When the great John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, it was his first sound western--he'd done some silent oaters, but hadn't touched the genre in over a dozen years. It was also his first picture with John Wayne; their collaborative relationship would produce some of the great films of the 1940s and 1950s. And it was the first Ford film shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the beautiful setting for several of his subsequent westerns, including My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It's appropriate that the film inaugurated so many noteworthy elements of Ford's filmography, as Stagecoach is, for all intents and purposes, the archetypal western. Ford may have later explored the genre with greater sociological and psychological sophistication (in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or The Searchers), and contemporaries like Hawks took the western to greater emotional and visceral heights (in films like Red River and Rio Bravo), but it all started here. Everything that we think of when we think of the western came from Stagecoach, which distilled the genre conventions and made the damned thing respectable.
Wayne has the star-maker role of the Ringo Kid, but wasn't even top-billed; though he had some 80 films to his credit, most were "Povery Row" westerns (many of them now available wherever public domain $1 DVDs are sold), and his only previous big picture of note was Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail back in 1930. But Ford fought hard to get "Duke" for the role, even parting ways with producer David O. Selznick--who wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich for the leads--and making the film for independent producer Walter Wanger (at half the budget). Wayne is billed under future film noir queen Claire Trevor, who appears here as Dallas, a woman of ill repute being driven out of the Arizona town of Tonto by the bluenoses in the local "law and order league." They've also cast out drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); the duo joins whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), crooked banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), cavalry wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), and her self-appointed protector, Southern gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) on the crowded stage.
The driver of the stagecoach is Buck (Andy Devine); riding shotgun is Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft), who is on the lookout for the Ringo Kid (Wayne). The stagecoach's destination is Lordsburg, and Curly's come along because Buck brought word that Luke Plummer has been spotted there. Curly knows that means Ringo's headed in the same direction--he's seeking revenge against Plummer, who murdered Ringo's brother and father. All that background makes for one beautifully prepared entrance, and Ford pays it off with the most famous introductory shot that side of The Third Man--a slick push in to tight close-up on the Duke as the stagecoach comes upon him off the trail.
Ringo's an outlaw, sure, but with good cause--and Curly primarily wants to put him behind bars for his own protection. His crimes (past and future) are honorable, and more than that, he's a man's man and a gentleman to women; in other words, he's the prototypical Wayne antihero. Wayne had reportedly wanted to work with Ford for years, but the director kept pushing him off, wanting to wait until Wayne was a stronger actor, and until he had the right role for him. The Ringo Kid is the right role, and Wayne is terrific in it--not just in his man-of-action scenes, not just playing the beats that we came to identify with him, but in his quieter moments, like his understated hallway scene at Apache Wells, strategizing with station master Chris (Chris Pin Martin). Wayne may have been a "movie star" first and an actor second, but that's not to say he wasn't capable of some damned fine acting.
The picture is kept humming by the wit and intelligence of the screenplay, by Dudley Nichols and an uncredited Ben Hecht (from Ernest Haycox's story); our interest is sustained by the rich comic byplay inside that packed stagecoach, much of it supplied by the drunken but wise doc, memorably played by Mitchell (best remembered these days as loveable "Uncle Billy" in It's a Wonderful Life). His gags are verbal as well as visual--he bids the town barkeep, with whom he's run up an unpaid tab, a fond farewell by noting, "Economically, I haven't been of much value to you," and when Doc goes to "wave" goodbye to the killjoy women who've given him the boot, the cutaway to the shocked ladies tells us all we need to know about his parting gesture. Devine's Buck, a fundamentally frightened fellow with a hoarse, cracking voice, also provides able comic support, and the running jokes--like how everyone keeps mistaking Peacock for a man of the cloth--are brought off well. But there are more serious themes at work here as well; the shunning of Dallas in Arizona carries right over onto the stagecoach, and the communal table social dynamics of their stop for "grub" at Dry Fork is simultaneously high-school immature and absolutely heartbreaking. It's almost funny, how Ringo and Dallas end up running off together without so much as sharing a kiss, but they're bound together by their outcast status--they fall in with each other partly because no one else will have them.
Ford's direction isn't flawless--that musical interlude slows things down considerably, and your attention meanders away from the picture--and the film suffers from the casual sexism and racism we've come to expect but still wince at (as with that unfortunate bit about whether Chris will more miss the whipping and working of his wife or the horse that she stole). But the filmmaking is smoothly professional (Orson Welles reportedly screened Stagecoach upwards of 40 times during his pre-production period for Citizen Kane). There's a stodgy insert or two--most noticeably those too-obvious shots of stodgy Gatewood in the opening scenes--but Ford's compositions and shot combinations are, for the most part, inspired and thrillingly alive. The stagecoach's river crossing is inventively photographed from atop the jostling vehicle, in a pseudo-handheld style that gives the scene a real rise. The centerpiece sequence is the Apache attack, a thrilling, fast-paced set piece that starts with a startling shock moment and blasts forward from there. As Wayne hops from horse to horse, Ford's camera glides around the galloping stage in a breathless long take; cinematographer Bert Glennon also utilizes some astonishing low-angle photography, as the stagecoach and attacking Apaches hop right over his low-slung lens.
As the film draws to a close, Ford makes a bold choice: he does the full build-up to the big showdown between Ringo and Luke Plummer, then cuts away at the last second to Dallas hearing the shots ring out across town. It's a suspense device, sure, meant to draw out the winner of the duel, but it also hints at Ford's capability for thwarting expectations and taking unexpected turns. Those inclinations would be more fully explored and exploited in the years to come. But in Stagecoach, he crafted the template that he and his contemporaries would work from for decades.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Stagecoach makes its Criterion debut simultaneously on standard-def and Blu-ray. The single 50GB disc is accompanied by a lovely 32-page booklet, which includes chapter list, credits, transfer information, an essay by writer/filmmaker David Cairns, and Haycox's original story, "Stage to Lordsburg."
The trouble with being a miracle worker is that people come to expect miracles. Such is the case with the MPEG-4 AVC transfer of Stagecoach; though the video presentation is perfectly acceptable, it is a rough image that certainly shows its age. The 1.37:1 frame has several noticeably soft shots (such as the wide shot at the end of Ringo's proposal scene, or the medium wides of the bad guys in the saloon, waiting for Ringo to arrive), and the image shows frequent lines, scratches, and dirt (particularly in the opening credits and the early windstorm sequence)--again, absolutely expected, but not as much from a Criterion Blu-ray. On the other hand, it is an improvement over the disc included in the 2006 John Wayne/John Ford Collection; the grain is warm and inviting and contrast is good, particularly the light and shadows in Ringo and Dallas's walk through Lordsburg. It's a very good transfer, just not the knockout we've come to expect from the label.
The LPCM Mono track is mostly good, though the tiniest bit of surface hiss can be detected, particularly in the opening reels. There are scattered moments of muddiness, but the track is clean and audible overall.
English SDH subtitles are also included.
It comes as no surprise that Criterion's bonus features are voluminous and informative. First up is an Audio Commentary by film historian and western scholar Jim Kitses. There's no doubt that Kitses knows his stuff, but he engages in one of my least favorite commentary practices--he is clearly reading out his impressions, word for word, so there's nothing particularly conversational about the track (it's more like we're listening to a lecture that accompanies the film).
The next supplement is a real treat, though; Criterion has included, in its entirety, the silent Ford western Bucking Broadway (54:29) from 1917. The enjoyable oater/city comedy (armed with a new score by Donald Sosin) provides a valuable peek at the director's history with the genre, and is good fun besides. British journalist Philip Jenkinson's lengthy "John Ford Inverview" (1:12:29) follows; this unedited footage from their 1968 one-on-one is terrific, with Ford alternately insightful and grouchily funny. Next we have thoughts on the film from Ford acolyte "Peter Bogdanovich" (14:17), who discusses the film's background and its place in history, and gives his impressions of Wayne and Ford from their meetings early in the historian/filmmaker's career. "Dreaming of Jeanie" (21:50) is a wonderful video essay by Ford biographer Tag Gallagher, who shows and analyzes clips from the film from both a visual and thematic standpoint.
Ford's grandson and biographer Dan Ford introduces the "John Ford Home Movies" (7:13), showing the filmmaker at play with his family and friends (including Wayne and cinematographer Gregg Toland). Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger appears in "True West" (10:44) to relay the tale of how Harry Goulding brought John Ford to Monument Valley. Next is a tribute to the film's stunt coordinator (and one of the first stunt men), "Yakima Canutt" (10:00), whose praises are sung by British stunt legend Vic Armstrong. Wayne and Trevor reprised their roles for the film's radio adaptation on "Screen Director's Playhouse" in 1949; that entertaining show (and its introduction by Ford) is included in its entirety (running just shy of a half hour). The Trailer (3:29) rounds out the impressive package of extras.
So much of what Ford did in Stagecoach became part and parcel for the western genre, it may be hard to appreciate how important the film was; like Psycho and Halloween in the horror genre or Annie Hall in romantic comedy, we've seen it duplicated so many times that, through no fault of its own, the original loses a bit of its punch. But it hasn't lost its considerable power to entertain and invigorate, and there is still nothing quite like watching an actor become a star in front of your very eyes.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.