It’s the 1880’s and an eclectic group of travelers board a stagecoach in the wild west in Arizona to travel to New Mexico. Drama, tension, romance and an awful lot of danger looms ahead on this trip for these passengers. When the dust settles a young actor by the name of John Wayne will become one of the most popular stars of the century and John Ford would revitalize the western genre with his landmark film Stagecoach.
It’s funny when you think back to how at the time in 1939 westerns were relegated to cheap B-pictures that got little respect. It wasn’t until Ford used grandiose scenery, deeper characters and complicated relationships – not to mention some spectacular stunts – that westerns found a new lease on life that would make them one of the most popular genres for the next few decades. Ford would become synonymous with the western and be behind some of the most popular, admired and beloved ones ever made.
Stagecoach is a bit of a soap opera on wagon wheels. We have the ostracized prostitute (Claire Trevor), a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who has become friendly with a meek whiskey salesman (Donald Meek) so he can indulge in his wares. The sinister gambler/killer (John Carradine) who’s become the protector of a soldier’s pregnant wife (Louise Platt) looking to meet up with her husband, an embezzling banker (Benton Churchill) who has a suitcase of cash and is making a getaway.
Then joining the party last is the wanted outlaw the Ringo Kidd, who’s broken out of jail and is on a personal mission to avenge the murder of his father and brother. Wayne’s iconic introduction with the camera zooming into his face still packs a memorable punch. He commands the screen from then on. It’s no surprise he became a star from here on out.
There is plenty of friction and tension happening on this trip between all these characters. To add even more suspense to this pot is the approaching Geronimo and is Apache Indians and the imminent threat they are to these white travelers.
It’s probably no surprise the Indians have no shadings other than being savages in Stagecoach. They are enemies in the wild and will kill, rape and pillage without any regard or hesitation. They are simply adversaries with no good in them and should be feared.
There are no mention of the settlers stealing land, their mistreatment of Indians or the more complex and truthful history of what had occurred. Films would bring more of the dimensions of that conflict later. In Stagecoach the relationship between the Indians and whites are depicted as black and white. The whites are good, the Indians bad.
The Indians do provide an exciting climactic attack sequence. There are some truly thrilling stunts with stuntmen leaping from horse to horse and at one point one man falling underneath the stagecoach. It’s captivating stuff seeing the art of old school stunts and in some cases accidents that Ford left in the film. Ok, there’s some noticeable back screen projection happening here and there, but you just have to remind yourself this was made in 1939, don’t get snooty and hold it up to the standards of visuals today and not let it bother you.
Stagecoach would be the first time Ford used Monument Valley, Arizona as a backdrop to a western. The location has been synonymous with the vision of westerns. It must of been a truly dramatic experience for audiences in 1939 to see this landscape for the first time. I’m betting most people at that point wasn’t even aware of its existence. It had to pack a wallop. And it still does seeing those huge towering formations in this desolate flat land.
Despite the eventual arrows flying and guns being shot, for the majority of the movie it’s the characters rubbing against each other and the drama that unfolds on this trip that is even more memorable as the Apaches.
Some of my favorite moments are between Wayne and Trevor and how he unknowingly creates discomfort in the others by how he treats her. She’s a lady of the night, thus the other respectable passengers feel she is not worthy of being civil to. They don’t want to sit near her, and completely dismiss her.
Wayne doesn’t know about any of this background, he moseys up and treats her simply as a lady with the courtesy any woman deserves by a cowboy. There are wonderful instances of disturbed reaction shots, surprise by Trevor and Wayne mistakenly thinking he’s the one receiving the silent scorn from the other passengers. As they all move away from Trevor at the dinner table, Wayne thinks he’s the company that they don’t want to be near.
It’s funny how scenes of social etiquette become just as indelible as expansive scenes in a western alongside Indian attacks and Monument Valley – but they are!
This all builds up an endearing romance and keeps some interesting sparks going throughout. Wayne gets a lot of attention, since this was a breakout role, but Trevor is equally good. Her character of Dallas is tough, vulnerable, sympathetic. They make a great pair. Wayne and Trevor reteamed several more times (including 1954’s disaster film The High and Mighty), but the sparks never flew as high between them as they do in Stagecoach.
Trevor and Wayne might have gotten top billing, but they’re backed up by a terrific ensemble of actors and there’s not a weak link in this cast of characters. They all have their stories and whenever the film moves to focus on a different character it never deflates your interest. They are all solid.
It might not be the most challenging roles for some of the actors. Carradine plays a scoundrel to the hilt. With his greasy mustache and black outfit you would never mistake him for a good guy. The always dependable Thomas Mitchell plays the drunken Doc Boone who mines some pathos from the role while also providing some comedic moments.
Frequent Ford favorite Andy Devine plays the colorful stagecoach driver. His cartoonish presence and distinctive voice surely left a lasting impression on audiences at the time. He would become a memorable character actor in films while maybe not getting huge roles, he’d be a unique addition to the cast. It’s hard not to shake his voice once you hear it.
Stagecoach remains an extremely entertaining yarn. I often hear some folks say that they’re ‘not into westerns’. If I had to create a western playlist of film suggestions for someone that I think might help turn their head around and discover the richness and entertainment westerns can possess, Stagecoach would be high on the list.