, “Stagecoach” did for Westerns. Ford fan #1 Peter Bogdanovich deems it the first so-called "adult Western" because of its strong character development, and there's probably something to that. Not only that, it transformed former USC football player John Wayne from a 32-year-old has-been star of low-budget Westerns into the ultimate cowboy icon.
Still, the influence of "Stagecoach" goes further than genre or star power. Almost as much as the pattern-setting "The Birth of a Nation" before it and the radical "Citizen Kane" after it, it is a template for mainstream filmmaking techniques and is more innovative than most viewers today realize. Orson Welles and the great director of photography Gregg Toland get the credit for popularizing deep focus and low angles in "Citizen Kane," but these and other techniques were used first in "Stagecoach" – a film which Welles screened scores of times while making his first film. It also has one of the best action movie screenplays in film history. The masterful script by the great Dudley Nichols has humor, suspense, vivid drama, and profound psychological depth. When you've got all that, who needs originality?
Stop me if you've heard this before. A stagecoach is leaving an Arizona town, but travel looks extremely dangerous: native warrior Geronimo is on the warpath. Still, like the characters in a disaster film, each passenger has their own reasons for wanting to get to the town of Lordsburg. A sympathetic prostitute (Claire Trevor) has been driven out of town alongside the town drunk, who also happens to be its doctor (Thomas Mitchell). Trying to return to his beloved family's "bosom" is a natural target for the loquacious alcoholic M.D., a milquetoasty whiskey salesman (the aptly named Donald Meek). A hypocritical banker (George Bancroft) is on the lamb from both the law and his unpleasant wife. A pregnant cavalry wife and Southern aristocrat (Louise Platt), is desperate to be with her husband when she has her child. And a snobbish ex-confederate gambler and gunfighter (John Carradine) is chastely smitten by the high born lady and offers his gallant, but potentially deadly, protection. Outside the compartment rides a lovable, comic relief driver (raspy voiced Andy Devine, who is as funny as he's supposed to be) and, as extra protection, a crusty but benign town sheriff (George Bancroft).
Not long out of town, in one of the most famous introductions of a character in any movie, the group meets up with the Ringo Kid (John Wayne, of course), a sunny and good-natured outlaw who’s broken out of jail to avenge the murder of his brothers. He is immediately placed under arrest. However, when a promised army escort fails to appear, but Geronimo shows up on schedule, it’s safe to assume that the decent but hard-bitten sheriff is going to have to remove Ringo’s handcuffs and give him back his Winchester. The west has its own rules.
While “Stagecoach” is one of the most copied and parodied films in movie history, some aspects of it might seem strange to viewers who haven't seen many classic era films. For one thing, words like “prostitute” and “pregnant” were strictly forbidden under the U.S. film industry production code in 1939, so filmmakers had to be pretty creative in presenting crucial plot elements. Also, while Ford created some brilliantly exciting action sequences for his first Western of the sound era – including an extremely influential chase scene with still awe-inspiring stunt work famously copied in "Raiders of the Lost Ark” – the rest is light on action, but heavy on drama, humor, suspense, and characterization.
These differences are largely good things, and “Stagecoach” is the opposite of a museum piece. All existing prints show the film's age (the original negative having been lost decades ago), but Ford's first great Western feels almost contemporary and, oddly enough, is more in step with 21st century concerns than many films made this decade. Indeed, the pro-business pronouncements of the embezzling banker sound very nearly like something you'd hear today on Fox News, while Ford's populist, Keith Olbermann-esque contempt rings loud and clear in the muted reactions of the other travelers. Yes, John Wayne remains a special hero to conservatives, but director Ford was an ardent supporter of the reforms being instituted by FDR and always regarded himself as a liberal Democrat of a sort, though the tumult of the late 60s muddled his politics considerably. On the other hand, despite Ford's professed respect for Native Americans, this movie’s treatment of them is not so progressive – a few iconic shots aside, they’re nearly as anonymous as Imperial stormtroopers.
Of course, it wasn’t politics or psychological nuance, but Western atmosphere and exciting action that sold “Stagecoach” to contemporary audiences. The black and white old West photography by Ford regular Bert Glennon was perfection, and it didn’t hurt that this was also the first movie shot in the stunning climes of Monument Valley. Still, it’s the storytelling around it that counts. Unlike most modern action films, “Stagecoach” makes us care about the action because we care about the characters. John Wayne’s Ringo is, naturally, more boyish and innocent than later characters. Age aside, however, he's still a remarkably far cry from most of his later roles and almost unrecognizable from the tortured Uncle Ethan of "The Searchers." His introduction – one of the most widely discussed shots in film history – is one of a kind and deserving of that over-used adjective, "iconic." Note how rapidly that shot zooms in on Wayne (a real rarity in those days, especially for Ford) as he spins his rifle, and how it goes in and out of focus suddenly, an imperfection that makes this key moment all the more dramatic.
But “Stagecoach” is not a star vehicle any more than it's a mindless action flick; it’s an ensemble piece about people under pressure. And, for all the hoopla about its unquestionable importance to film history, it’s those people that make “Stagecoach” an unalloyed pleasure to watch nearly seven decades later. Modern action filmmakers don’t always remember this, but John Ford and his crew understood that people like to see films about people.
Criterion Collection DVD Review:
Since I own the earlier Warner Home Video deluxe, two-disc edition released way back in the dark days of 2006 and available in the terrific John Wayne/John Ford box set, I was able to compare the quality of the DVD transfers, and yes, once again, Criterion's newly restored version is even better. Though the inevitable imperfections remain, the black and white photography and sound are both noticeably more crisp and vivid than before. For that reason alone, this is definitely the disc to get.
At the same time, the plentiful extras tend towards the scholarly. Nothing wrong with that, but the results are often for ultra-geeks only, and not always for them. That's particularly true of a commentary track that lost me entirely by a scholar I'll allow to remain nameless. Slightly more accessible, and a lot more historically interesting, is a late 60s BBC interview with the aging, cigar-puffing Ford that will be painful to anyone whose ever had to interview a famous person. Ford was notoriously tough on interviewers – even ones he liked – and, being a very proud Irish-American, he perhaps had issues with the English. Ford's occasional rudeness and apparent lack of interest, mixed with occasional bursts of information, makes this a frustrating but compelling hour-plus of TV torture.
Other pieces are by such usual Ford suspects as ultra-fanboy Peter Bogdanovich, film-wonk biographer Tag Gallagher, Ford's grandson Dan Ford, and historian Buzz Bissinger are of varying quality but all worth a look. A radio adaptation of "Stagecoach" featuring Wayne, Trevor, and an introduction by John Ford, is fun to listen to. The set also includes an early Ford feature, a 54-minute silent lighthearted Western romance from 1917, which is worth a look and comes with a new soundtrack by Donald Sosin.