1939, United Artists. Directed by John Ford. John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up|
Content advisory: Frontier gunplay and cowboyIndian type violence; much drinking from a perpetually boozy character; oblique references to a character’s history as a prostitute.
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By Steven D. Greydanus
Two notable Westerns were released in 1939 that transcended the B-movie cheapie status that had defined that genre for ten years or more. One did so through satire: Destry Rides Again, starring Jimmy Stewart, looked back on the clichés and simplistic situations of the Westerns of the 1930s with a comic wink. But the other, John Ford’s Stagecoach, went beyond those clichés and simplistic situations, reinventing the Western in a more durable and serious form and giving it new life for decades to come.
Stagecoach is not the greatest Western of all time, but
has been called the first great Western, and played a key role in
the status of the Western as the quintessential American genre.
It gave the classic Western one of its greatest directors, Ford,
and its most iconic star, John Wayne, until then an obscure
Instead of rote good-guy / bad-guy conflict, Stagecoach emphasized characterization, social commentary, and moral drama. And the extended Indian attack scene toward the end, heightened by Yakima Canutt’s famous stuntwork, established a new high-watermark for action moviemaking, echoing in later films for decades (most famously in Indiana Jones’s escapades on the exterior of a Nazi truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark).
The story throws together nine characters representing a cross-section of social classes and types, compelled to share a coach through hostile Indian territory. Several are in some way disreputable: Dallas (Claire Trevor), a lady of ill repute; Hatfield, a professional gambler (John Carradine); Dr. Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunkard; the Ringo Kid (Wayne), an outlaw; and so on. But with the last outposts of civilization left behind, social roles and status lose meaning, and the outcasts are seen in a more sympathetic and nobler light than their ostensibly more respectable but judgmental and hypocritical companions.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking any of this; such figures as the hooker with a heart of gold and the lovable rummy were already clichés long before Stagecoach (indeed, similar types can be seen in Destry Rides Again).
Nor is there much moral rigor to the film’s reversals, though the film is commonly called a "redemption story." For example, Dallas is ashamed of her past, but also defiant in the face of social opprobrium, and while she would be glad to leave her past behind, the wrongness (as opposed to the shamefulness and undesirability) of her past occupation isn’t really confronted. Perhaps in 1939 this could go without saying; but there’s also a revenge subplot that’s depicted as uncritically and heroically as any in the genre.
Still, there is subtlety and nuance in the way Stagecoach develops its characters and their story-arcs. It may respect the dissolute gambler Hatfield to a point for his vestigial courtliness and sense of honor, but it pointedly contrasts Hatfield’s high-handed disdain for the individual of the lowest social standing, Dallas, with the cheerful deference that the Ringo Kid offers Dallas as freely as he would any woman. Later, Hatfield makes a sickening decision at a critical moment that, however well intentioned, permanently alters our perception of the character.
Cinematographer Gregg Toland, who would soon shoot Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, uses some of the same chiaroscuro lighting, shadowed faces, and camera angles celebrated in Kane. The landscape is of course staggering; only the advent of widescreen (and color) would enable later Westerns to surpass Stagecoach for visual splendor.
For a generation not raised on Westerns, it may be both instructive and amusing to see a marshal (George Bancroft) literally "riding shotgun," i.e., riding alongside the coach carrying a shotgun to help protect the coach. And when the cavalry comes riding to the rescue at a critical moment, not only is it actually the cavalry, it may well be the cavalry that made a cliché of the phrase.
There is now only one edition of Stagecoach to get, the new Criterion Collection edition, available in Blu-ray and DVD. Newly remastered and restored, Stagecoach hasn’t looked this good since 1939. A wealth of bonus features includes an informative commentary by Western expert Jim Kitses; a 44-minute silent Western directed by Ford; a 1968 interview with Ford; and a number of new video segments, including an interview with Ford’s grandson and a tribute to Yakima Canutt, whose groundbreaking stunt work revolutionized movie action … and much more! A must-have.