What's the Big Deal?: Stagecoach (1939)

It would be hard to think of American cinema without thinking of Westerns, and it would be hard to think of Westerns without thinking of John Wayne. For movie-history enthusiasts, it goes further: You can't think of John Wayne without thinking of director John Ford, and if you think of John Ford you gotta think of Stagecoach. The 1939 film is still considered a classic of the genre -- but why? Let's take a couple shots of whiskey and investigate.

The praise: Stagecoach was released the same year as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, and Of Mice and Men, and still, even with all that competition, managed to score seven Oscar nominations. It won the prizes for supporting actor (Thomas Mitchell) and musical score; the other nods were in the categories of best picture, director, editing, art direction, and cinematography. Orson Welles called it a perfect film and claimed to have watched it some 40 times while he was making Citizen Kane. It placed at No. 63 on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the best American movies ever made.

The context: Westerns were tremendously popular in the early days of cinema, the genre having been invented about five minutes after movies themselves were invented. When the Silent Era ended, though, the Western fell out of favor. In the 1930s Westerns were either movie serials (which were fun but not exactly high art) or low-budget B-movies. Nobody took them seriously anymore.

Then John Ford came along -- or, more accurately, came back. The prolific director had cranked out some 60 films between 1917 and 1928, the vast majority of them Westerns, yet had focused entirely on other genres in the 1930s. By the time he returned to the Old West, in 1939, he had a couple dozen talkies under his belt, and all that practice paid off. Stagecoach was a huge hit that brought realism and respectability back to the genre. It was the first "modern" Western.

And it wasn't just in hindsight that Stagecoach was considered the savior of the Western. New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent started his review by saying that "in one superbly expansive gesture ... John Ford has swept aside 10 years of artifice and talkie compromise." Boxoffice Magazine, its eye on how exhibitors could sell the film, said, "Here is a super-western which will find its best market among action addicts." Variety called it "absorbing drama without the general theatrics usual to picturizations of the early west."

Ford had a hard time getting Stagecoach made, though. He spotted a short story called "The Stage to Lordsburg" in a 1937 issue of Collier's magazine, bought the rights, and commissioned a screenplay by Dudley Nichols. But Westerns, which Ford had helped popularize in the '20s, had come to be regarded as silly and inconsequential, and Ford spent the better part of a year finding someone in Hollywood willing to produce a "serious" one with a big budget. He also faced opposition over his insistence that an unknown actor named John Wayne play one of the lead roles. Wayne was a close friend of Ford's, though the director hadn't cast him in any of his talkies until now.

In addition to the advent of talking picture, something else had happened in America since the last time Ford had made a Western: the Great Depression. The economic crisis and the government's response to it had changed the way many Americans viewed their society, and Stagecoach reflects the idea of equalization: the traditionally "good" people turn out to be bad, and the lower classes are ennobled. One of the movie's bad guys is a scowling banker and embezzler named Gatewood, whose Herbert Hoover-ish declaration that "what's good for the banks is good for the country" must have prompted derisive laughter in 1939. Meanwhile, a prostitute and an outlaw are the heroes, rising above their misdeeds to find redemption.

StagecoachThe movie: Several disparate characters travel through dangerous Apache territory via the title method of transportation in about 1880. The passengers are Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute being run out of town by the local anti-prostitute guild; Doc Boone (Oscar-winner Thomas Mitchell), an amusingly drunk frontier doctor; Hatfield (John Carradine), a Southern gentleman and a gambler; Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), the refined wife of a soldier on her way to meet up with her husband; Peacock (Donald Meek), a wimpy whisky salesman who becomes the drunk doctor's new best friend; Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the imperious banker; and Ringo (John Wayne), an outlaw who escaped from jail and is headed to Lordsburg to get revenge on the Plummer brothers. The stagecoach is driven by comic-relief Buck (Andy Devine), with a marshal named Curley (George Bancroft) riding shotgun. You will note that in those days, the term "riding shotgun" meant that you sat next to the driver with a shotgun on your lap.

What it influenced: Stagecoach revitalized the Western and made John Wayne a star. The actor and the genre were forevermore intertwined, representing America to the rest of the world in the same iconic way as Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola.

A few of the film's stunts were notable for being highly dangerous and thrilling to watch. In one scene, the stuntman, Yakima Canutt, drops from a horse onto the ground and is dragged under the stagecoach. (This was later imitated in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maverick, among others.) In another, Canutt leaps from the speeding coach to a horse's back, then leaps to the next horse, and then to the one in front of it. Canutt had been a real-life cowboy and rodeo man, and was the source of much of John Wayne's onscreen persona.

Ford shot the movie in the remote Monument Valley, on the Arizona/Utah border, at least in part so he could keep meddling studio executives out of his hair. This was the first Hollywood picture to be filmed in that location -- there wasn't even a paved road yet -- and the valley has made regular appearances in movies ever since. Ford himself returned several times to shoot movies there.

This is an ensemble film, with no clear-cut main characters (though Dallas and Ringo fit that description by the end), and plenty of attention paid to all of the principals. The structure and scenario will seem especially familiar if you've ever seen a disaster movie. (Film historian David A. Cook says Ford's movies are about "the convolutions of human character under the pressure of extreme stress.") Substitute the threat of an Indian attack with the threat of an alien invasion or a massive earthquake and everything -- the archetypal characters, the calm-before-the-storm dialogue scenes -- translates over pretty well.

Stagecoach RemakeStagecoach has officially been remade twice. The 1966 version had Ann-Margret as the prostitute, Red Buttons as the booze salesman, Bing Crosby as the doctor, and Alex Cord as Ringo. A 1986 made-for-TV version featured Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and a few people who weren't country-music singers.

What to look for: The structure of the film is simple and elegant. Most of the characters and their class statuses are established in the first sequence. Ford uses close-ups sparingly, so you know he's trying to convey something important when he does. There are no showy camera movements or superfluous scenes. You can see why Welles considered it a textbook example of how to make a movie.

Since this was 1939, certain things couldn't be said outright. Dallas is a prostitute, that's plain enough -- but darned if anyone ever utters a word even close to "prostitute." At the other end of the respectability scale, Mrs. Mallory is pregnant -- but not only is that word not spoken, she's not even allowed to look pregnant.

Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his portrayal of the drunken Doc Boone, and it really is a fine performance. Boone is large a comic figure at first, albeit an eloquent one, but watch how he evolves as the story progresses. Even though his character arc is trite, Mitchell plays him with authenticity and sympathy.

The amusingly craven stagecoach driver is played by Andy Devine, whose distinctive voice might be recognizable to modern audiences as that of Friar Tuck in Disney's Robin Hood cartoon. Devine had already been typecast in this sort of role when Stagecoach was made, as evidenced by the New York Times review: "The driver, according to the rules, had to be Slim Summerville or Andy Devine; Mr. Devine got the call." (Summerville was a gangly comic actor of similar demeanor.)

Admirers of Ford's 1956 Western The Searchers (also shot in Monument Valley, also with John Wayne) know that the director liked to use doorways and canyon walls to frame the images. You can see him dabbling with that idea in Stagecoach here and there. Note also how the interior sets have low ceilings (a rarity, because it meant having to hide the studio lighting somewhere else), suggesting a claustrophobia when compared with the expanse of the outdoors. Those low, visible ceilings are among the things Welles borrowed for Citizen Kane.

Stagecoach CriterionWhat's the big deal: Many of the elements of movie Westerns are to be found in Stagecoach, including the John Wayne character's summation of what Westerns are all about: "There are some things a man just can't run away from." Ford's first talking Western demonstrated the genre's potential to be lively and entertaining without sacrificing intelligence. Considering the disrepute into which the genre had fallen in the early days of the sound era, Stagecoach might have saved the Western from extinction.

Further reading: Tim Dirks' point-by-point analysis of the film should be valuable to anyone who has seen it.

David Cairns' essay for Criterion is also a good overview, and the Criterion two-disc DVD set is full of fascinating details about the film's production and impact.

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Eric D. Snider (website) rides shotgun, but with a bazooka.