The Western genre of movies is probably one of my biggest blind-spots when it comes to cinema history. Probably only really beat by musicals. I never really had anyone show them to me at a young age, like the stereotype of dads or grandpa’s showing kids their favorite Westerns, and since when I was growing the up the genre wasn’t doing particularly well, it just never came up for me. Although I do find the genre very interesting. It’s been having a slight resurgence over the last decade, and I’ve been getting increasingly interested in it. the 3:10 to Yuma remake was great, I loved the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, and Tarantino’s two stabs at Westerns have been a lot of fun. So with this new interest in the genre, I’ve been trying to fill in some gaps and watch some classic Westerns, which so far have pretty much been John Ford movies. I watched the Searchers a while ago, and really liked it, weird racial problems not-withstanding. Although I realized that watching the Searchers before any other John Wayne Western was a pretty dumb way to do things, since it basically is a deconstruction of the genre, by casting John Wayne as his typical Western hero, but making him essentially a racist villain. So I decided to rectify that mistake by checking out some even older stuff, and ended up coming across another John Ford flick, 1939’s Stagecoach. And now, while I’ve already explained that I’m far from an expert on the Western, I feel like this movie is the perfect Western. I really can’t imagine anything better structured than this one.
The plot is actually shockingly simple and effective. It starts out with a group of people, who are all essentially Western archetypes, being kicked out of town. For various reasons these folks are leaving their town and taking a stagecoach to another town where they’ll try to live. We have Dallas (Claire Trevor) a prostitute who is basically being kicked out by some judgmental old biddies who run the town, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) an alcoholic doctor no one likes, Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek) an whiskey-salesman that everyone thinks is a reverend, Hatfield (John Carradine) a professional gambler, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) a banker who is embezzling from the bank, and Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) a pregnant woman whose husband is in the cavalry. The crew are all leaving and they’re going to take a stagecoach driven by the simple and cowardly Buck (Andy Devine) and Marshall Wilcox (George Bancroft). They head out to a town called Lordsburg to star their new lives, but they’re told by a cavalry lieutenant that the trip may be fraught with danger, because Geronimo and his Apache warriors have been spotted in the area, and are on the warpath. But they’re pretty sure that they can make it to Lordsburg in one piece, so they still set out. Almost immediately they come across their last passenger, the wanted fugitive the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) who Marshall Wilcox arrests, more to keep him safe than anything else. So with out band of Western stereotypes assembled, they strike out for Lordsburg.
They assume when they get to the first stop that they’ll be met with a cavalry group to protect them from the Apaches, but when they get there they find that that’s not actually going to be the case. They head into the small building that they stop at, and debate what to do. Lucy Mallory is devastated that her husband wasn’t there like she thought he would be, and as everyone begins arguing about what to do, we find out that the reason she’s been so eager to find her husband is that she’s pregnant, and ends up giving birth. They keep arguing, even while getting Doc Boone sober enough to perform the birth, and they end up deciding to press on and gamble on whether the Apache’s will show up. Lucy has her baby, but starts acting all strange in what I assume was supposed to be post parnum, and they end up deciding to stay the night in this building before heading out. Ringo flirts with Dallas, Marshall Wilcox talks about how he knew Ringo’s family and is only arresting him so that he doesn’t do anything stupid because his enemy is waiting for him in Lordsburg, and Hatfield keeps creeping on Lucy even though she just gave birth. And the next morning, they wake up and head out for the last stretch. But when they set out they almost immediately get set upon by the Apaches. What follows is an incredible chase scene where the Apache’s attack the stagecoach as everyone inside does their best to survive. Mr. Peacock gets an arrow to the shoulder, Buck gets shot in the arm and has trouble steering the coach, and Hatfield ends up getting killed right before he mercy-kills Lucy. But right as they’re about to give up and be killed by the Apache’s the Cavalry shows up and saves them.
So the motley crew finally gets to Lordsburg and the plot begins to wrap up. As soon as they get there Gatewood is arrested for his embezzlement, and they take away Hatfield’s body. Mr. Peacock is helped by the local doctor, and they take away Lucy and her baby. Everyone starts wandering into the town, and we wrap up the lingering plot with Ringo. The Plummer brothers, who killed his father and brother, are in Lordsburg, and they know Ringo will want to come after them. They run into Doc Boone and Marshall Wilcox in a saloon and the two do their best to talk the Plummers down and stop the fight. Meanwhile, Dallas is trying to convince Ringo to give up on his vendetta and just live a happy life with her. But he refuses that notion, and ends up confronting the Plummer brothers, killing them. The movie then ends on the sweet note of Doc Boone and Marshall Wilcox sending Dallas and Ringo out to live a life together, even though he was totally shitty to her and didn’t give up on the grudge.
This movie really hit everything that I think a Western should. We have an assortment of Western characters, like the drunken doctor, the Marshall, and the cowardly coach driver, all on the most simple plot there could be. The characters get in a coach and go from point A to point B, and have problems getting there. They get in a firefight with Apaches, and have a thrilling coach chase. There’s great cinematography, and since it’s a John Ford movie they of course film in Monument Valley. But I think the thing that really made this movie so great for me was the acting and writing. Every character had their own personality and were incredibly likable. I loved all of these characters, especially Doc Boone, and it was just a blast seeing them spend time together in their doomed stagecoach trip. This movie ticks off everything on the Western checklist, creating what I really think is the perfect Western. The movie takes on a mythic quality, where the heroes are extremely heroic, and the villainous Apache are a force of nature that they have to deal with. The characters are all archetypes, creating a Western that basically feels like a folk tale. It’s really the measure that all other Westerns should be judged by.
Stagecoach was written by Dudley Nichols, directed by John Ford, and released by United Artists, 1939.