Stagecoach (1939) Review

Stagecoach (1939) Director: John Ford

“If there’s anything I don’t like, it’s driving a stagecoach through Apache country!”

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Based on Ernest Haycox’s short story entitled “The Stage to Lordsburg” (1937), John Ford’s magnificent Stagecoach takes us inside an overland route aboard a bumpy stagecoach as a group of strangers make the dangerous trip from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. This film –a Chaucerian pilgrimage– grants us a deep and intimate portrait of each character, while also presenting a heroic, albeit nuanced, image of a triumphant, unified America.

From the beginning, as the credits role, Americans Indians come thundering over the desert on horseback. Two riders (one a Cheyenne) approach an army encampment from out of the vast and desolate terrain of Arizona/New Mexico. A trumpet sounds while an American flag is raised. The two men are couriers who report of widespread Apache attacks throughout the area which have “burnt every ranch building in sight” (one remarks that the Cheyenne man is no threat because the “Cheyenne hate the Apaches worse than we do”). Then a telegraph arrives from Lordsburg bearing only one word: “Geronimo” –the telegraph wires have been cut, but still the name of the vicious Apache warlord remains ever-present threat in the region. This ominous scene casts a dark shadow over the rest of the film as we wonder what horrors might await the passengers at the end of the line. Upon first glimpse, we might be tempted to chastise the film already for its portrayal of Indians as heartless, one-dimensional villains, and there may be some veracity to that claim, however it should also be noted that John Ford hired some 200 Navajo Indians to play these roles, paying them a union wage no less –an act which was praised by the Navajo at the time, earning Ford the name “Natani Nez” or “Tall Leader” among them. It’s also worth noting that not all American Indians are portrayed in the same light in the film –note the distinctions between the unnamed Cheyenne man (who is given a close-up view of his face) and contrast him with the fearful rumors of Geromino and the Apaches.

Back in the safe frontier town of Tonto, Arizona, we are carefully introduced to each character with whom we will travel. There is: Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant southern belle making her way westward to meet her Cavalry lieutenant husband who has been stationed at the next stop on the stagecoach (Dry Fork). Next is Hatfield (John Carradine), a sly southern gentleman and former Confederate soldier who is rumored to be a “notorious gambler.” Then we meet Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), the marshal of Tonto, who volunteers to “ride shotgun” on the stagecoach in the hopes of capturing the infamous outlaw, Ringo the Kid, who has recently broken out of prison and is likely hunting down his enemies the “Plummer boys” in Lordsburg. Next is Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a sharp-dressed banker who accepts two large boxes of payroll from Wells Fargo on behalf of the Miners’ & Cattlemens’ Bank –he confidently remarks, “What’s good for the banks is good for the country!” However, the camera carefully pans inward, hanging just long enough for an intimate portrayal of his face, revealing something dark and troubling about his character. Next, we meet a prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor), who is publicly shunned by a group of priggish ladies in town, and we also meet a drunken physician named Dr. “Doc” Josiah Boone (Thomas Mitchell) who has been recently evicted by his landlady. When he spots Dallas, he misquotes Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (Is this the face that wrecked a thousand ships, And burnt the towerless tops of Ilium?”). Both Dallas and Dr. Boone are being run out of town by the uppity, conservative, self-righteous ladies of the town’s “Law and Order League.” Both Dallas and Doc Boone are “victims of a foul disease called social prejudice.” Then, we meet a whiskey drummer named Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), an “easterner” from Kansas City, Kansas (rather than Kansas City, Missouri) with a wife and five children. Naturally, Doc Boone refers to Mr. Peacock as “Reverend” and compels him to stay for the trip. The stagecoach is led by Buck (Andy Devine), a loose-talking man who only took the job in order to marry his Mexican girlfriend, Julieta. Along the way, they stumble upon none other than the infamous outlaw Ringo the Kid (John Wayne), who has been trudging through the wilderness due to a “lame horse.” He is arrested and kept under watch in the stagecoach as it continues onward toward Lordsburg.

All the passengers, despite their disagreements, must find a way to sit in close proximity with one another and dine together on the dusty journey while fear of the Apaches lurks at every twist in the road. Interestingly enough, this group of nine strangers is neatly divided into three segments –three members of the troupe are considered to be socially respectable, high society individuals (Gatewood the banker, Hatfield the Confederate gentleman, and Lucy Mallory, the pregnant southern belle), and three others are socially shunned (Dallas the prostitute, Ringo the Kid, and Doc Boone the drunk). The final three are fairly neutral (the Marshal Curley, Mr. Peacock, and the driver Buck). However, despite initial appearances, people are not always as they seem in Stagecoach.

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Mr. Gatewood, the banker, loudly speaks as if he is a pillar of civic virtue –a conservative, upstanding businessman. Along the road, while expressing his indignant outrage about the federal government, he announces: “I have a slogan that should be placed on every newspaper in the country. America for Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking, over one billion dollars per year! What this country needs is a businessman for president!” He represents a mix of the populist and financier strands of thought in American society, however he is soon revealed to be little more than a criminal. His reason for traveling to Lordsburg is secretly to embezzle money from his own bank (he claims to have received a wire, despite the fact that the telegraph cables have been cut). His defense of civic virtue is actually a smokescreen for his own lust for wealth. Mr. Gatewood is contrasted with Hatfield, the suspicious southern gentleman who may or may not have shot a man in the back (a most ungentlemanly act). He possesses a stately silver cup bearing an emblem he refuses to acknowledge as his own. However, Hatfield is widely known as a “notorious gambler” and also a “tinhorn gambler.” His reason for traveling to Lordsburg is a commitment to fabled southern gentility, a demonstration of chivalry, in escorting and protecting the virtue of the pregnant Lucy Mallory. As portrayed through subtle glimpses and tight dialogue, Hatfield shows that he has a romantic affinity for Mrs. Mallory –a married woman who is also pregnant– because Hatfield apparently once served under her father in the Confederate army during the Civil War. In the final Apache attack sequence, Hatfield reveals the most about his character. When the Apaches begin to close in and the stagecoach is running short of ammunition, Hatfield intends the final bullet in his gun for Mrs. Mallory –he is so disgusted by the bestial, racially inferior Native Americans that he would rather murder a lady than see her virtue forcibly taken by “savages.” Hatfield represents a complex bit of nasty, racist tropes, the likes of which appear again and again in John Ford’s films. And regarding Mrs. Mallory –why is she traveling over dangerous terrain while nine months pregnant? Would it not be safer for her to deliver a baby back in Tonto? We continually hear vague rumors about her husband, a man whom we never meet –apparently, he has been injured in Apache raids.

Stagecoach takes place in the 1880s, an era in which the American Civil War was fresh in the minds of people. Doc Boone, despite being a silly drunkard, is a Union veteran (he describes the Civil War as the “War of the Rebellion” whereas Hatfield dubs it the “War of the Confederacy”). Doc Boone is also regarded as a “philosopher” and a “fatalist.” He is a Shakespearean Fool, one who is frequently called upon for guidance by others within the stagecoach, and when Mrs. Mallory goes into labor, only Doc Boone has the skills to handle the situation. His competence and wisdom is often far greater than all others, and his alcoholism indicates a certain degree of truth-telling. His background and motivations for traveling to Lordsburg remain somewhat murky. Nevertheless, Doc Boone is the backbone of the overland trip. He stands in contrast to either the banker, who pretends to be a pillar of the community, or the southern gentleman, who is actually a troubled gambler. Additionally, the illicit lady of the night, Dallas, is actually revealed to be a more nurturing caregiver for Mrs. Mallory’s newborn child than the child’s own mother, the uppity southern belle, Mrs. Mallory. And Dallas is, in many respects, shown to be a more respectable lady in her own right. Despite her history, she is a woman worthy of marriage and motherhood. And her redemption comes from one of the least likely figures –Ringo the Kid, a rugged outlaw, who recently broke out of prison. However, Ringo is continually proven to be a “good kid” with an extensive familial history connecting him with many other characters, including Doc Boone and Buck. Ringo is optimistic and heroic because he treats people fairly, regardless of their past. When other passengers are reticent about accepting him, Ringo remarks, “I guess you can’t break outta prison and into society in the same week.” By the film’s end, Ringo the outlaw is actually shown to be our hero, while the real outlaws –men like Mr. Gatewood– are brought to justice.

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The beauty of Stagecoach is that it uses archetypes and tropes from classic Western B-movies of the 1920s –the drunkard, the outlaw, the prostitute, the southern belle, the marshal, the priest, the gentleman– and instead of simply regurgitating the same tired one-dimensional characters, John Ford offers an ocean of depth which allows us to examine the Western genre in a new light. They are all flipped on their heads –the upper-class and the under-class. In this way, the entire Chaucerian voyage from Tonto to Lordsburg becomes a grand metaphor for America. Equally facing the same threats, Americans from all walks of life must learn to band together and unite against a common nameless, faceless, savage enemy. No doubt, this message must have resonated with American moviegoers in 1939 against the backdrop of World War II, even if this caricature of Native Americans is troubling to many today. One of the more fascinating and elusive characters in the film is Samuel Peacock (a man whose name no one can seem to remember). He is a forgettable, nervous little man who is regularly referred to as “Reverend” and a “clergyman,” despite his protestations. He is a whiskey drummer, and in this case, alcohol is compared to religion. At different points in the story, disagreements break out among the stagecoach passengers, and in each case, someone steps forward to propose a path toward resolution. At one point, Marshal Curley suggests, “Now if we argue this thing out right, we can get somewhere” (he frequently is the voice of democracy in the film by requesting debate or suggesting a vote on the matter). And at another point, Mr. Peacock –the man who claims not to be a clergyman– warmly implores the group to embrace “Christian charity.” In nearly all cases, characters are reminded to treat women with respect and grace –chivalry is a common value among the stagecoach passengers. Perhaps John Ford suggests here that there are many paths to finding comity among people in a raucous democratic-republic like the United States.

In the end, just when all hopes seems lost during the dramatic Apache attack sequence, a bugle sounds and the American military arrives to the rescue. Compare this with the opening scene of an American flag being lifted over a military fort –the American military is portrayed as a force for good, an orderly institution bringing hope to a wild and lawless land. Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) rides in with the cavalry to triumphantly save the day. As our stagecoach finally arrives in Lordsburg, Mr. Peacock is recovering from an arrow wound, Hatfield has been killed (his final words mention his father, a judge), and Mr. Gatewood is arrested for embezzlement. News of a Republican convention in Chicago reaches Lordsburg, but it is subordinate to imminent local news. Rumors spread throughout Lordsburg that Ringo has arrived in town –slowly, people start to back away from the local saloon and the otherwise jovial town becomes eerily quiet. Under the shadow of darkness, Ringo shoots Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) and his two brothers, thus exacting vengeance for the murders of his own father and brother. Justice is served by the law, with the arrest of Mr. Gatewood, as well as extra-legally, with the shootout that kills Plummer brothers. Ringo and Dallas are then surprisingly sent off into the night, as the stone-faced Marshal has a change of heart. We are led to believe Ringo and Dallas will be married and settle on his lush ranch which sits just across the border. “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization,” says Doc Boone as he and Marshal Curley chuckle and walk back to the saloon. Appropriately Stagecoach ends with a reminder that this whole metaphor for the American project is only, after all, a comedy –a hopeful glimpse of an optimistic country wherein people can join together in common friendship and respect for one another.

Rolling along gaily through the Monuments Valley (one of John ford’s favorite shooting locations), it’s no surprise that Stagecoach brought about a revival in the Western genre, which had largely fallen out of favor in the late ’20s and ’30s. Stagecoach represents John Ford’s wonderful defense of the Western genre, a type of film-making that can be made with depth and artistry, as well as a message that speaks to broader issues in American politics. It reaffirms the American cultural mythology of hard work and rugged individualism as well as the democratic spirit in its search for unity, compromise, and a common enemy.

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