Friday, December 12, 2014

Movie – Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach was the first of many collaborations between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.  It was very influential both in presentation and plot.  The concept of having a group of people in a hostile situation, some of them with secrets, has been used many times since, in almost every setting.  There’s an adage that says that a villain is the hero of his own story.  Well, the travelers aren’t really villains, but what Stagecoach gets right is that each of them is the lead of their own story.  They just happen to come together on a stagecoach that is traversing hostile territory.

Nowadays, John Wayne is far and away the most famous name in the cast.  At the time he was trying to get it made, though, Ford couldn’t find anyone willing to fund a big budget western with “B” movie actor Wayne as the star.  Ford finally settled for independent financing at a far lower sum than he wanted.  Actress Claire Trevor, a much bigger name at the time, received top billing.

Here’s the thing: John Ford was right that this was the perfect role for John Wayne.  Once the film came out Wayne became a big star…after having been in more than 80 films prior to Stagecoach.  And these were not 80+ big films, either.  They included such “gems” as Randy Rides Alone (1935), Texas Terror (1935), and The Lawless Nineties (1936). 

Nowadays the most well known movie Wayne did prior to Stagecoach is probably 1933’s Baby Face where he had a small role as one of the men star Barbara Stanwyck’s character uses on her social climb to the top of a business’ male leadership.  I didn’t even recognize him at first.  It took his second brief appearance before I even realized “Hey, that’s John Wayne.”  He might have 5 minutes of screen time.

What made him a star in Stagecoach is that he got to play an anti-hero: the Ringo Kid.  He is out to get revenge for the death of his father and brother, and murder is most definitely his plan when he catches up to the men who did it.  He also gets his own entrance after we have heard about him multiple times from other characters, so there is build up and anticipation for when we finally see him.

The plot of the film is deceptively simple – a stagecoach ride across hostile territory – but what fleshes it out are the characters.  Many are well known archetypes (some might even call them clichéd now), but that helps people get to know them very quickly and get into the story quicker.

The stagecoach is going to be traveling from Arizona to New Mexico.  Apache chief Geronimo has been causing havoc in the area, but each of the travelers has their own reasons for taking the risk.  The travelers include: a prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor), who is being driven out of town by the self-righteous citizens; Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a doctor who is a drunk and who served the Union during the Civil War; a young pregnant woman who is trying to get to her U.S. Cavalry husband; a banker who has stolen $50,000 from his own bank; a Southern gambler who served the Confederacy during the Civil War; a Marshall providing protection from the Indians; and others.

If you think that the pregnant woman will have to give birth, her military husband will be involved in fighting Indians, Geronimo will cause trouble, the two men who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War will have words, the two women will not get along because of their vastly different social standings, the prostitute will have a romance with someone who doesn’t know what she does for a living, and the Marshall will encounter the Ringo Kid, then you will not be mistaken.  All that and more happens in just a little over an hour and a half.

In a year of great films Stagecoach received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.  It won two Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone.  That alone would make for a great year for an actor, but Mitchell went even further.  That same year that he won for Stagecoach he also had roles in Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gone with the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Today he may be best known as the absent minded Uncle Billy in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

I mentioned at the top that this was the first of many collaborations between Ford and Wayne.  This was also the first of many films Ford would shoot in Monument Valley – a look for westerns that became very famous because of that.  The legend has it that a man local to Monument Valley kept lobbying Ford to film there and finally convinced him after sending him tons of photos of the natural monuments.  In Stagecoach the people actually travel through Monument Valley three times during the course of the film.

Stagecoach is worth watching just to see John Wayne become a star right before your eyes.  It also has other interesting characters and some good action scenes.  And the black and white cinematography was made to show Monument Valley at its best.  If any of this sounds interesting then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. I saw this as one of my Blind Spots last year as I enjoyed the hell out of it. I loved it so much that I'm going to do more films by John Ford next year including more of his collaboration with John Wayne.

    1. I didn't research to see how many times they worked together, but I bet it was in double digits. I've seen a bunch of them just from working my way through the They Shoot Pictures Don't They list. Ford has 16 films on there. A quick check of those shows me Wayne was in at least 8 of them. (I still have two Ford films left to see.)

      The Searchers would be my pick for the best film they made together, and the best western I've ever seen. There's also The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Fort Apache, and The Wings of Eagles that I'd suggest you give a try.

      Henry Fonda also worked with Ford multiple times. He was in Fort Apache with Wayne. Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and My Darling Clementine were also Ford/Fonda collaborations I'd recommend.

      Non-Wayne/Fonda films from Ford that I liked were The Informer and The Wagon Master. How Green Was My Valley won a Best Picture, and while it's not bad at all, it didn't live up to my expectations for a Best Picture winner.

  2. I like this one a little more than you do. I think it's one of the really good (possibly great) Westerns from the early days. It probably wouldn't make my top-5, but it might make my top-10 for Westerns.

    That may be because I have a warm fuzzy for Thomas Mitchell.

    1. I'd have to give it some thought, but this might make my Top 10 westerns list as well. A quick check of the AFI list shows it was the #9 western of all time for them. There are at least two choices above it (Red River and McCabe & Mrs. Miller) that I'd put below Stagecoach.

      For the record, here is the list:

      1. The Searchers
      2. High Noon
      3. Shane
      4. Unforgiven
      5. Red River
      6. The Wild Bunch
      7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
      8. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
      9. Stagecoach
      10. Cat Ballou

      Note that this was an AFI list, therefore American films only, so none of Sergio Leone's films were elgible to be on the list. Both Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly would make my Top 10 westerns list.

  3. I am currently about half way through reading John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. I would highly recommend it to any Wayne fan or fan of screen history in general. The details of the films he made in the thirties that you mentioned (the B-movie ghetto as the book calls it) I found quite interesting because I knew so little about them. Wayne was originally touted for big time stardom in Raoul Walsh's
    The Big Trail in 1930, but when that movie was unsuccessful, he became just one of many B- cowboy stars for the next ten years. When he got a chance at second act with Stagecoach, he became an A-list star for the rest of his life.

  4. Like Steve I think I like The Stagecoach better than you. That may have something to do with fuzzy memories from youth and childhood where this was the defining movie about the frontier. I like and even love everything about it, but most of all the style. Try comparing the opening of Back to the Future III to the mad escape of the the dilligence from the Indians.

    1. I can't remember exactly when I saw Stagecoach, but it might have been while I was working on the AFI lists in the late 2000s.

  5. I liked Wayne a lot in the 1930 Big Trail. But even in his B Westerns, he surpasses his material. He just looks so natural on screen compared to the other actors who are either hamming it up or wooden. And he was a very good looking young man. He is gorgeous in The Big Trail.

    1. Thanks for the info. I have to admit that I've never seen The Big Trail.

  6. Stagecoach wouldn't crack my top 10 westerns, although I do rate it very highly. The drunkard (Thomas Mitchell) is the character I remember most vividly(didn't know until now he won the oscar for his performance). The stuntman who threw himself under the stagecoach was a brave man!

    For what its worth these are my top 10 westerns:

    1. Thanks for the list. I've seen all of them except for Django. I'd have Once Upon a Time in the West higher on my list. I probably wouldn't have The Naked Spur or the 3:10 to Yuma remake on my list. Not that they're bad films; just not Top 10 for me.

      The Searchers would be my number 1, but I don't see it on your Top 10, your Just Missed, or your Not Yet Seen lists. I guess it didn't do much for you.