Directed by John Ford
March 2, 1939
The lives of a group of strangers intersect in the West during a dangerous stagecoach trip through hostile Apache territory.
In my humble opinion Stagecoach is less a Western and more of a drama about the lives of a group of characters that intersect on a stagecoach trip through Apache territory. Many hundreds of films and television shows since have used this basic concept to craft a drama. Heck, this very thing is the basic foundation of disaster films, but I am getting off the point. Stagecoach though still manages to have the vibe of a traditional Western most likely thanks to the masterful hand of legendary director John Ford and the more legendary John Wayne in what turned out to be a star making performance. The focus is on character and development in this film and not on the lingering threat along their travel route. For a Western there is very little gunplay it seems. There is much more drama and character interaction than there is anything else.
As shown by his performance in this film, Wayne’s technique had improved a great deal since his time making The Big Trail, but it was still a little rough. I thought in The Big Trail all the basics were there but his ability to use them effectively was not. It was like he was following a set of instructions on being John Wayne on screen and not naturally being John Wayne in the flickering projector light. However, Wayne as the Ringo Kid here created a tough yet tender character that fit the template for the rest of the Western performances of the iconic actor. Here he was the type of Western hero we have come to envision in the classic mold. He was tough and fatherly and honorable coming as the Ringo Kid coming to get Western justice for his father and brother who had been murdered by Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) who is believed to be in nearby Lordsburg which is also the destination of the titular stagecoach.
I will say it here: contrary to what some say, John Wayne was not a bad actor. The more films of his that I watch the more I shift from my opinion of him being okay or serviceable with an amazing screen presence to feeling he was a good actor that could attain greatness. He was most assuredly capable of attaining greatness at times and turning in amazing performances (The Cowboys and True Grit for example), but he needed a good director and one of those was John Ford. Wayne’s natural charisma helped a great deal during his time and Ford could get The Duke to dig a little deeper in his skill set and find the quality actor he had in him.
Claire Trevor plays prostitute (and eventual Ringo Kid love interest) Dallas who is driven out of town because, well, she is a prostitute. Trevor turns in a sympathetic and nuanced performance. It is interesting to note that she was billed higher than Wayne but then again at this point her star was bigger than his. You can see why she was a name as she converts what would normally be a the disposable love interest in the film into something significant.
This is also quite possibly the only film where John Carradine was actually young. Think about it. When have you ever seen a youthful John Carradine? I swear that man was old in every film I have ever watched him in. He always looked to be on the verge of retirement but somehow was not here. As the gambler Hatfield, Carradine is rather darkly charming. He embodies the role of the Southern gentlemen whose service in the Confederate Army causes some friction among the group. Not villainous but certainly menacing and intimidating.
The other familiar face (at least to modern audiences) in this film would be Thomas Mitchell. That name may not spark immediate recognition but at least one performance will. He was the actor who played Uncle Billy in the classic It’s A Wonderful Life. He had quite the career managing to get roles in such films as High Noon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and Gone with the Wind. That is something amazing considering all those are considered classics along with Stagecoach. Here he plays the drunk Doc Boone. It is basically Uncle Billy but more of a sense of being trapped by his shortcomings. The character is as much comic relief as it is tragic.
It IS possible you might recognize noted character actor Andy Devine as stagecoach driver Buck. The man had a distinctive voice (whose origin is confused at best) and appeared with Wayne in the later Island in the Sky along with innumerable other films and television shows like a role as Santa Claus on the Batman television series. If you do not know the face you will definitely recognize the voice as that of Friar Tuck from the 1973 Disney feature Robin Hood.
Some people have cried racism because Geronimo and the Apaches are not very well drawn characters in the story. They are just a generic threat in the background, but I counter that the villains are not the important part of the story. The important part of this film are the characters on the stagecoach and how they interact. A threat lingering in the background is just to add drama and tension otherwise it would be a group of people yammering for about 100 minutes. This is similar to the execution of the villains in the much later John Wayne film The Train Robbers. They are there to create danger but not to get character arcs.
It is a little unusual that the Native American characters are not well rounded here in context of it being a John Ford Western. Ford tended to give his Native American characters depth and motivation. Still, though, the Apache’s and what they were doing was not the focus of the story. They were there to give the plot a little something. Think a drama set during WWII that has the war lingering in the background but never featured.
The story is pretty good. I am not one normally for these kinds of dramas. A group of disparate characters traveling together is usually populated by performers overacting. They avoid that pitfall. These are all damaged folks who happened to meet one another on this trip. Some earn a type of redemption and others earn a second chance at a better life and some just get the possibility of a better path. And some, like banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), get what they deserve.
Nobody hams it up in this film. There is no overacting. Some characters are lighter than others but there is no overacting. Some movies like this and especially at this time actors were not above overdoing it, but John Ford kept his cast in check and as said earlier even coached a star making performance out of Wayne.
This is an expertly directed film. Orson Welles lauded it as such and reportedly watched it repeatedly in preparation for filming the classic Citizen Kane. Stagecoach is responsible for Citizen Kane! Greatness feeds greatness, I guess. The cinematography and the music and the directing along with the acting are all superb here. This is textbook great filmmaking.
Stagecoach is a great film. It deserves its classic status. It is a wonderful script with engaging characters and an amazing cast. Watch it!