Stagecoach (1939) Director: John Ford
Stagecoach brought about a revival in the Western genre, which had largely fallen out of favor in the late ’20s and ’30s. The Western is a mythic depiction of the Western country and prairie, a largely historically untrue heroic story of courage and goodness in an amoral land of savages and wilderness. It reaffirms the American cultural mythology of hard work and rugged individualism. In the late ’20s, after the end of the silent era, Westerns had lost popularity as a flood of “B Pictures” came in and brought about a kind of cheapness to the Western genre. John Ford’s previous silent Western was 3 Bad Men in 1926 (he also made the notable The Iron Horse in 1924). He didn’t return to making Westerns until he made Stagecoach in 1939.
The plot of the film is based on a short story called “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox, an American Western writer. Ford purchased the rights to the story shortly after its magazine publication in 1937. It tells the story of a group of strangers in the 1880s who each board a stagecoach for a dangerous trip from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. The tight narrative keeps the Chaucerian purpose from wandering too far. Two riders (one a Cheyenne) approach an army camp from out of the vast and desolate terrain of Arizona/New Mexico. A telegraph arrives with only one word: “Geronimo,” the vicious Apache warlord. The scene casts a dark shadow over the film. Each character plays a classic Western trope, an archetype we think we understand, but in Stagecoach, not everything is as it seems. Each character has considerably greater depth than initial impressions allow. The rugged outlaw “Ringo the Kid” only ever killed to defend his family, the high society woman who gives birth to a child that the prostitute ends up being the best caregiver for, the shady gambler is actually descended from a high-class Southern family, the drunkard who is a doctor who winds up sobering up to deliver a baby and stand up to the Kid’s enemies; the pillar of the community banker winds up being an untrustworthy thief; the hard-nosed marshal changes his tune at the end of the film with the doctor by letting Ringo escape to his ranch in the name of true love.
The film is a vision of a unified America – in which Americans of all classes and backgrounds with differing perspectives on the Civil War or morality – can join together against a common enemy and reach their destination. All characters are complex, none are above ill-repute. They are all a part of civilization with different reasons for embarking on the journey. It is a film of redemption, told by reframing the heroes of the Western genre. In the end, the U.S. cavalry overcomes their duty to return to Tonto and they rescue the stagecoach from impending doom against attacking Apaches, bolstering the American value of the “greater good” (i.e. the cavalry managed to overcome their social demands and limiting bureaucracy to defend those in need). Ringo kills his enemies in Lordsburg, and he is freed by the marshal with the doctor so that he may settle down with his paramour, the call-girl turned caregiving wife, while the banker is arrested for thievery. As Ringo rides off into the sunset, the doc says: “Well they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.” In the end, only the timid salesman, whose name no one seems to remember (“Peacock”), is shot by an Apache arrow, and Hatfield, the son of a former Confederate judge is killed (moments before he attempted to mercy kill the high-class lady with his final bullet, thus sparing her of torture by the Indians). This notion of chivalry is another common theme in the film – each of the characters (men of all persuasions) greatly avow and respect chivalry toward women, the Confederate toward the high-class woman, and the outlaw for the prostitute.
It was the first of many films shot by Ford in the “Monument Valley” in Arizona, close to the border with Utah. Ford had a difficult time re-introducing the “Western” genre which had gone out of fashion in the ’30s, and he was obstinate in his demand that John Wayne play the lead, who was largely unknown at the time despite acting in other movies. It was a request that Ford’s producers were not fond of. He also requested Claire Trevor, who was paid nearly five times as much as John Wayne for the film. Ford followed Stagecoach with Young Mr. Lincoln, also released in 1939, as well as The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 (read my review of the film here) and How Green Was My Valley in 1941 (read my review of the film here).
Stagecoach is surely one of the greatest movies ever made (a tag that can be given to a number of films made in the year 1939). Orson Welles claimed it was a textbook-perfect film. He preferred the “old masters” meaning John Ford, John Ford, John Ford. Ford’s style was simple, moving the camera sparingly, shooting only what was necessary. Dialogue is limited in the film, as Ford prefers to let the action tell the story, with long shots of panning the camera, or extended shots of actors’ faces. Gordon Douglas attempted an inferior remake of the film in the ’60s.