“Danger holds the reins as the devil cracks the whip! Desperate men! Frontier women! Rising above their pasts in a West corrupted by violence and gun-fire!”
Director: John Ford
Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine
Synopsis: A group of people traveling on a stagecoach find their journey complicated by the threat of Geronimo and learn something about each other in the process.
79 movies into his career, and 32-year-old John Wayne must have resigned himself to toiling forever in B-movie hell, churning out an endless stream of quickly made cheap productions for poverty row studios. He’d had his big break back in 1930 when Raoul Walsh had chosen him to star in The Big Trail. The movie failed at the box office, and Wayne failed to make much of an impression. Then, in 1939, John Ford looked beyond the unbroken string of second-rate performances from Wayne that followed to see something that he felt would make the young actor the ideal choice to play The Ringo Kid in his next movie, Stagecoach. The studio wanted Gary Cooper for the part, but Ford stood by his guns and Wayne never looked back. Anyone who has seen any of those cheap westerns Wayne starred in during the 1930s can’t help but be impressed by the sudden transformation in Wayne’s technique, as if his now-legendary screen persona was simply a suit waiting to be found and shrugged into.
Stagecoach was Ford’s first Western for thirteen years, his first since the silent days, and, as with Wayne’s career, the movie resurrected a genre that had been relegated to nothing more than filler between more important movies. After Stagecoach, the Western would be one of America’s foremost movie genres for the next thirty years. It’s easy to forget, given how so many movies have used Stagecoach as a template, just how unique it was: not only because it took the genre seriously, but in the way it crystallised a broad cross-section of society through the enforced bringing together of a disparate group of individuals, each of whom bring with them their own particular set of prejudices, ambitions and weaknesses.
The characters here are the passengers on the eponymous stagecoach, travelling across the inhospitable desert landscape — the movie marked Ford’s first use of the Monument Valley terrain as a fitting backdrop to the rugged dramas played out in his films — at a time when renegade Indians are marauding under the leadership of Geronimo. The stagecoach is driven by Buck (the scratchy-voiced Andy Devine), a well-meaning but largely ineffectual character whom the others often ignore or interrupt. Riding shotgun is Curley (George Bancroft), the sheriff of Tonto who decided to come along for the ride when he learned that The Ringo Kid (Wayne) has escaped from prison and is intent on making his way to Lordsburg to kill the men who murdered his father and brother. Among the passengers are Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute thrown out of Tonto by its sniffy matrons and Doc Boone, a former doctor and practising alcoholic. Boone is played by the redoubtable Thomas Mitchell who, in 1939 also appeared in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Only Angels Have Wings. That’s five bona-fide classics in one year — most actors don’t achieve that in their whole career. Dallas and Doc are, as Doc drunkenly proclaims, the victims of social prejudice, rejected by a society that the film will slowly reveal is riddled with hypocrisy and double standards. These are most obviously encapsulated in the character of Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the town’s bank manager who cements his status as villain early on when he comments that “what’s good for the banks is good for the country,” an ironic statement that rings as loudly today as it must have done in 1939 and the days of the Wild West. Gatewood’s leaving town in a hurry with a travelling bag that never leaves his side.
Also on the stagecoach are Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer who is determined to be by his side when her baby is born, Hatfield (John Carradine), a strangely ambiguous character who looks as though he’s shaping up to be the primary bad guy, but in fact just ends up being a little weird. Last — but by no means least in the red-rimmed eyes of Doc Boone — is little Mr Hancock — erm, Peacock (Donald Meek) — a timid whiskey salesman who finds his samples rapidly disappearing when the good doctor takes him under his wing.
The passengers spend most of the movie in fear of the marauding Indians, but Ford prefers to focus his attention on the prejudices and misconceptions that arise from their interaction with one another. Each character is changed in some way by the journey, which, of course, can be seen as a metaphor for life’s journey; some change for the better, others for the worse.
Having introduced the danger of Indian attack as a plot device to force these characters to share a confined space, Ford can’t then disappoint his audience, especially as they have to wait over an hour for any major action. The pursuit by Geronimo and his men when it finally arrives is a superb piece of direction and cinematography that still packs a punch today, with Yakima Canutt’s hair-raising stunt work still managing to impress (his insanely dangerous journey under the carriage of the speeding stagecoach was repeated as a homage in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark more than forty years later). Perhaps the only bum note in the entire movie is the ending in Lordsburg in which The Ringo Kid keeps his appointment with the killers of his kin. The whole episode has a kind of tacked on feeling to it, and you can’t help feeling the movie would have benefitted from finishing ten minutes earlier.
(Reviewed 8th April 2013)