"Stagecoach" is a film in which two great careers were
renewed. Although he had appeared before in many films, as an extra, a stuntman
and then an actor in B films, this was John Wayne's first starring role in a
film by John Ford. For Ford, it was a return after some years to a genre about
which his ideas had grown--the genre in which he would make many of his
greatest films. With Ford's clout as a director and Wayne's clout as a star,
they would make iconic films and establish themselves as one of the legendary
partnerships in cinema.
They came together at a propitious moment in Ford's career. He
was 45. He had directed his first silent films (ten of them!) in 1917. He had
tasted great success, and won an Academy Award for directing "The
Informer" in 1936. But now came his years of triumph. No director of the
sound era made more great films more quickly than Ford did when he followed
"Stagecoach" with "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Drums Along
the Mohawk," all three in 1939, and then made "The Grapes of
Wrath" and "The Long Voyage Home" in 1940 and "Tobacco
Road" and "How Green Was My Valley" in 1941, collecting in that
period three nominations and two Oscars for directing.
had his eye on John Wayne from the days when he was called Marion Morrison,
nicknamed Duke, and was a football player from USC, working summers at 20th
Century-Fox. In the decade before "Stagecoach" Wayne worked in some
40 Westerns, from an extra to a lead, without distinguishing himself. Ford
thought he had the makings of a star, and decided Wayne was right for the key
role of the Ringo Kid in "Stagecoach." The studio was adamantly
opposed to the casting; it demanded a name actor. "Pappy" Ford
imperiously insisted. And Wayne made an impression that would change his life
and one day win him a place on a U. S. postage stamp.
today, "Stagecoach" may not seem very original. That's because it
influenced countless later movies in which a mixed bag of characters are thrown
together by chance and forced to survive an ordeal. The genre is sometimes
called the Ark Movie. The film at times plays like an anthology of timeless
clichés. You will see a woman going into labor as a doctor orders, "Boil
water! Hot water! And lots of it!" You will meet a prostitute with a heart
of gold, and an evil banker, and a shifty gambler, and a pure-hearted heroine,
and murderous Apaches, and a sultry Indian wife, and a meek little traveling
man, and a chase scene with a stagecoach driver going hell for leather. You
will see saloons, corrals, vast landscape, camp fires, and the U. S. Cavalry--which
sounds the charge before riding to the rescue.
the familiarity of these conventions, "Stagecoach" holds our
attention effortlessly and is paced with the elegance of a symphony. Ford
doesn't squander his action and violence in an attempt to whore for those with
short attention spans, but tells astory,
during which we learn to know the characters and become invested in them. He
doesn't give all the key scenes to the same big star. Top billing went to
Claire Trevor, as Dallas, the lady of pleasure. ("Dallas?" One is
reminded of Marlene Dietrich: "I didn't become Shanghai Lil in one
was a star, but Ford gave nearly equal weight to the other passengers in the
stagecoach, all played by actors who would have been familiar to movie audiences:
Squeaky-voiced Andy Devine as the driver, John Carradine as the elegant
gambler, Thomas Mitchell as the alcoholic Doc Boone, Louise Platt as the
pregnant soldier's wife, and Donald Meek as the effeminate Mr. Peacock, a
traveling salesman who improbably wears a checkered deerstalker hat in the Old
West. As they line up facing each other, the Ringo Kid sits on the floor
between them, but Ford somehow never frames him to seem lower.
for a good deal of the film inside the stagecoach, these gifted actors create a
fascinating community as they gradually reveal their hidden reasons for
traveling in great discomfort though hazardous Indian territory. The Ringo Kid,
Wayne's character, is a wanted murderer being taken to prison by a U. S.
Marshall (George Bancroft). As the others pointedly shun the prostitute Dallas,
he insists on her being given a drink of water and a place at the table, and
his courtliness is manly and good-hearted. Of course he falls in love with her,
and it inspires one of the great scenes:
Kid: "I still got a ranch across the border. There's a nice place--a real
nice place... trees... grass... water. There's a cabin half built. A man could
live there... and a woman. Will you go?"
"But you don't know me--you don't know who I am."
Kid: "I know all I wanna know."
way Wayne says that embodies his effortless authority. He says it and you don't
doubt he means it. Indeed, the impression he makes here suggests he was perhaps
lucky to avoid such a high-visibility role earlier in his career. He was 32
when he made this film, tall and slim, and had outgrown the almost improbable
boyish beauty of his youth. He could growl and take a position and hold his
ground and not talk too much, and he always sounded like he meant it.
Callow writes in his biography of Orson Welles that Welles saw
"Stagecoach" 40 times before he made "Citizen Kane." The
two films are hardly similar. What did Welles learn from it? Perhaps most of
all a lean editing style. Ford made certain through casting and dialog that the
purpose of each scene was made clear, and then he lingered exactly long enough
to make the point. Nothing feels superfluous. When he deliberately slows the
flow, as for a song performed by Yakima (Elvira Rios), the wife of an outpost
boss, we understand it as the calm before a storm. (Howard Hawks uses a quiet
song by Dean Martin in the same way in "Rio Bravo.")
never makes the mistake of cutting so quickly that the sense and context of an
action sequence is lost. The extended stagecoach chase always makes sense, and
he allows his camera to be clear about the stunt work. Consider this
extraordinary stunt: An Apache leaps from his own horse onto the stagecoach
team, straddling the lead horses. He is shot. He falls between the horses to
the ground, and the horses and stagecoach pass entirely over him. No CGI here;
he risks his life.
is the hero of the film, but not an "action hero." He was manifestly
a bad man; the "Ringo Kid" doesn't get his picture on Wanted posters
for nothing. But he never suggests evil, and seems prepared to be taken to
prison even though he has many opportunities to escape. There is the suggestion
he stays with the stagecoach because he is needed to protect its passengers,
especially the two women. We see here Wayne's extraordinary physical grace and
capacity for tenderness, and understand why Ford later cast him as "The
scenes in particular. Wayne in left foreground, leaning against a wall as he
watches Dallas walk away from him down a corridor. Observe his body language.
The way he looks after her and then straightens up and follows her. And later,
look at Ford's lighting and composition as Dallas, in foreground in the
moonlight next to a fence, stands alone and the Ringo Kid, in background, the
smoke from his cigarillo back-lighted as a backdrop, approaches her.
was a studio shot. But much of the movie is shot on location in Ford's beloved
Monument Valley, its prehistoric rock pillars framing the smallness of men.
Ford returned again and again to the valley, where his casts and crews lived in
tents and were fed from a chuck wagon; he valued the distance from meddling
studio executives. He was a dictator, and in that vastness his word was law.
film's attitudes toward Native Americans are unenlightened. The Apaches are
seen simply as murderous savages; there is no suggestion the white men have
invaded their land. Ford shared that simple view with countless other makers of
Westerns, and if it was crude in 1939 it was even more so as late as "The
Searchers" (1956), the greatest Ford/Wayne collaboration. Only in his
final film, "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964) did he come around to more
because of his long association with Wayne, Ford is often seen as a
conservative. In fact he was an outspoken liberal, the standard bearer against
Cecil B. DeMille's attempt to force a loyalty oath upon the Directors' Guild
during the McCarthy witch-hunt. Ford was not a racist, nor was Wayne, but they
made films that were sadly unenlightened. Within "Stagecoach,"
however, beats a humanitarian heart: None of the occupants of the coach is
taken for granted or dismissed casually. They are all given full weight in
their mutual dependence. This is a very civilized Western.
A restored print of "Stagecoach" has been released on
Blu-ray in the Criterion Collection. Also in my Great Movies series: Ford's
"The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Searchers," and Wayne's "Red
River" and "Rio Bravo."