Stagecoach (1939) Review

Stagecoach (1939) Director: John Ford

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★★★★★

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.

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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.

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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.

3 Bad Men (1926) Review

3 Bad Men (1926) Director: John Ford

★★★★☆

Coming at the tail end of the first phase of John Ford’s career, 3 Bad Men is his last great Western of the silent era. The following year he watched F.W.’s Sunrise (1927) and began a deep exploration of German Expressionism until he enacted a renaissance of the Western genre with Stagecoach (1939). Trains, cowboys, stagecoaches, Indians, covered wagons –early silent cinema was filled with Western archetypes and motifs. American audiences were enthralled with these films, however, by the late 1920s and early 1930s, Westerns had unfortunately gone out of fashion. 3 Bad Men came along right at the end of an era, featuring Ford’s long-time collaborating actor George O’Brien in the lead role (this was the last of their string of silent Western films together, though O’Brien did return to John Ford films in the 1930s and most notably classics in the 1940s like Fort Apache in 1948 and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in 1949).

Based on Herman Whitaker’s novel Over the Border, John Ford’s last silent picture, 3 Bad Men, offers a remarkable story as Black Hills gold is discovered in the fictional South Dakota land rush (these scenes of rushing hoards making way for South Dakota were actually based on the Oklahoma Land Rush). It was filmed in the Mojave Desert and Jackson Hole, Wyoming where the Grand Tetons display majestically as white men from the east encroach upon Sioux lands. President Ulysses S. Grant opens the frontier and scores of settlers arrive, including Major Carlton of Virginia, and his daughter Lee (Olive Borden). Their fancy race horses are tended to by Irishman Dan O’Malley (George O’Brien). However, a reward for the capture of three horse thieves (or three “bad men”) is issued when they attack the Carlton wagon and leave Lee’s father for dead, but she mistakenly believes they are aid sent on behalf of her father. These criminals suddenly display a heart of gold. As with all John Ford films, there exists nuance within people; no one is simply a one-dimensional criminal.

In the end, Lee and Dan fall in love, and the three bad men give up their lives so that the young couple can escape freely and live a future life in peace among the rolling fields of grain (this last shot really stuck with me). The three bad men appear in the distance and slowly ride away over the hills.

“Years went on, the West was won and those who came for treasure
found it in harvests of golden grain.”

Arrowsmith (1931) Review

Arrowsmith (1931) Director: John Ford

★★★☆☆

Mostly faithful to Sinclair Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, John Ford offers an unusually bland and unimpressive film in my view. Arrowsmith was nominated for Best Picture, though thankfully it did not win. Sadly, this film is burdened with an uninteresting plot, forgettable acting, and this all leads to an unfortunate viewing experience. John Ford later lamented that he quickly slapped together this film and unfortunately it shows.

Arrowsmith tells the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a rising medical student, who turns down a job to be a research assistant with his professor because he has fallen in love with nurse Leora “Lee”, played by Helen Hayes. They are married and move to her small rural town, far away from the big city. Martin Arrowsmith sets up his own medical practice there, but soon finds a cure for a disease affecting cows, and he decides to move back to New York where he hopes to make new scientific discoveries. His wife Leora conceives but soon miscarries and she learns that she can have no further children, which devastates her. Arrowsmith is then sent to a remote Caribbean island to test his serum on the native populations. There, he encounters a group of Americans who are marooned, one who is attracted to Arrowsmith. However, they soon start dying and Arrowsmith uses the serum to save as many lives as possible, but his wife Leora has died. Saddened, he returns home and starts his own research lab together with a friend.

John Ford’s Arrowsmith is mostly faithful to the novel, however it omits the latter section concerning Arrowsmith’s second wife. According to rumor, Samuel Goldwyn hired John Ford for this film on the condition that he not drink during the production and as a result John Ford sped up the production process as much as possible, sometimes entirely omitting scenes that were in the script.

Click here to read my reflections on reading Sinclair Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Arrowsmith.

The Iron Horse (1924) Review

The Iron Horse (1924) Director: John Ford

★★★★★

What a terrific early John Ford film! He was a mere 29 years old when he started work on The Iron Horse and he had already completed some fifty films. As a young man from Ireland, Ford was enamored with the stories of America –the West, progress, adventure, the Civil War, and immigrants. Coming from a family of poor Irish Catholics, he loved it all, and his films often explored nuance in the uniting of America, as they often portrayed the outcasts perspective using the Old West as his backdrop. Prompted by the success of The Covered Wagon the prior year, Fox decided to create their own epic Western. The result was The Iron Horse. Placed in the capable hands of John “Jack” Ford, the film captures many of the tropes that would become integral to classic westerns. The quality of this film has deteriorated somewhat with time, but what remains reveals an extraordinary trail of cinematography and a truly epic production.

I can almost see John Ford now –standing forth, unpretentious, seated atop his director’s chair, chewing cigars and hankies, shouting directions, fabricating the script as goes along. The Iron Horse was filmed during a frigid Nevada winter –people caught pneumonia, many contracted dysentery, and some died in the making of this movie. The production crew was so massive they effectively built a small city in the high desert for all the staff and extras. A bugler awoke them each morning and in the evenings they enjoyed dancing and music. Being on the set with John Ford was reportedly a grand old time, and Ford later claimed The Iron Horse was his favorite of all his films.

The film tells a glamorized version of the building of the transcontinental railroad during which we experience the clash of cultures: Italians, Irish, and Chinese laborers, as well as American Indians and so on. It is an optimistic film about the American dream, and it is dedicated to the greatest of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. However dreamers like these always run into hurdles –skeptics, obstacles, naysayers, and divisiveness. The goal of meeting the two railroad lines is portrayed as a noble endeavor, pursued with courage by Abraham Lincoln who, despite the ongoing Civil War, believes in the innate vision of a unified country from coast to coast –and the project is begun shortly after his assassination. It is this dream of the railroad that causes a great movement of peoples –different races, rich men and laborers alike, cattle herders, immigrants, soldiers, and engineers, all traversing across rugged terrain, facing hostile natives, risking their lives– to find a way to connect the railroad from Omaha to Sacramento. The film’s star, George O’Brien, became a good friend of John Ford and he appeared in several more Ford films though perhaps his most famous role was the lead in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. He was joined by fellow star off the silent screen, Madge Bellamy.

In a beautifully fitting conclusion, a title note informs us that the actual locomotives used in The Iron Horse were the original #119 and Jupiter which united East and West (though this is false as both were actually scrapped before 1910). Still, I was delighted to see the crowd gather as the final railway spikes were laid and Leland Stanford was greeted by Thomas C. Durant. What a triumphant close to this wonderful film! The Iron Horse was unsurprisingly the biggest hit of 1924 –Fox’s investment paid off handsomely.