Stagecoach—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, John Carradine (1939; Dir: John Ford)
In addition to being the first of the modern westerns, this was also director John Ford’s first use of Monument Valley, which became his favorite filming location for westerns, and his first association with John Wayne in a starring role. It was Ford’s first sound western and his first western of any kind in 13 years. When the film was made, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in the cast and was paid the highest salary. Wayne had been in a number of low-budget westerns in the 1930s, but this was his first big lead in an upscale film since 1930’s The Big Trail with director Raoul Walsh almost a decade earlier. That one had bombed on its theatrical release, although it’s been rediscovered by many in the DVD age. Casting Wayne in Stagecoach was Ford’s idea; the studio preferred Gary Cooper, but ultimately went along with Ford’s recommendation. This film put John Wayne on the track to being an even bigger star than Trevor, especially when he was teamed with Ford in future projects.
The movie is based on a 1937 short story by western writer Ernest Haycox, which is in turn said to be based on Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” which takes place in Normandy during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. In this film, several strangers board the crowded Overland Stage in Tonto, Arizona, heading for Lordsburg, New Mexico. One is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute being run out of town by the respectable women. Another is Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant army wife going to meet her husband, although her pregnancy is neither mentioned nor shown until it’s time for the baby’s birth. The male passengers include alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), also being run out of town; Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a timorous whiskey salesman; Hatfield (John Carradine), a professional gambler with a southern accent and an occasional chivalrous streak; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a bank president clutching his bag with suspicious tenacity. Riding shotgun to stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), looking for the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just busted out of jail. All these stories would seem complicated enough, but these passengers aren’t on just any stage trip: Geronimo’s Apaches are on the warpath in the area the stage will be traveling through.
As the stagecoach rounds a bend, there’s a figure waving it down, rifle in one hand and saddle in the other. The camera zooms in on his face, and it’s Ringo, in one of the most memorable shots of this film. He’s been in prison because he was framed by the Plummer brothers, who killed his father and brother and sent him to prison before he was 17. Now that he has escaped from jail, he’s on his way to Lordsburg for a final confrontation with the Plummers. Both Curley and Doc Boone know Ringo and like him, and Curley takes him prisoner, in part to keep him alive.
There are two stage stations and a ferry between Tonto and Lordsburg. At the first station, all is well. The stage changes horses but loses its cavalry escort; the passengers eat, and Dallas is shunned by the more respectable passengers: Hatfield, Mrs. Mallory and Gatewood. Ringo and Doc Boone are friendlier, and Ringo suggests that he’s the one being shunned. “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society in the same week.” There’s amazingly quick character development, including one brief but revealing scene where a canteen is passed around the stage.
The cavalry detail that was to pick up the stage at the first station is out chasing Apaches instead, and after taking a vote among the passengers the stage moves on toward the second station. Here matters develop more quickly. Mrs. Mallory collapses, and as there are hurried instructions for hot water, we realize she’s about to give birth. (At least two of the other passengers didn’t recognize that she was pregnant, either, with the reticence of a bygone era.) Doc Boone sobers up and delivers a baby girl, with the help of Dallas. Outside in the moonlight, Ringo proposes marriage to Dallas and with her help he almost escapes. However, Chris, the Mexican station master, has an Apache wife, who leaves with several vaqueros and the station’s spare horses.
Ringo decides not to escape here because he sees Indian sign and holds up. Curley takes him back into custody, and the stage heads warily for the ferry, after which they all figure they’ll be safe. The ferry and its station are burned out, though. Buck, Curley and Ringo rig supporting logs to help the stage float across the river, and they head for Lordsburg with a sigh of relief. But we know the Apaches are somewhere around, and inevitably they show up and give chase. After an extended chase (featuring some superb, state-of-the-art stuntwork by Yakima Canutt), the stage’s defenders run out of ammunition, with Hatfield saving his last bullet to spare Mrs. Mallory the indignities of capture by the savages. And then ….
Well, Ringo has to make it to Lordsburg, and he does. He has it out with the nefarious Plummer brothers (three Plummers against one Ringo), and matters work out as they should, perhaps not with complete believability. Doc Boone does not miraculously become a respected teetotaler, and Dallas is unable to leave her past completely behind, but things work out for them as they should, too.
It’s great storytelling, with bits of social commentary unobtrusively scattered along the way. John Wayne captures the screen whenever he’s in the frame, and Claire Trevor is magnificent. Wayne has the iconic western line: “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.” If Thomas Mitchell’s hard-drinking Doc Boone seems a bit stereotypical from our vantage point (almost identical to Edmond O’Brien’s hard-drinking newspaperman in Liberty Valance 25 years later, in fact), well, he was perhaps less so in 1939. Donald Meek’s whiskey drummer, whom every one mistakes for a clergyman, is very effective. And we despise the overbearing banker Gatewood as we are meant to do. The Apaches actually look like Indians, which you can’t say of many western films of this era; Ford generally used Navajos instead of Apaches, though.
In addition to being the first use of Monument Valley as a setting (and the first of seven Ford films to use it), there’s other good filmmaking going on here. Ford doesn’t use a lot of close-ups, so we tend to pay attention when he does. The interior ceilings are low, which must have presented problems for the lighting of the time. That adds to the claustrophobic feeling as the movie progresses, and was imitated by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane two years later. And the stunt work by Yakima Canutt was later imitated in such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maverick.
Although there were a couple of other well-made westerns in 1939, it was largely this film that rejuvenated the genre, brought it an element of respectability and started the modern era for westerns. (Many 1940s westerns would still show evidence of low budgets, singing cowboys and lots of stereotypes—the revolution didn’t happen overnight.) But Stagecoach was a real accomplishment and remains highly watchable today. In what is still thought of as Hollywood’s single greatest year, Stagecoach was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone) and Best Score. It won for the last two.
In an interview for a 1971 article, Ford reminisced about casting Wayne. ‘I got a call from [producer] Walter Wanger who had one more picture to make under his United Artists contract. So I sent him the short story and he said, “That’s a pretty good story. I’m thinking of Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich,” he said.
“I don’t think you can go that high on salary with a picture like this,” I said. “This is the kind of picture you have to make for peanuts.”
“Have you got anybody in mind?” Wanger asked me.
“Well, there’s a boy I know who used to be an assistant prop man and bit player for me,” I said. “His name was Michael Morrison, but he’s making five-day Westerns and calls himself John Wayne now.”
“Do you think he’s any good?” he asked.
“Yes, I think so,” I said. “And we can get him for peanuts.”‘ And John Wayne became a star.
As Ford recalled it, he had plenty of confidence in the film, but it wasn’t always obvious that it would be a hit. ‘After I shot Stagecoach, I worked closely with the cutter. But there wasn’t a helluva lot to do. I cut with the camera. When the picture was put together, Wanger invited a few top people – brilliant brains of the industry who proceed to say how they would have done Stagecoach. Sam Goldwyn said, “Walter, you made one mistake: You should have shot it in color. You should start all over again and make it in color.” Douglas Fairbanks Sr. said: “The chase is too long.”
‘Then it was shown to the great producers at RKO, who had turned the project down in the first place. One of them said, “It’s just a B picture.” Another said, “It’s all right, but it’s still a Western.” Well, of course, the picture went out and hit the jackpot. It started a flood of Westerns, and we’ve been suffering from them ever since.”‘
It was also made at a particularly productive period of John Ford’s career, the same year that he made Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln and just before he made The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. It was an amazing streak for a great director.
The 1966 remake of Stagecoach was pleasant enough, but a pale and much less charismatic imitation of the original. A made-for-television version in 1986 seemed to be merely a vehicle for a number of aging country music stars (mostly without much acting ability) and didn’t work at all. The best other variation on this theme (strangers on a stage under attack, complete with social prejudices and hypocrisy, the supposedly respectable but actually corrupt businessman) is the 1967 movie Hombre.
For the 1971 article with comments from various participants in the production (including John Wayne and Claire Trevor), see: http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1004-Winter-2010-11/Features-On-John-Fords-Stagecoach.aspx