Stagecoach

1939, Movie, NR, 97 mins

Review

STAGECOACH
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The classic western, STAGECOACH is one of John Ford's greatest frontier epics. This western eclipsed all films in the genre that had gone before it, and so vastly influenced those that followed that its stamp can be found in most superior westerns made since Ford stepped into Monument Valley for the first time. Set in a landscape of endless horizons, STAGECOACH is a wonderful, broad portrait of pioneer life in the untamed Great Southwest, as well as an in-depth character study of eight people, all diverse in their pursuits and all traveling to separate fates on a journey packed with danger.

High peril is present from the first scenes, which depict Geronimo on the warpath and telegraph wires cut by raiding Apaches. Leaving the town of Tonto, New Mexico, by stagecoach are a motley bunch of Western types. Doc Boone (Mitchell) is a conniving drunkard, long ago kicked out of the medical profession for malpractice. Dallas (Trevor) is a prostitute whose sexual exploits have so unnerved the local women that they have banded together to oust her from their scandal-mongering society. Hatfield (Carradine), meanwhile, is a shady gambler with the manners of a southern gentleman, with his own mysterious reasons for leaving Tonto. He pretends, however, that his real motivation is to offer the withdrawn Lucy (Platt), who is pregnant and married to a cavalry officer, his "protection" as she travels to be with her husband. Henry Gatewood (Churchill), a pompous and demanding banker, gets aboard the coach carrying a small valise which is locked and which he will not let go of, while Samuel Peacock (Meek), a whiskey salesman, carries a sample case. These six strangers make up the passenger list, and riding on top on the driver's seat is Buck (Devine), a garrulous type with an aversion to Indians, and tough, gruff, but fair-minded Curly (Bancroft), a lawman riding "shotgun." Before they've been on the trail very long they pick up the Ringo Kid (Wayne, in a star-making performance), whose horse has gone lame. The stagecoach is set, so to speak, so bring on the adventure!

Ford had not directed a western in 13 years before making STAGECOACH, his previous film in the genre being THREE BAD MEN. This film came as a shock to the movie community, in that Ford was no longer thought of as a western director; now he had, almost out of the blue, produced the greatest western ever seen. He would later state that "STAGECOACH blazed the trail for the 'adult' western," but this discounted too many great silent films of the genre, including his own and those of William S. Hart, who made many "adult" westerns, such as HELL'S HINGES and TUMBLEWEEDS. But STAGECOACH was nonetheless an important, sterling prototype, with in-depth characters and allegorical themes running just beneath the surface of the plot. Moveover, Ford employs a dazzling array of technical skills in presenting this film, as well as framing each breathtaking scene as if it were a painting. The landscape of the awesome Monument Valley serves both as a backdrop and a constant reminder of the freedom of the frontier and the dangers inherent in enjoying that freedom. With its arid plains, 4,000 feet above sea level, and jutting buttes, some reaching 1,500 feet, Monument Valley still startles audiences of this film today. During the 1880s, stagecoaches had actually crossed this enormous valley, and Ford made excellent use of the old coach trails which are seen running through the broad expanses like old scars. Marvelously cast and acted, stunningly shot and featuring a beautifully effective musical score, the exciting STAGECOACH was poorly remade in 1966 with Alex Cord, Ann-Margret and Bing Crosby. leave a comment

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