Director: John Ford
"My name's John Ford. I make Westerns." This is how John Ford introduced himself at a meeting of the Directors Guild of America in 1950, as he rose to speak in defense of Guild president Joseph L. Mankiewicz for opposing a proposal to require members of the Guild to take a loyalty oath. Ford, of course, made all kinds of pictures besides Westerns during his nearly sixty years as a Hollywood director. But it is the Western with which he is most closely associated and which, according to that statement at the meeting of the DGA, he most closely identified himself. Of the many Westerns he made, several of them masterpieces of the cinema, his 1939 film Stagecoach surely is the greatest of them all. An archetype of the genre, it has just about everything one expects to find in a Western: cowboys, gunslingers, outlaws and lawmen, blood feuds, an Indian attack, a cavalry charge, a climactic gunfight, and John Wayne.
The film opens in the Arizona frontier town of Tonto with the arrival of a stagecoach to change horses and pick up passengers for its final destination of Lordsburg. When the stagecoach pulls out a short while later, besides the driver (Andy Devine) and Marshall Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) riding shotgun, it carries five passengers, a combination of respectable citizens and not-so-respectable social misfits: the alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor); Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a demure gentlewoman traveling to the next stop to meet her soldier husband; a mild-mannered liquor salesman, Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek); and a professional gambler named Hatfield (John Carradine), a genteel but somehow disreputable Southerner. At the edge of town, the coach picks up a sixth passenger, the president of the local bank, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill).
Doc Boone and Dallas are being run out of town by the Law and Order League, a group of female social vigilantes headed by the bank president's harpy wife. As the tipsy Doc quips to Dallas, "We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child." Some of the other passengers are concealing their own secrets and vices. The nearly frantic Mrs. Mallory clearly is driven by something more than just the desire to be reunited with her husband. The gambler Hatfield joins the others at the last minute only after developing a mysterious fascination with Mrs. Mallory at first sight. The banker is absconding with $50,000 he has embezzled. And the whole journey is wrapped in an atmosphere of imminent danger, for Geronimo has just declared war and the travelers will be accompanied on the first part of their route by a cavalry platoon to protect them from Indian attack.
Later the stagecoach encounters the final passenger for Lordsburg standing by the side of the road—the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just escaped from prison determined to get to Lordsburg and kill the three Plummer brothers, who are responsible for the death of his own brother. This was John Wayne's first major role in an A-movie, and our first sight of him twenty minutes into the picture—holding a rifle and a saddle, standing absolutely still against the backdrop of the desert with the buttes of Monument Valley in the distance as the camera quickly glides in for a close-up—is an auspicious one. It almost seems designed to announce the arrival of a new star.
One of the best things about Stagecoach is its perfect balance of character and action. The passengers may at first appear to be a group of near-stereotypes thrown together by circumstances, yet each is given an individual personality gradually revealed by their reactions to the dangers they must face and by the way they relate to one other. Throughout the film, their individuality continues to grow, and their personalities, far from being static, continue to evolve as they come to know one another better and their mettle is tested by the perilous situation in which they find themselves. In a way, Stagecoach is all about the way a diverse group of strangers are impelled to form an ad hoc community as a response to adversity.
One of the most fascinating episodes in the film is the interlude that occurs at their first stop. In many of John Ford's movies, meals are treated almost as a rite of fellowship, during which people reveal a great deal about themselves by the way they behave toward one another. As the stagecoach passengers prepare to dine, they divide themselves into two camps, the socially acceptable and the social outsiders. When Mrs. Mallory balks at sitting across the table from Dallas, the gambler Hatfield gallantly picks up her dish and silverware and escorts her to the far end of the table, where they are joined by most of the rest of the passengers. Only the Ringo Kid consents to remain with the humiliated and abashed Dallas and even strikes up a conversation with her. He is either too naive or too nonjudgmental or too egalitarian to treat her as a pariah, and as the movie progresses it becomes clear the two are falling in love.
Ford was well known as a lifelong Republican and political conservative. But he was the kind of libertarian conservative who places great value on individualism and has the populist's faith in the ability of ordinary people to detect corruption and power-mongering in their leaders. That his favorite presidents reportedly were Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy shows perhaps that he was more impressed with strength of character and the ability to respond forcefully to crisis than with adherence to political dogma. So it's not surprising that in Stagecoach the great humanist moviemaker who was able to find both noble and not-so-noble personal qualities in his characters reserves his most negative feelings for the banker Henry Gatewood, a thorough hypocrite willing to cheat and rob while condemning the morality of others. Unprompted, the blustering Gatewood succinctly presents his political manifesto in a hilarious monologue early in the movie: "America for Americans. The government must not interfere with business. Reduce taxes. The national debt is shocking, over a billion dollars a year. What this country needs is a businessman for President." Was this character the first Tea Party Republican?
Stagecoach is really an ensemble movie in which no cast member, some of whom worked with Ford many times, is slighted. Every single actor in the film is perfectly cast and does exemplary work. Even so, three particularly stand out. Thomas Mitchell, who appeared in no less than five of the great films of 1939, deservedly won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance here. Continually spouting observations on human nature like a boozy Greek chorus, his Doc Boone is a cynic whose profession and Civil War experience have taught him to be unafraid of danger. As he says at one point, "I'm not only a philosopher, sir, I'm a fatalist." Yet when unexpectedly called on to sober up and deliver a baby, he rises to the occasion, and the baby he delivers does more to smooth over tensions and unite the stagecoach passengers than anything else in the movie.
As Doc Boone's fellow social outcast, Claire Trevor makes an equally strong impression. Even her Brooklyn accent, which she takes no pains to disguise, marks her as a social alien. Trevor, who could play tough dames so convincingly—and often did—here plays a sensitive and emotionally vulnerable woman. Her Dallas is one of life's victims, a woman consumed with shame at the role her life's circumstances have forced on her and who has given up all hope of ever overcoming those circumstances. It's my own favorite of her many fine performances.
But standing apart from everyone else in the cast is the young John Wayne. A veteran of dozens of movies from 1926 on—in bit parts in A productions and later as a star of many B-movie Westerns—Wayne got his big break in Stagecoach. The movie made him a star. Producer Walter Wanger originally insisted on casting Gary Cooper as the Ringo Kid (he also wanted Marlene Dietrich to play Dallas), but the strong-willed Ford held out for John Wayne and prevailed. Ford had first met John Wayne more than ten years earlier when Wayne was a student at USC working at a summer job at the Fox studio. Over the next few years the two became good friends and Ford essentially adopted him as a protégé. He got Wayne a few bit parts at the studio then in 1928 gave him a small part in Four Sons, the first of twenty-four movies directed by Ford that Wayne appeared in over the next thirty-five years.
Thirty-one years old when Stagecoach was shot, Wayne seems ten years younger in the film. Yet Ringo's youthful appearance and demeanor belie his firmness of purpose and his idealistic sense of justice, qualities that from this film on became inseparable from the screen persona of John Wayne. Ringo's quest to avenge the death of his brother—even against overwhelming odds, for he must face a showdown with all three of the Plummer brothers—is not only personal, but also rooted in the abstract notion that justice must be done, even if it is up to a lone man to do it and even if it places him in grave danger. "There are some things a man just can't run away from," Ringo says, and that statement might have been the motto of the screen personality who became known as John Wayne.
The climactic sequence of the film is without question the attack on the stagecoach by Geronimo that occurs just before the end. By taking a circuitous route, the travelers, no longer protected by the cavalry, make it almost all the way to Lordsburg before Geronimo attacks. The Indian attack sequence, lasting nearly eight minutes and consisting of almost 100 separate shots, is a model of its kind, the sort of sequence that deserves to be watched and studied again and again. It is a thrilling and seamless combination of location and studio photography, static and traveling shots, longer shots taken from outside the stagecoach alternating with closer shots taken inside, rhythmic editing (some of the shots last more than ten seconds, others only a second or two), and astounding stunt work coordinated by the renowned stunt man Yakima Canutt.
Stagecoach may consist of those archetypal elements of the Western film I spoke of earlier, and its characters may be the familiar cross-section of humanity so often found in movies in which a group of people are placed in peril, yet it is much more than just a collection of brilliant parts. The ultimate satisfaction of this movie lies not just in its individual narrative ingredients, or even in its assortment of colorful characters, but in how organically these things seem to fit together and how masterfully director John Ford uses all the elements of his craft to form a series of images which tell the story in a way that is artful without being pretentious. This movie is living proof that entertainment and art can coexist in the same film. The screenplay, the photography and editing, the acting may all be sublime, as they are here, but it takes a master to put them all together in such a way that the whole becomes this much more than the sum of its parts. Only the greatest film directors are able to do this, and Stagecoach shows beyond doubt that Ford was a member of this select group.