Review Written by: Estefan Ellison
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG (for violence)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dudley Nichols
Based on the story by: Ernest Haycox
Produced by: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, George Bancroft, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt
Studio: United Artists
The combination of John Wayne and John Ford has become synonymous with incredible motion picture westerns. From one man's journey to save his captured niece in The Searchers
to the legend of The Man Who Shoot Liberty Valance
, they have both entertained and enthralled audiences for decades. Even though the two of them first met in the mid 1920's, it about a decade later that their friendship would first shoot Wayne to stardom as well as save an entire genre. Stagecoach
has been hailed as a classic production by the American Film Institute and the National Film Preservation Board among others. However, it is more than just John Wayne's subtle performance and John Ford's outstanding direction that make this a must-see for cinema enthusiasts. Dudley Nichols's screenplay for Stagecoach
produces an ensemble of characters that keep the audience interested throughout its ninety minute length. The film's personalities have both flaws and strengths that make them survive or die before the motion picture's end. The direction, acting, writing and scenery of Stagecoach
have also been major influences for the film industry since its release in 1939 while also saving the western genre from extinction. From the opening credits over Monument Valley through to the surprising final line Stagecoach
is a fantastic piece of work.
Ever since John Ford set foot in Monument Valley he was impressed by the incredible scenery. He felt compelled to film one of his productions there. The grandiose surroundings of the Valley translate very well to Stagecoach
's camera, even though it was shot in black-and-white. One of the most notable parts of the film showcasing John Ford's amazing directing skills is the final shoot-out dual between The Ringo Kid and Luke Plummer. The scene is rather short and the audience knows what the final outcome will be, yet they are still on the edge of their seats with suspense. He plays with the audience's expectations even earlier in the battle with the Apaches. They are wondering who will live and die, while the scene rages on. Both exciting and realistic, future battle scenes would rarely come close to the Apaches attacking the stagecoach passengers. Foreshadowing is also provided for a couple of characters due to conveniently placed shots, a method that would be used some decades later by Martin Scorsese. In Gatewood the banker's first appearance, a close-up shot with a cross's shadow foretells what will happen to him later in the film. Another example comes in the second act when the stagecoach passengers are voting whether to go to Lordsburg or not and Hatfield the notorious gambler draws the dreaded Ace of Spades, which is considered by many to be the card of death. The characters are the heart of the story with John Ford and Dudley Nichols spending ample time on each important personality.
Despite John Wayne and Claire Trevor being labelled as the stars of Stagecoach
, the film can easily be seen as an ensemble piece. Each character riding on the journey to Lordsburg is given enough attention for the audience to understand who they are after just an hour and a half. The people on board the stagecoach are of different social status, but (a usual occurrence found in John Ford's films) it is the low class citizens that are the kinder bunch and the high class folks get killed or arrested or similar near the end of the film. Gatewood the once respected banker is portrayed as a grumpy, mostly negative man and is arrested once he arrives in Lordsburg due to having stolen money from his own safe. Lucy Mallory the high-class society woman is seen sneering and looking down at Dallas throughout the film, but her goal of reuniting with her husband fails to occur. Hatfield is dressed and acts like a noble gentleman, but is in fact a notorious gambler and is shot by the Apaches near the end. Meanwhile, Dallas is shown as kind and helpful, attempting many times to help take care of Lucy. While Lucy fails to find her husband, Dallas gains one when the Ringo Kid proposes to her. The Kid is in fact allowed to keep a clean record, despite escaping from prison and goes to live with his new wife at his ranch. Doc Boone is very sympathetic towards everybody despite his alcoholic tendencies and in the end overcomes his addiction. The most notable scene showcasing the characters' personalities involves the passengers eating at a long dinner table. The Ringo Kid is kind towards Dallas (although he is unaware of her profession) and treats her like a lady. Lucy does not want be sitting near the escaped convict and the prostitute and asks to be moved. This action shows the prejudice seen in the upper-crust of society, which is shown even earlier by how disgusted the woman's society of Tonto are by Boone's addiction and Dallas's profession. Even though they are regular people, they are never treated as such. Another notable occurrence in Stagecoach
of this sort is inside the carriage when Gatewood is seen shouting annoying commands at Ringo and Boone, but appears to be a shouting mad-dog and thus shouldn't be taken seriously. The cowboy and the doctor are shown being calm during the whole situation. Stagecoach
shows that the true power in the world is with the little people and not the big people who order them around. This wonderfully uplifting theme has been continued by Ford and other directors as well as the story and structure for many decades after.
Before the release of Stagecoach
, westerns were primarily viewed as simply children's entertainment and were mostly relegated to cheap B-productions. They were not taken seriously and didn't make much money and so major studios primarily ignored them. John Ford had not done a western since the silent film days but decided to make another one when he read the story Stage to Lordsburg
by Ernest Haycox in Collier's Magazine. He immediately bought the rights and commissioned his long-time friend Dudley Nichols to write the screenplay. He had tried to shop the story around Hollywood, until finally independent producer Walter Wagner decided to put up the money. He suggested that Gary Cooper play the Ringo Kid but Ford, already set with B-western actor John Wayne for the part, got his way. Stagecoach
was released to rave reviews and received two Academy Awards for best scoring and best supporting actor for Thomas Mitchell (who played Doc Boone). Westerns were taken directly out of their slump and soon enough were considered a profitable genre with Wayne being the biggest star. Westerns became more adult and respected and John Ford continued to direct many of them. Other directors such as Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner were obviously influenced by his work. Westerns also concentrated more on stories and character rather than action sequences. Quiet moments such as the dinner table scene were copied in future productions as well as character traits that can be traced back to Stagecoach
. John Wayne's quiet and subtle performance as the Ringo Kid would provide a huge inspiration for future characters like Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name. Stagecoach
's influence can easily be seen through the years in both parodies (such as Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles
) and spaghetti westerns (like Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
). Even medians that are not directly westerns can be seen as having been inspired by Stagecoach
, like the short-lived Joss Whedon science fiction series Firefly
. Nobody at the time of Stagecoach
's filming would have guessed just how much it would influence future productions.
The general ideas for what a great film should contain are: believable characters, a well-written story and an interesting direction. Stagecoach
contains all of the aforementioned elements and naturally the film is a classic in the western genre. Dudley Nichols' screenplay is both entertaining and amusing with its characters being not even close to flawless. John Wayne heads the cast with a performance that expresses quite a lot despite its subtlety, which helped make him a cinema icon. However the big brain behind the whole operation was director John Ford who made a western that has been enchanting audiences and film aficionados since its premiere in 1939. It may not have the lasting appeal of Citizen Kane
, but Stagecoach
is still a wildly enjoyable time at the cinema.
The cast of John Ford's Stagecoach.