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It's one thing when all of the elements of a film "click" to produce a superior picture. It's another when a film flies in the face of commercial trends, elevating a C-grade genre to "A" film status and creating a major star from a career-challenged has-been. John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach does all that and more. This B&W classic has provided lessons in the grammar of good filmmaking for generations. Orson Welles saw it and decided that John Ford was the best director in Hollywood. Critics and film structuralists have taken Ford's drama apart and come up with conflicting theories. Critic Richard Corliss studied the script's stock characters and "miracle" plotting and, like the engineer who concluded that bees can't fly because they don't follow the rules, adjudged Stagecoach "a box of faded Hollywood conventions". In interviews Ford often contradicts himself. He's famously quoted identifying himself at a famous Director's Guild meeting by saying, "My name's John Ford. I make westerns". In a later interview (included on this disc) he distances himself from the genre and says he has no particular interest in it.
Stagecoach rolls nine character clichés and a corny selection of silent western situations into a 'hazardous journey' plot yet somehow comes up with a riveting drama that grabs our emotions. An overland stage to Lordsburg is packed with travelers nervous about the Apache renegade Geronimo, who has broken free of the reservation. Whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) is concerned about his family back in St Louis. Pregnant army wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is anxious to get to her husband, an officer serving in the cavalry. Shifty gentleman gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) goes along to protect her. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) are being ushered out of town by an unpaid landlord and a pack of church ladies. Slipping aboard at the last minute is banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill). The coach driver is Buck (Andy Devine) and riding shotgun is Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft). Curly has come along to arrest prison escapee The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who wants revenge on the three men who killed his father and brother.
Ford and scenarist Dudley Nichols make Stagecoach a Grand Hotel on wheels, but with far better storytelling skills. Introduced as stereotypes, the passengers soon take on back stories, or hints of back stories. The milquetoast whiskey drummer earns our approval as a tenderhearted protector of new mothers and babies. The cowardly coach driver is more than sympathetic to the plight of the outlaw hero. The priggish Eastern woman demonstrates that she's a good soul beneath her social constraints. Ford includes a clownish alcoholic Irish doctor for a few easy laughs, a choice redeemed by Thomas Mitchell's excellent acting.
Oddly, the film's most hackneyed plot turns are its strongest scenes. Doc Boone sobers up to deliver a baby, regaining his self-esteem. The last-second rescue by the cavalry ties in with a "save-the-last-bullet" moment that by all rights should be an intolerable bit of cheap manipulation. It works because Ford fully embraces the gallantry of the shooter, a Southern aristocrat who has chosen to lose himself in the wild west over some unspoken disgrace back home - one that apparently involves Mrs. Mallory. Hinted at with only a few glances and allusions, this hidden drama is a match for the Ethan Edwards - Martha relationship in The Searchers. It's Carradine's greatest role and some of John Ford's most sophisticated storytelling. Critic Richard Corliss decided that the director added little to Dudley Nichols' script, a statement belied by Ford's delicate and nuanced handling of every character on screen.
I don't think that Stagecoach is the "psychological" western that Peter Bogdanovich describes. That descriptor wouldn't really apply until the 1950s when post-nuclear angst seeped into performances and themes, turning western heroes into bundles of complexes, even if only superficially expressed. But Stagecoach is decidedly adult in its outlook, especially considering the fairly infantile roost occupied by the average western programmer of the 1930s. Top-billed Claire Trevor's Dallas is clearly a low grade prostitute -- she doesn't use a real name, but is known by where she can be found. The screenplay goes in for several 'rehabilitations of the soul', and the essentially innocent Dallas is a prime candidate for regeneration. She's even compared directly to the Virgin Mary. Her hopes for a better life are rekindled by another 'innocent' loser. Fugitive murderer The Ringo Kid has been locked up since he was Seventeen, yet is so unspoiled that he doesn't recognize Dallas for what she is.
Excluding a few noble outlaws, Hollywood's big westerns always starred true-blue good guys and virginal heroines. Stagecoach breaks the mold by proposing a whore and an outlaw to represent New Hope in the New Land. Perhaps this is part of Ford's (then) liberal political slant, the same humanist outlook that led him to embrace John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Ford gleefully identifies the hypocrite banker Henry Gatewood as society's biggest enemy. Viewers always roar with approval when Gatewood is hauled off to the calaboose, but Ford is doing much more than just playing to his Depression-era audience. Stagecoach made the western genre more relevant, placing its action thrills in a more compelling dramatic context. John Wayne really earns his newfound stardom, holding his own against a cast of scene stealers. We know we're dealing with a new cinema icon from his very first shot.
Stagecoach is as smartly constructed as a Swiss watch, and its cutting patterns have often been analyzed shot-by-shot by academic film theorists. I think I dropped all notion of continuing in grad school critical studies after slogging through a treatise purporting to explain Ford's big chase scene in semiological terms. Not only was the paper a deadly read, it assigned ludicrous intellectual explanations for directing choices that Ford would clearly make on an instinctual basis. It should also be obvious that Ford's stunt expert Yakima Canutt had a big influence on the way the chase was assembled.
The chase sequence is often criticized for breaking the 180° line. The stagecoach moves left-to-right in one shot and in the next is suddenly moving right-to-left. This kind of faux analysis applies a Rule without understanding the reason the Rule was invented. Really glaring screen direction errors are rare in sound films, but crop up more often in silents (where, it is possible, they were once separated by other shots or inter-titles). I tend to find them in films by G. W. Pabst. Louise Brooks will talk to someone off screen, and the cut will reveal her listener facing in the same direction. To us it looks like the camera has cut to a third person who happens to be looking off-screen at the unseen listener.
The 180° line rule is important only when its violation risks viewer confusion. Two people talking in a room suggest an invisible eye line between them, and crossing it might confuse the audience. But a stagecoach racing across a featureless plain doesn't have a "line", only a simple Vector of motion, a big arrow representing the coach. We know that the Indians are all following the coach. When we cut to one of them galloping in the opposite screen direction, we don't for a moment think that he's another Indian riding the other way. We also don't imagine that a second stagecoach has suddenly appeared. When Ford introduces the cavalry riding the other way to intercept the Indians, he cuts very quickly to wide angle from a fixed position. Only then do we see the full scene with the cavalry, coach and Indians all in relation to each other.
Yet Stagecoach was once faulted for flawed film grammar. The closest Ford ever came to formalizing a visual choice is when he indicated that he chose his horizon shots based on paintings he admired.
Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray of Stagecoach is the best-looking home video presentation I've seen of this title. Scores of classic films released by United Artists in the 30s and 40s reverted to their copyright owners. Scattered to various fates, their original printing elements were sometimes poorly preserved, lost or simply thrown away. Criterion confirms that Stagecoach's original negative has gone missing for decades. The majority of the film is sharp and well defined, albeit with frequent light scratches, especially at reel ends. The first reel or so of the picture is taken from a source (a print?) without good contrast, and so fares a little worse. But Criterion's cleanup has done wonders with dirt and frame damage. In Blu-ray, many of Bert Glennon's expressive deep focus shots are restored to their original beauty.
Criterion's Curtis Tsui has overseen an impressive selection of extras. Scholar Jim Kitses contributes an informative commentary track. Peter Bogdanovich offers his thoughts in one interview, while a rare 1968 BBC interview shows Ford to be a crochety, uncooperative subject who amuses himself by insulting his interviewer Philip Jenkinson. Ford disingenuously claims to have discovered John Wayne for Stagecoach instead of ten years before, when he handed him off to Raoul Walsh for The Big Trail. Ford unrepentantly dismisses the entire Civil Rights Movement as a case of outside agitators making things hard for "the negroes". He repeatedly calls Englishman Jenkinson to account for England's oppression of Ireland and slams the interviewer's Manchester background. Ford then praises his cultured English friends in the film industry. This key interview appears to be the source for a number of "Fordisms" oft-quoted in books by critics like Janey Place.
Ford grandson Dan Ford narrates an interesting selection of family home movies, newly restored. Buzz Bissinger hosts an interesting piece about Monument Valley trader Harry Goulding's role in bringing Ford to his favorite desert location. Stunt arranger Vic Armstrong provides a nice tribute to Stagecoach's legendary stunt director Yakima Canutt. A rare original trailer accompanies a 1949 radio version of the story starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor and John Ford. The insert booklet contains a smart essay by Scottish arts professor David Cairns (of Shadowplay) and reprints the entire source story by Ernest Haycox.
Ford's entire 1917 silent feature Bucking Broadway stars Harry Carey in a simple western plot that sends a jilted cowpoke to New York to rescue his lady fair from a worthless city slicker. Ford's handling of the open range is better than his New York scenes, which devolve into a not particularly exciting Mack Sennet-style brawl. But the sight of a brace of buckaroos galloping in the city streets is pure gold.
Lastly, a Video Essay by Tag Gallagher conducts a thoughtful visual analysis of sequences in Stagecoach. Gallagher explains Ford's precise camera angles in terms of character nuances. Random glances and reactions are actually a careful pattern of shot choices by which Ford encourages us to sympathize with his characters, without identifying with them. Gallagher's demonstration of the effect of subjective and objective angles on our perceptions is both convincing and meaningful: Ford's "intuitive" direction seems to be anything but.
Criterion has released Stagecoach in both Blu-ray and standard DVD. The DVD edition places the extras on a second disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stagecoach Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.