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It must have seemed a perfectly good idea at the time: remake a classic western deemed too old-fashioned to "hold up" for audiences in the swingin' year of 1966. It's in B&W and the kids won't recognize anybody in it, except maybe John Wayne. Little did the producers of the CinemaScope & color Stagecoach realize that in 1965-1966, a new wave of nostalgic film fandom was sweeping the country, starting on college campuses and filtering down to every afternoon TV movie show with a friendly local host. Humphrey Bogart leaped back into prominence and was championed the King of Cool; a Camp aura grew around cult figures like W.C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers. Knowing lots of trivia about old movies was suddenly an "in" activity. In other words, John Ford's original 1939 Stagecoach was suddenly rediscovered. College and museum screenings gave the exciting western, with its large cast of entertaining characters, an enthusiastic welcome.
Taken by itself the 1966 Stagecoach is a colorful and eventful adventure, certainly the equal of most westerns from its year.
Producer Martin Rackin's remake, directed by the dependable Gordon Douglas, would be an acceptable show if its every frame did not invite comparison with the original. Screenwriter Joseph Landon (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Von Ryan's Express) moves the action from Arizona to South Dakota and adds several bloody action scenes as well as a suspense sequence where the title conveyance threatens to fall off a cliff. The despicable Plummer Gang is expanded to resemble a lethal outlaw family, like the Clantons in My Darling Clementine. Otherwise, events happen more or less identically to the original. Despite big magazine write-ups and other publicity, it seems as if the public wanted something a little more fresh than an old movie with new faces.
A pack of curious characters are thrown together on a stagecoach trip through hostile Indian territory. Prostitute Dallas (Ann-Margret) and drunken doctor Josiah Bone (Bing Crosby) are fleeing trouble with the military over a double killing in a bar. The pregnant Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Stephanie Powers) wants to rejoin her husband, a cavalry officer. Embezzling banker Henry Gatewood (Bob Cummings) uses the Indian threat as cover to abscond with $10,000 of his firm's money. Meek whiskey salesman Peacock (Red Buttons) wants to "rejoin the bosom of his family", and stage driver Buck (Slim Pickens) would rather not make the trip at all. Marshall Curly Wilcox (Van Heflin) is off to arrest the wicked Plummer Brothers and their outlaw father Luke Plummer (Keenan Wynn), but picks up prison escapee The Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) on the trail. Things get more complicated when Mrs. Mallory gives birth at a stage stop that's already been wiped out by marauding Indians.
Stagecoach begins with a nod to changing times: a rather silly opening shows a detachment of troops killed by Indians, with special attention given to weapons plunged into faces and backs. One trooper notices that a creek is running red with blood, just before he too is dispatched with a stone-age axe. It's no longer enough to simply suggest that it's dangerous out there.
With an exception or two one can't fault the actors, just the casting director that assumed that stuffing the marquee with a bunch of Hollywood names will achieve memorable results. Ann-Margret acts up a little storm, but she seems too eager to leap that last hurdle to super-stardom. Bing Crosby nabs the most colorful part. He doesn't hog the screen with his star persona, and comes off well in the plus column. Alex Cord has the toughest row to hoe, seeing as everyone will naturally compare him to John Wayne. Cord wisely opts to play Ringo in a low-key manner. Red Buttons is unfortunately cursed by his backlog of sidekicks and comic foils that constantly 'act up' to attract our attention. Somebody's idea of fun was to have the docile but civilized Peacock become a roaring alcoholic over the course of the trip, enabling Buttons to once again play clownish comic relief. It's not a pretty sight.
The other actors more or less play their roles straight, adding additional business to what had been done before. Van Heflin's Marshall is tougher, more mercenary about collecting the bounties set on outlaws. Bob Cummings is simply annoying as the crook banker, a role that goes too strongly against his identity as a wisecracking, amiable TV star. Banker Gatewood's added scene with Luke Plummer does not improve over his original function as a scapegoat -- audiences always applaud the banker's arrest in the '39 version. Michael ("Mike") Connors goes through the motions as the mysterious Southern gambler Hatfield, but he lacks the character's aura of tragedy. Hatfield's final 'act of mercy' with a derringer is also jettisoned, probably because 1966 audiences would think it too corny. To tell the truth, the new version never approaches the emotional pitch necessary to make Hatfield's gesture work.
Stephanie Powers plays her part pretty much in a trance but Slim Pickens' standard characterization is a good fit for the cowardly stage driver. What hurts this new Stagecoach the most is the idea that one can just throw ten varied acting styles together and expect everything to click. Only the story's forward momentum holds the movie together.
Beautiful Colorado locations make for a stage trip that seems more pretty than dangerous, and Jerry Goldsmith provides a bouncy set of themes to lift the film's spirits. Most western fans will want to see what Gordon Douglas and second unit director Ray Kellogg do with the famous stagecoach chase. Let's just say it's long, a lot of ammunition is fired, and those passengers on the bouncy stagecoach are really fantastic shots. We also wish to commend the makers of that stagecoach, which holds together through some really rough stunts filmed at a full gallop. The Indians' strategy seems to be to chase the coach while presenting themselves as excellent targets. I really don't know what they expect to achieve, unless it's the time of year to trim some of the fat from the tribal membership roster.
One of the oddest publicity ideas of the 1960s, and surely a very expensive one, was to commission the famous illustrator Norman Rockwell to do ten character portraits and sundry theme paintings for the film. They're displayed in the cast recap at the end of the show. Rockwell nails the various male actors, making Bing Crosby's drunken doctor resemble Emmett Kelly. But Stephanie Powers and especially Ann-Margret barely look like themselves. It's as if Rockwell just wasn't intrigued by their faces.
Twilight Time's DVD of Stagecoach is a colorful enhanced widescreen presentation of film elements in fine shape; all those heavily wooded skylines are pleasant viewing in themselves. The soundtrack is presented in the original mono. Liner notes by Julie Kirgo clear up many ancillary questions about the remake, and directs viewers where in the film to find Norman Rockwell, who contributes a brief cameo.
Composer Jerry Goldsmith's musical contribution can be heard by itself on the Isolated Music Score track. More than just a gimmick, this feature on most (all?) Twilight Time discs enables a viewer to how movie soundtracks are designed. They're much more than musical wallpaper, spread by the square yard. Goldsmith carefully chooses when to start and stop a cue, and which on-screen events to single out for special musical comment. Good movie music can emphasize plot points skipped in the camera direction and also bolster performances by mirroring the emotions of the characters. Goldsmith is a great musical storyteller, and also quite versatile. In '65 and '66 alone, he scored the features The Satan Bug, In Harm's Way, Von Ryan's Express, Morituri, A Patch of Blue, Our Man Flint, The Trouble with Angels, Stagecoach, The Blue Max, Seconds and The Sand Pebbles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.