Stagecoach [50 Films Older Than Me #12]

A few months ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #12.

Spoilers ahead.  

Stagecoach

Directed by John Ford

Release Year:  1939 (31 years before I was born)

What it is about:  In the 1800’s, a group of disparate characters travel together on a stagecoach through an area threatened by the fearsome Geronimo. The group includes a US Marshal, a drunken doctor, the pregnant wife of a soldier, and a prostitute named Dallas, amongst others. They are soon joined by the Ringo Kid, a fugitive looking for revenge against the person who killed his father and brother. The group go through many trials and are eventually attacked by American Indians, with many in the party injured. Ringo proposes to Dallas, but first must survive and encounter with the man who murdered his family. He does so, and the Marshal and the Doctor opt to let Ringo escape with his new bride-to-be.

Starring John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, Claire Trevor as Dallas, Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone, George Bancroft as Marshal Curly Wilcox, Louise Platt as Lucy Mallory (the pregnant wife), John Carradine as Hatfield (a gambler sworn to protect Lucy Mallory), Andy Devine as Buck (the stagecoach driver), Donald Meak as Peacock (a liquor salesman), and Berton Churchill as Gatewood (a banker fleeing with embezzled money).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  Though I’d heard of Stagecoach, I knew nothing about it aside from the fact that it was a western. I was vaguely aware that it might star John Wayne and be directed by John Ford.

Reality: I am really unfamiliar with Westerns as a movie genre. I’ve seen a few of the modern ones–thinking of Unforgiven, for example, or Quigley Down Under, if 30 years old can still be considered “modern”–a few neo-classical offerings like Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I guess for genuine classic era Westerns, High Noon (those divisions are subject to correction). But that’s about it. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a John Wayne movie before, unless you count his brief cameo as the Centurion at the cross in The Greatest Story Ever Told. So coming into this film, it was pretty much new territory for me.

But all that said, I loved Stagecoach.

There are lots of movies about disparate characters flung together on a perilous journey, but rarely have I seen one that does such an effortless job establishing each of the story’s players. The opening town-based sequences give us a clear picture of each one’s personality and motivations. The script by Dudley Nichols (based on a short story by Ernest Haycox) does an excellent job drawing all that out without telegraphing where everyone’s stories are going, or in some cases even making it more obvious than it needs to be which characters are the central ones. Even the Ringo Kid, who doesn’t even appear in these scenes, is given the backstory and set-up that he needs.

And it’s not just the opening that is well done–the whole film is expertly paced and plotted. From each stage of the journey show-stopping attack by the Apaches, the story knows how to balance the characters against the external action. And wisely it manages to pare down its cast at the end so that the final act can really focus on Ringo and what’s going to happen when he arrives in town with the man who has killed his family. The rest of the characters have had their stories wrapped up so that now all our attention is on Ringo and Dallas, with just the Marshal and Doc on hand as supporting players. The build-up to Ringo’s confrontation with the murderer is brilliant, stirring tension and anticipation without being overplayed. The final pay-off is highly satisfying.

Claire Trevor received top-billing in the credits, as she was seen as a bigger star than John Wayne, though this is often considered to be Wayne’s career-making role. It’s not hard to see why, as Wayne has an assured command of the screen whenever he is present. His performance is fine but not the most engaging for me, though–I don’t feel like his Ringo Kid comes alive to me in the same way that some of the other characters do. Eventually I’ll get around to seeing Wayne in other roles (one of them is on this list, in fact) so it’ll be interesting for me to see how he develops as an actor.

The whole cast is good but I particularly enjoyed Claire Trevor’s Dallas, Louise Platt’s Mrs. Mallory, and George Bancroft’s Marshal Wilcox–they all had a lot of life in them. Best of all was Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone, a role that won the noted character actor an Oscar.

Mitchell was also known for Gone With the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which both came out the same year as this movie, as well as Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life, so he was quite the noted character actor. Here he is full of personality and ends up being the person who goes through the most dramatic change in the story, starting off as a selfish drunk and winding up a doctor courageously willing to risk himself for others.

The other hero of the production that has to be mentioned in stuntman Yakima Canutt.

Canutt is apparently the one who figured out a way to make the scene where the stagecoach is floated across the water work, and most famously played the Apache warrior who drops off the horses of the racing stagecoach and is dragged along the ground under the trampling hooves until he left for dead as the coach races on. He also doubles for John Wayne in a phenomenal sequence where Ringo is meant to be hopping from horse to horse toward the front of the galloping team that is pulling the stagecoach.

It is mesmerizing work that is probably worth the price of admission all by itself, even if the rest of the film hadn’t been so good. There aren’t a huge number of “action” sequences in Stagecoach but thanks to work like this the ones that we have are pretty amazing.

Of course, that brings up some of the less honorable parts of Stagecoach, as some of those impressive stunt scenes were pulled off thanks to now-banned practices that were extremely dangerous to the horses (from what I’ve read, some of the horses we see falling during the battle almost certainly died). And the portrayal of the Apache’s is certainly not progressive or modern in any way–I’d call this primarily a sin of omission as they aren’t really presented as characters at all, either positively or negatively. Instead they are simply a dangerous force that greatly threatens the safety and livelihood of the pioneers and settlers (something I’d imagine was true) with none of the complexities of the situation addressed at all.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Orson Welles apparently considered Stagecoach to be a textbook example of filmmaking, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a near-perfect synthesis of character, plot and setting which pushed the techniques available at the time to tell a highly engaging story. If one can look past its inherent weaknesses (some of which are outlined above) then it’s highly recommended.

See here for the Master List.

One thought on “Stagecoach [50 Films Older Than Me #12]

  1. Speaking as someone who’s not familiar enough with John Wayne, let alone his films, it’s good to read about them nowadays and to understand how the earliest decades of the western genre can still somehow be influential today. Thanks, Ben.

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