Director John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is an exciting, pioneering epic Western for several distinctive reasons. This is foremost a movie which seeks to be both entertaining and great. I first saw the black and white film on television as a boy; I was instantly enthralled. With complicated characters of all types, in a tight but intricate plot with serious themes, thrilling action and a streak of subversive heroism, Stagecoach bundles and integrates ideas with mythology and old-fashioned storytelling.
Watching this film for the first time in 35mm at the Autry Museum of the American West, appropriately enough, in the Wells Fargo Theater (the bank, which once operated a stagecoach line, gets a cameo in the movie, too), Stagecoach still packs a powerful punch.
Don’t miss its opening titles and setup in a town called Tonto, Arizona, which establishes that the herd, collective or society represents fundamental villainy in this dusty, enigmatic tale. Whatever John Ford’s politics, his movies in general, and this film in particular, favor individualism over collectivism. The scolding, prissy nags that run two decent people out of town as Stagecoach opens stand for Puritanism, in this case, against alcohol and sex. Soon, it is clear that they’ve got compliciity in certain passengers boarding the stagecoach but the band of vicious bullies — a sisterhood, it must be noted, who are always together, never apart, and express a kind of physical terror at the notion of standing alone or apart — form the moral center of that which threatens the good: the mentality of the mob.
It is interesting, for this reason, and John Ford’s alcohol consumption is relevant here, that the 1939 movie was released in the aftermath of many, many years of women’s harping through Christian temperance against the freedom to drink alcohol. Their actual goal, whatever their purported motives, was a total ban on alcohol. The band of Puritanical women infamously succeeded. So, Stagecoach was released and is best understood in the wake of Prohibition, the Constitutional ban on alcohol which originated with the premise that alcohol ought to be outlawed (the amendment was repealed in 1933).
The first third of Stagecoach differentiates seven passengers (and, to a lesser extent, two drivers). Who will fall in or out of the herd becomes the movie’s main, implicit conflict, though a distant and looming threat stands by in an attack by a bloodthirsty band of Geronimo’s Apache Indians. Nested within each of the seven characters, to Mr. Ford’s and screenwriter Dudley Nichols’ credit, is an additional inner conflict to be examined, dramatized, climaxed and resolved.
Stagecoach gains momentum as it barrels from Tonto to its final destination, compounding a sickening specter of doom.
It is in this sense that one begins to see the origins of future classic movies and genres in John Ford’s Stagecoach. The ethos of the ensemble, in particular the disaster movie, with strangers thrown together amid secrets and mutual or opposing values and clashing motives takes root here. From Lifeboat (1944) and Titanic (1953) to Airport (1970) and Hotel (1967), including movies such as Separate Tables (1958) and Crash (2005), the story of revolving and intersecting lives entangled in a single place, event or day, advances in earnest and on an epic scale with Stagecoach. It remains one of the first serious, dramatic Westerns to earn profits at the box office.
With everyone on board, the stage is fully set, packed and layered for the journey to a town called Lordsburg, which includes secondary tales of the U.S. cavalry. Though in 1939 Claire Trevor’s saloon-type character, who goes by the name Dallas, wouldn’t be called a prostitute, and Louise Platt’s morally ambiguous Mrs. Mallory, wife of a cavalry officer whom she’s traveling to visit, wouldn’t be depicted as apparently pregnant (“she’s unwell”), Stagecoach paces and loads action and dialogue intervals so that action doesn’t overwhelm and drama doesn’t ripen into melodrama.
In the motion picture which essentially launched his movie star career, John Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, a wrongly jailed and escaped convict who seeks to avenge his murdered family. His first scene is breathtaking for its ability to convey without words that he’s physically superior, skilled as a gunman and self-confident and that he is fiercely independent and untainted by his downward experience. John Wayne’s Ringo Kid remains upright, honest and innocent. Everything the audience learns about him builds from Ringo’s first facial expression.
That the character comes a bit later in the movie marks him as the new, modern, rebellious man’s man; the non-conformist who stands alone against society and its dominant ideals. Mr. Wayne’s is a clear, focused and thoughtful performance; as the strong, silent type whose moral judgment is contained in his reactions, he is the most watchable character in the movie. Whenever he delivers a line, a look or an action, it is with ease, depth and intention. Watch John Wayne’s Ringo Kid for the beginning of an exceptionally underrated acting career. His heroes are at least as interesting as the villains, usually more so, which is opposite most of today’s movies. This brand of quiet, studied and unyielding heroism against the herd, a hallmark of Westerns for years to come, starts with Stagecoach.
The other four passengers are the gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) a dastardly looking dandy who treats Mrs. Mallory with great gallantry, usually at the expense of others, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), an embezzling banker, Peacock (Donald Meek), a bookish salesman, and Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunk with a sharp tongue and a taste for tobacco. They ride at reins held by croaky Buck (Andy Devine) and under the watchful eye of Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft).
Each relationship carries a code. For example, the two women form an unspoken pact which deepens without closing any deal. Dallas and Ringo come to an understanding, too, which seems at once impossible and hard to dismiss. Doc Boone and Peacock bond over Doc’s addiction at first, though the wimpy salesman, a father of five whom no one seems to want to notice, let alone appreciate, represents an outsider of his own kind. This man may have limits but he thinks for himself. Peacock shows his own brand of kindness, independence and grit, at one point gently but firmly urging the drunk: “Please don’t drink.” Hatfield and Mrs. Mallory represent traditionalism in their stealthy, almost seedy non-courtship, both being from the South and, it’s implied, sympathetic to and mutually stained by the crushed and defeated Confederacy. There’s a quietly deliberate moral judgment rendered on them for that. But Mr. Ford makes sure that you’re the one making it (or not).
With epic views of the Overland stagecoach crossing into Monument Valley and a romantically recurring, though not overplayed musical score, morality seeds the mythology of the American West: the rogue individualist, the hardy, liberated woman, the heroic cavalry, barbarism and, above all, the noble pursuit of free travel and trade, justice and happiness toward the goal of a life, property and work to call one’s own.
Stagecoach repudiates the Confederacy, ‘going along to get along’ and Puritanism. It shows that thriving in life means thinking for oneself, being benevolent and diverging from the beaten path. But John Ford does not, contrary to what some claim, overromanticize the West. While jaunty music lightens and accentuates the voyage to Lordsburg, the ride is rough. The danger is real. No one takes or elects to risk the wrath of the Apaches lightly. Danger, dust, smoke, heat and discomfort — even enduring Buck’s whining and rambling — interfere again and again. Something always disrupts and depletes the trip. None of the obstacles, from warpath Indians to crime and persecution, are overcome too easily, if at all. Stagecoach plainly depicts, and with a degree of realism, the challenges of intercultural marriage, from Mexican-Apache to Mexican-American unions. For all the complaining about its romanticizing the American West, the film’s only song’s sung in a foreign language. Ringo makes home in Mexico.
Despite this liberalism, in the best and proper sense of the term, Stagecoach does not exist to portray Indians — let alone Americans — as above reproach. Dallas speaks of her family being massacred by Indians on Superstition Mountain. Turned-out Dallas is weary and her briefly but bluntly shared backstory explains why and how she might’ve ended up in a saloon. By the time Dallas figures she might have a shot at a romance with Ringo, the only passenger to dare to show her kindness, she seeks Doc’s blessing. For the cartoonish depiction of the banker — rarely is there ever a positive portrayal of this crucial and dignified profession — it is Devine’s grating if benign Buck who talks about charging a baby half fare, which mitigates seeing banker Gatewood, the least realistic character in the film, as the greedy capitalist. But the banker’s a cardboard cutout type. There are other flaws, too.
In terms of dramatizing a ride across the West — how buying a passage on the stagecoach moves and accounts for or liberates seven people’s lives — Stagecoach pioneers in the most inventive and exciting ways. Stunning exterior photography and stunt work (look for stuntman Yakima Canutt’s remarkable work when Geronimo’s Indians strike), an innovative river crossing, years before Howard Hawks filmed Red River, and unique and compelling characterizations add up to an equally thrilling and absorbing Western. Before John Ford made his now-revered film The Searchers (1956), he shot two main characters in Stagecoach walking together in contrast to their previous silhouettes walking in proximity but strikingly singular and alone. This type of pictorial commentary about man as a social and rational being, coupled with his seasoned view of man’s flawed, long march toward progress (look for a last minute jab at the media for getting facts wrong), and its thrills, layers and innuendo mark Stagecoach as an epic and excellent motion picture.
The scholar who introduced the 35mm screening at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park noted that this picture offers Hollywood’s first view of Monument Valley. He said he also sees John Ford’s Stagecoach as being wary of civilization, which, in a sense, is a legitimate point. However, I think of Stagecoach more precisely as being suspicious of man’s ability to sustain civilization. There is a difference. The Autry intellectual rightly pegs Stagecoach as a microcosm of American society and points out that the 1939 movie is based on a short story by Ernest Haycox (1899-1950) titled “Stage to Lordsburg”.