We have two pretty big firsts to discuss today here on this Cinematic Century project. The more important of the two is that we’ll be discussing the first Western here today with one of my all-time favorite Western films in history. Hell, it’s high up there on a list of my favorite films in general. This won’t be the only time that we travel out to the Old West during this project, but I think that it’ll be the heights of that particular genre. The less important first for today’s film is that it’s the first time in this project that I’ll be talking about a film I’ve already written about. Because when I first saw this movie a couple years ago I was so blown away I just had to ramble about it. So, hopefully I’ll be able to say something new about this film. Which shouldn’t be too hard, because it’s a truly remarkable film. That’s also why it was such a no-brainer to pick Stagecoach for my favorite film of 1939, even though it’s a year with some tough competition. At least in theory. The biggest force of 1939 is indisputably the Wizard of Oz, the monumental juggernaut that has had one of the biggest impacts in the history of American cinema. And, I don’t need to tell you how great Wizard of Oz is. It’s a true delight. It’s just not a film I personally love as much as Stagecoach. Similarly, Gunga Din is a whole lot of fun, providing a rollicking adventure story with a stellar Cary Grant performance, but some questionable racial issues. Which Gunga Din does have in common with Stagecoach. We also had some good old-fashioned American decency from Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but while I can’t argue the film is well-made, it also tends to bore me, not connecting anywhere as well as something like It’s a Wonderful Life does. But, the movie that probably has the biggest claim to people’s favorite is another towering achievement in film, Gone With the Wind. But, I’m going to be real with you all right now. I’ve never seen Gone With the Wind, and don’t really have any strong desires to do so. Other than its historical significance, not much about it interests me, and four hours is a long run-time to sign myself up for when I don’t even think I’ll enjoy it. But an hour and a half long Western that very well may be the pinnacle of the genre? Yeah, I’m fully on board for that.
By 1939 John Ford was a pretty established director in Hollywood. However, as surprising as it may sound when you consider Ford’s place in film history, he wasn’t that known for Westerns. Especially Western talkies. In fact, this was the very first time that he attempted to get a Western talkie off the ground, which wasn’t really a financially wise move in the late thirties. Interest in Westerns has come and gone throughout the history of American cinema, and the thirties were a time when people just weren’t that interested in big budget explorations of the Wild West. But, Ford was convinced he had a winning story on his hands, and decided to push the studios to let him bring it to the screen. He strung together a couple Western short stories, and built a very simple but effective plot, hoping to show the validity and viability of Westerns. The biggest hiccup Ford had to face when creating the movie though was convincing the studio that his intended star would work out. See, as insane as it sounds today, in 1939 United Artists had no faith that John Wayne would be able to successfully open a Western film. He’d only been in middling schlock up until this point, but he was close friends with Ford, who personally vouched for him, against all of the studio’s reluctance. And it paid off. Stagecoach was both financially and critically successful, and helped launch John Ford and John Wayne’s careers as the preeminent tellers of Western stories in Hollywood. It’s gone on to become one of the most important and beloved films in the entire genre, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an absolute delight.
Stagecoach tells the tale of a group of oddballs who all, for one reason or another, are having to leave the small town of Tonto, Arizona in order to take a Wells Fargo stagecoach to Lordsburg, New Mexico. We have Dallas the disgraced prostitute who is being run out of town, Doc Boone the alcoholic doctors whose shenanigans have gotten to be too much for the town to handle, Lucy Mallory the pregnant wife of a cavalry-man who is travelling to be with him before she gives birth, Hatfield a mysterious gambler and Southern Gentleman who is obsessed with Lucy Mallory, Samuel Peacock a liquor salesman who is so meek and timid that everyone assumes he’s a preacher, and Henry Gatewood a banker who has just embezzled money and is trying to free. However, due to recent Apache attacks led by Geronimo, the group is being protected by a cowardly driver named Buck and a fearless Marshal Wilcox. The motley crew pile into the stagecoach, and begin travelling towards Lordsburg where they quickly pick up their final compatriot, the outlaw known as the Ringo Kid. Marshal Wilcox arrests Ringo, and he joins the group as they begin their trip to Lordsburg, first stopping at a military compound where Lucy Mallory’s husband is supposed to be stationed.
Unfortunately, when they get there they find that the Apache attacks have resulted in Mallory’s husband getting injured, and taken to Lordsburg. The trip has been pretty hostile up until then, with none of the rider really getting along at this point, but now they have a much bigger issue to deal with. The stress of her husband being injured has caused Lucy Mallory to go into labor, keeping them stuck in this home for the night, giving them the opportunity to debate whether they should give up and go back to Tonto or move on. And to fight. They all squabble, we learn that Hatfield is obsessed with Lucy because he fought for her father in the Civil War. We see Doc Boone forcing himself to sober up and help deliver Lucy’s baby. And we see the burgeoning relationship between Dallas and the Ringo Kid. Ringo can’t understand why everyone is so ashamed of Dallas, and is the only one of them to actually treat her like a real person, and they almost instantly start falling for each other, and contemplating the idea of escaping and living together. They make a plan to live on a ranch in Mexico, but they decide to wait until the morning. Which is then made more difficult when Lucy has her baby, and the group actually deigns to let Dallas help out, endearing her to the rest of them.
So, Ringo flees from the group, planning on meeting up with Dallas later. However, when he begins fleeing he sees the signs of an incoming Apache war party, and doubles back to save the group. They pile into the stagecoach and begin fleeing to Lordsburg as fast as possible, doing their best to get ahead of the Apache war party. But, they don’t succeed. The Apache catch up with them, and a high-speed shoot-out begins between the members of the stagecoach and the Apache. It gets very frantic, Peacock is shot with an arrow, and Hatfield is killed while contemplating killing Lucy to save her being killed by the Apache. But, they’re eventually saved when a cavalry comes to save them, scaring off the rest of the Apache. They’re then escorted to Lordsburg and into safety. We see that Peacock survives, but Hatfield doesn’t, Lucy heads off with her baby to be with her husband, and Gatewood is arrested. But, the movie isn’t quite over yet, because just as Ringo and Dallas are about to flee and live their life of peace, Ringo learns that a group of outlaws who want him dead are also in town. So, working with Marshal Wilcox and Doc Boone, Ringo is able to kill the men, keeping himself and Dallas safe. And, to show his appreciation for saving them, Wilcox allows Ringo and Dallas to flee, ready to start their new life in Mexico.
Stagecoach is a beautifully efficient film. It’s just a story about a group of people going from one place to another, and dealing with a variety of trials and tribulations along the way. It’s an incredibly simple premise and one that allows for the truly wonderful assortment of characters that have been assembled to play off one another. They really are just a collection of Western archetypes, all portrayed by some terrific character actors, making this film one of the most perfect examples of the Western genre imaginable. We have a drunken doctor, a prostitute with a heart of gold, a Southern gambler, an outlaw, a Marshal, and just about every other type of Western character you could imagine. And, they’re all portrayed so well, and written so excellently, that they end up becoming the perfect examples of the archetypes that they’re portraying. And all of that is bolstered by John Ford’s characteristically wonderful direction. He and cinematographer Bert Glennon were able to alternate between the beautifully desolate expanses of the American West, and the intimate and confined Stagecoach, each with their own isolated dread. Ford manages to create a film that at all times feels tense and claustrophobic, even when we’re seeing a stagecoach barreling through the Arizona desert, completely alone. Ford certainly succeeded in his goal to show the viability of the Western in the age of the talkie, and in the process helped revive one of the most enduring genres of American cinema. He also brought John Wayne into the forefront of the genre, creating one of Western’s most enduring figures, while possibly giving Wayne his best role.
Throughout the rest of his career, John Wayne wouldn’t really get the chance to be more than just a tough-guy. Occasionally directors played with his standing as an all-American figure to glimpse into the ugliness of that position, but it was rare for him to get a role similar to the Ringo Kid. Because I would say one of the defining characteristics of Ringo, and every other rider of the stagecoach, would be loneliness. Not only are these characters Western archetypes, they’re also a collection of oddballs. People who have, for one reason or another, been put on the outs of society. They’re all more or less fleeing Tonto in the beginning of the film, and you would think that that similar standing would endear them to one another. But, that isn’t really the case. They still hold each other at a distance, shackled by the opinions and structure of society. And nowhere is that better examined than with Ringo and Dallas, and their burgeoning relationship. I suppose you could consider them the protagonists of the film, since I guess they get the most screen time, and their arc is really interesting. Doc Boone is a drunken lech, Gatewood is literally fleeing from the law after robbing a bank, and Hatfield fought for the Confederacy. And yet, they all hold their noses up to Dallas, who is just earning a living. They ostracize her, and keep her at bay, making her the loneliest of this crew of solitary individuals. Until Ringo arrives, and actually treats her like a person. He’s lived on his own his whole life, away from the prejudices of society, and he can’t wrap his head around why they would be treating Dallas any different than anyone else. They’re a collection of fringe figures who manage to come together, and lift each other up. They form a community, and manage to survive in the deadly isolation of the West, becoming a fascinating metaphor for the colonization of the West in general, and remaining one of the most effective and interesting Westerns ever made.
Stagecoach was written by Dudley Nichols, directed by John Ford, and released by United Artists, 1939.
Categories: Cinematic Century