May 16, 2011

22 CMBA Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon: Stagecoach

Country: US
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.


  1. Fabulous write-up! I remember being forced to watch Stagecoach in a high school honors English class and at the time I couldn't be bothered to pay attention. I'd like to see it again after having found a seed of western film appreciation in the past few years.

  2. Very good write-up on a Western classic boasting themes that remain topical today. I've always found it interesting that STAGECOACH was inspired by Guy de Maupassant's short story "Boule de Suif," which isn't a Western at all, of course. But that's one of the things I've always enjoyed about the Western genre: its ability to absorb any theme and plot--whether it's a Japanese samurai film or a whodunit mystery. The 1960s remake is a pale imitation, of course, but it's still interesting to watch Bing Crosby and Ann-Margret in the roles made famous by Mitchell and Trevor. As always, thanks for a thought-provoking review.

  3. Lovely article on a movie I consider to be perfect cinematic storytelling - the epitome of "show, don't tell". The ensemble cast is outstanding with Donald Meek a personal favourite.

  4. Terrific post on a film with such iconic images, but which you tie together well with notable observations on social and political overtones of both the characters and the director. It's been too long since I've seen this one.

  5. Kendra, I too didn't like Westerns for a long time (forced to watch too many of them on TV as a child by my parents, who would hardly watch anything else!), but this is the movie that made me reconsider that dislike and now I'm a huge fan of the genre. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that the older I get, the more I appreciate the simple over the fancy, and Westerns--especially the classic ones--tend to strip everything to basic elements.

    Rick, a great observation about Westerns being adaptable to almost any narrative situation. Some great examples too. The situation in "Stagecoach" is one of the most archetypal in novels-plays-movies: a diverse group of people forced to overcome their differences and work together to face a common threat.

    Caftan, I like some of Ford's movies much more than others, and some have elements I find irritating (I have a low tolerance for his Irish blarney and his cornball sense of humor), but one thing is undeniable--the man knew how to tell a story onscreen, as you put it "perfect cinematic storytelling."

    Jacqueline, one thing I like about this film is that even though those "social and political overtones" you refer to are present, they ARE overtones and not the main point, and they seem to grow naturally out of the characterizations and situations. I never feel I'm being harangued with a civics or morality lesson.

  6. Great write-up R.D, of one of my favorite movies. I was really looking forward to what you had to say about it.

    I've always responded to the film's economy of storytelling, and how it tells so much with so littel. For example, John Carradine's Hatfield character. We don’t know anything about him except he is from the South and fought in the Confederate Army. Impeccably attired, he takes a special interest in Lucy Mallory, who is traveling to meet her cavalryman husband.

    He acts as her protector throughout the movie and is even ready to kill her when it appears the coach will be overrun with Indians. We don’t know why he feels the way he does, but I don’t think we have to. Carradine’s acting and the direction of Ford and the writing of Dudley Nichols are so strong and sure we don’t need reams of motivation.

    It’s likely she reminds him of someone from his past and that’s all we need to know. Ford and Nichols are confident enough to let the audience figure it out for ourselves, and we are spared any angst-filled flashbacks.

  7. R.D. - "Stagecoach" remains the prototype for westerns even after more than seventy years. Iconic images throughout the film brilliantly shot and edited. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols also needs to be given his due for creating such well rounded characters who travel an inner journey as well as a physical one. I always had mixed feelings about John Wayne. I don't believe he is a great actor; he can only play John Wayne but he plays John Wayne better than anyone, and he has made some great films, mostly with Ford and Hawks. I love the fact that the film still rings true when it comes to blow hard political comments. As usual, you have written a superb review.

  8. Thanks for a wonderful tribute to one of my favorite films. I tried to post some comments earlier, but google blogger is acting up again today and was unable to complete the action. Hopefully I can post this using some an i.d. other than my blogger account.

    I believe that John Ford presents John Wayne in a way that is guaranteed to impress, guaranteed to catapult him to stardom. It's such an impressive moment in the film. It really makes you sit up and take notice. I hadn't realized that Wayne was already 31 when this was filmed. I'd always remembered him as a fresh-faced youth.

    He gives such an endearing performance. Strong and manly when he needs to be, gently engaging otherwise. I love how he always treats Dallas as a lady, the same way he treats Mrs. Platt.

    A Mrs. Platt whose pregnancy is not mentioned or even shown evidence of until she's practically ready to give birth. Such a hush-hush sort of thing, as if she had a disease. I've always assumed this to be part of that Hollywood era's 'babies come from storks' myth making. It always makes me smile. But, really, for a rough and tumble director, John Ford does all right by these female characters.

    My favorite character, beside John Wayne, is John Carradine as the faded Southern gentleman/gambler harboring some secret anguish. A man who appears to revere Mrs. Platt because she is part of a long lost world, the lost bloom of the Southern aristocracy.

    Perhaps he knew her in days gone by and loved her from afar.

    Whatever the cause, I love his performance.

    I think he should have won an Oscar, certainly over Thomas Mitchell.

    At least in my opinion. :)

  9. Kevin, "economy of storytelling"--that's a great phrase that sums up this movie perfectly. How many modern movies could compress this much plot or character exploration into 96 minutes? Precious few! Your choice of Carradine's character to illustrate this point is a good one. The movie suggests so much more about him than it spells out, preserving an air of mystery about him, yet he doesn't seem a sketchy character at all. Doesn't he say at one point that he served under Mrs. Mallory's father in the Civil War?

    John, you're right about the screenplay being so good. In the studio movies, the screenplay was the blueprint of the whole movie. Some directors (like Howard Hawks, for me the only other studio director who was Ford's equal) were known for cooking the script and adjusting it as they went along. I've always had the impression that Ford, though, followed it closely. Ford must have liked Nichols's work, because he made at least ten pictures written by him. Nichols also wrote some great movies for people like Hawks, Fritz Lang, and Anthony Mann. Liked your comment about Wayne's limitations as an actor ("but he plays John Wayne better than anyone"--great line!) and agree that he did his best work for Ford and Hawks.

    Yvette, I had the same problem trying to leave a comment at another site earlier. Very frustrating. Anyway, the Ringo Kid was what is referred to as "a star-making performance" and it's hard not to believe that Ford intended it this way. I also can't help thinking that someone who was already a big star like Gary Cooper might have tried to exert more influence over the film than an unknown like John Wayne and that may be another reason Ford was so set on Wayne. For example, a big star might have insisted on coming on earlier than 20 min. into the film, whereas for an unfamiliar actor like Wayne that delay only emphasizes his arrival. In any case, he does make a strong impression--as you put it perfectly, both "manly" and "gentle." I guess it's inevitable that everyone has their own favorite character. You and Kevin mentioned Carradine. Someone else mentioned Donald Meek earlier. For me they're all great and so perfectly cast that they seem to embody the character in a way nobody else could.

  10. R.D.
    This is one of the films I was really looking forward to seeing reviewed for the Blogathon.
    It was the first John Wayne and Claire Trevor film that I saw as a kid and my fathers favorite as a huge Western and John Wayne fanatic. So it holds very special memories for me.

    John Wayne is rakishly handsome and Trevor is such a delight. Great costumes, a wonderful script and with Ford at the helm it couldn't help but be a show stopper.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your well thought out and informative review. Top Notch!

  11. This is a great review; you bring in so much historical/cultural background, as well as provide so much insight into how the script, acting, and direction mesh together to create Ford's masterpiece. I'm with you on that point about Ford's cornball/blarney sense of humor; I think it mars several scenes in The Searchers, as well as his otherwise great Cavalry trilogy. I'm thankful he was able to restrain himself in this film. And Ford was right to cast Wayne. I can't imagine Coop in the role; by the late 30s he was a polished movie star, and he would not have brought the needed rawness that Wayne did to the part. Thanks for such a great post!

  12. R.D., this has to be one of your best. Deeply researched, insightful and full of your admiration for a great director and a true classic. John Wayne just dominates the screen, as he did until the last film he appeared in. Reading your review has made me realize I need another Stagecoach viewing! I loved Thomas Mitchell and Claire Trevor in this -- their charactcters always stand out to me. Thanks for a great tribute to this wonderful movie.

  13. Page, John Wayne and Claire Trevor did make an intriguing couple, didn't they? I just saw them together again a couple of nights ago in a Western called "Dark Command" made the year after "Stagecoach." She dropped the Brooklyn accent and became more genteel. Wayne was pretty much the same as in "Stagecoach." The director was Raoul Walsh and also in the cast were Walter Pidgeon, Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, and Porter Hall. It was a very enjoyable movie, but the difference between it and "Stagecoach" was the difference between good and great. It just goes to show that the right combination of ingredients alone doesn't guarantee a classic, which was one of the points I was trying to make in my post.

    GOM, glad you understood what I meant when I identified the things about Ford that can bother me, and the movies you name are prime examples. "The Searchers" in particular has so much going for it, including what for me is Wayne's greatest performance (closest competition: "Red River" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.") But those unsubtle attempts at humor just seem so out of place to me that they keep the movie from being the masterpiece many believe it is. Ford can go overboard with the sentimentality and nostalgia too. And I like those things in movies!

    Becky, this movie is one of my top 10 favorites of all time. It's always daunting to write about a film I respond to so strongly. "How can I possibly do justice to it?" I keep asking myself. And once started, I find it hard to limit myself and stay focused. There always seems to be so much more to say. So I appreciate your compliment, which tells me I made some correct editing decisions. Thanks! And thanks to you and Page for organizing such a successful blogathon. It really seems to have inspired everyone I've been able to read so far.

  14. Did anyone use the western landscape as effectively as Ford? It's just as much of a character in this movie as the people. And yet Ford combine this amazing landscape with a story that works and a cast that's outstanding. Thank you for your insights into a superb film.

  15. Filmboy, in answer to your question--absolutely not! I completely agree with you that the landscape is another character in the movie. This was the first of many movies Ford shot in Utah, first in Monument Valley as in "Stagecoach" and later in the eastern part of the state near Moab. This is something I wanted to cover since it is such a vital element in the movie, but I just couldn't find a way to introduce it (beyond that reference to John Wayne standing with the buttes in the background--actually a back-projected studio shot, if I'm not mistaken) and still stay on-topic and control the length of the post. One of the reasons I appreciate comments so much is that they give me the opportunity to discuss things I didn't have room to in the post. Thank you for bringing this subject up. I suspect the films of John Ford (and Westerns in general) have done more than anything else to shape the geographic image of the U.S. in the eyes of the world.

  16. Beautiful, piece, R.D. Your opening description of John Ford at that particular DGA meeting perfectly sets up a thoroughly articulate, insightful look at a masterpiece and the man behind it.
    I'm especially fond of the Ringo Kid/Dallas scenes, their characters, the relationship that develops between them. I've always been a fan of Claire Trevor, but I have to credit "Stagecoach" for bringing me around on John Wayne. And John Carradine, what a great part and how fine his portrayal.
    And...I found your political commentary quite relevant.

  17. Eve, thank you! Those Ringo-Dallas scenes are tremendously affecting, aren't they? She seems so steeped in shame, and his childlike attention just makes her shine. You can see it in her face and eyes, even though she doesn't seem able to believe she deserves it. It's a wonderfully hopeful and redemptive ending when they overcome the forces holding them back (external for him, internal for her) and get together. It may seem out of step with our more cynical times, but it's an earned hopefulness that doesn't ring false. I didn't intend this as a polemical piece, but when writing about Ford it's impossible to ignore his attitudes about politics and human nature. He's so tolerant of human flaws, but one thing he doesn't tolerate is mean-spiritedness.

  18. A great review, R.D., and a great discussion, too - I'm struggling to think of anything to add, but will just pick up on your point: "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." I've just seen von Sternberg's 'Shanghai Express', which also fits this description and also has the element of the respectable people cold-shouldering the prostitute - I found myself thinking a couple of times that it feels like a Western, so probably it was reminding me of 'Stagecoach'.

    I must agree that Thomas Mitchell,Claire Trevor and John Wayne are all great in this, and, as you say, that first glimpse of Wayne standing silently waiting for the coach makes a strong impression. I'm another one who has a problem with some of the corny elements in some of the John Ford films I've seen, like 'The Quiet Man', but 'Stagecoach' keeps those things in check and is all the greater for it.

  19. Judy, I'm so glad you noticed that statement about the characters creating their own community. I thought it was the centerpiece of the whole post because in it I tried to express what I thought was the theme of the movie. For me it's the concept that binds everything in the movie together. Interesting that you brought up "Shanghai Express." This hadn't occurred to me before, but I can see definite similarities. "The Quiet Man" is another of Ford's films I have mixed feelings about, although I know many people love it. Interestingly, I found the most compelling part of it the flashback to John Wayne's boxing career, which is in a completely different tone from the rest of the movie.

  20. What a wonderful review to one of my favorite western films, which for me is also a wonderful love story. Wayne and Trevor are both fantastic in their roles.. I have just recently become a John Carradine fan. All of the characters he plays I find very fascinating .

  21. I have to admit--as a whole, I dislike the Western genre. Something about macho men and horses and dusty landscapes ... makes me yawn just thinking about it. While it's not one of my favorite movies, this is still one of the few Westerns I actually enjoy. In large part, I attribute that to Claire Trevor, who doesn't get nearly as much attention as she should--she's simply marvelous!

    Excellent post--it's always a delight to read your well-researched, extremely well-written insights!

  22. Dawn, the love stories in Westerns too frequently seem rather half-hearted, something the filmmakers felt obligated to include, and not always terribly convincing in such a male-dominated genre. And the female characters in Westerns often seem pretty two-dimensional. The love story in "Stagecoach" certainly doesn't feel that way to me, and it's an unusual one too--one person with too much experience hooking up with another person with none at all. Carradine was a wonderful character actor, but aside from Ford few seemed to know what to do with him. I'm glad to hear from the comments here that this film is getting him some long overdue admiration.

    Brandie, as I wrote earlier, I'm a fairly recent convert to Westerns, so I know what you mean about the conventions of the genre being tedious for non-fans. I suppose that's true for non-fans of any genre. But I think the interesting characters in this one can hold the attention of people not thrilled by the genre. I share your admiration of Trevor. As a fan of film noir also, I especially like her performances in those forties noirs, particularly in "Murder, My Sweet" and "Born to Kill." Then there's her heart-wrenching turn in "Key Largo"--a deserving Oscar winner for that one.