Stagecoach (1939)

Directed by John Ford

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While it wasn’t the first western, nor was it close, Stagecoach was the first modern western.  Along with the introduction of what would become repeated tropes in the genre, the film was Ford’s first foray into Monument Valley, the landscape he would eventually make famous, and it is what made a star out of a young John Wayne.

Ford and Wayne had both worked extensively within the genre, though the film would make the western more than just the setting for B movies.  Wayne had bounced around for a number of years, though Ford knew early on that he was destined to become a star.  Take a look at the way Ford introduced Wayne’s character, Ringo Kid:

 

Ringo Kid is an outlaw upon which a stagecoach of travelers comes across.  He joins a prostitute, a gambler, a drunk doctor, an officer’s wife and an aristocrat.  Their journey to Lordsburg takes them through Apache country, the vast land where the threat of “savages” could be anywhere, Geronimo chief among them.

Each character has their reasons for making the journey, and the danger only underscores their individual desperation to make it to the next town.  Playing like any other road trip movie you might’ve seen recently, the story deals mostly with the interactions between these characters of various social classes.

The outlaw shows the prostitute with a heart of gold some kindness, and soon they fall in love.  The aristocrat harbors affections for the officer’s wife, but his eventual cowardice earns him an untimely death.  The drunk doctor will demonstrate courage and value when the officer’s wife gives birth, etc.

The threat which hangs over them, an attack by the Native Americans, provides some suspense, but other than the final battle (a thrilling one), they are nowhere to be seen, serving instead as an implied opposition while the morality of the central cast plays out in tight spaces.

There is a strange juxtaposition, then, between the wide open landscapes of the wide open west and the small, claustrophobic interiors of the stagecoach, saloons and other homes.  On one hand the west is so vast, and the characters so small within the frame, that it feels as though they might disappear entirely without anyone noticing.  On the other, they dominate various scenes, often framed with multiple characters onscreen at once.  Their individual codes, ethics and what they stand for something greater than themselves.

Many of these ideas are ingrained in the genre.  The west offers a combination of small towns and open lands, social order and a space where anything goes.  When the characters depart for their voyage, they leave the only place where safety might be guaranteed and enter the much larger world in which they could be swept away like dust.

There could be more nuance to this, to be sure.  The ‘enemy’ are dehumanized “savages.”  There is no discussion of their plight or the ways in which they may feel threatened.  Their role is to be the antagonists.  They are nothing more than arrow-shooting extras, their collective skills with a bow and on a horse only there to heighten the danger they pose, and as a group they might as well be as natural as starvation or heatstroke.  Their importance in Stagecoach and in many other westerns, comes only in how they comment on the heroes.

John Ford’s later collaboration with John Wayne, The Searchers (1956) had more to say about the Native Americans and more time to say it.  The character played by Wayne has to track down his niece, stolen away by the Natives.  His character views them as the enemy, and the film explores his deep, deep racism as well as the juxtaposition between good and evil and the ways we perceive good and evil.

There is a harshness to the west and the ways it has been interpreted.  The family unit, the personally-constructed homes, they are wholesome goodness, a temporary oasis from the deadly deserts.  The way this harshness could permeate your soul, at least when survival depends on a certain way of thinking, isn’t yet explored in Stagecoach but it would be later on.

The journey in this film is quite simple and mostly straightforward.  The downtime allows for characters and their sense of morals to bounce off of each other.  Over the course of the story we watch the alcoholic, the prostitute and the outlaw demonstrate virtue while those considered socially lawful show cowardice, jealousy and no dignity.

The effect of the wide open west, it seems, is to wash away the social constructions of law and order.  What it takes to survive out there isn’t what it takes to make it as a law-abiding citizen in the small developed towns, and the divide between good and bad, at least within the bubble of the film, is blurred.

At the same time, we know Ringo Kid is a hero from the minute we see him.  The film never tries to hide the fact that he demands our admiration and will be worshipped by the kids watching in the audience.  Ringo looks and acts the part, showing not only courage in action but also kindness in the quieter moments.

When the group of travelers sit down to eat one night, everyone shies away from Dallas (Claire Trevor who received top billing), a prostitute, but Ringo saddles right up to her and offers her everything the others won’t.  Later he’ll ask her to marry him, and it’s a testament to how good the film is that we believe their affection even when so little screen time is given to developing it.

Ringo’s love for Dallas (though maybe it borders closer to lust) is glimpsed through brief lines and long glances.  The nature of their romance is visual, just as much of the film is.  Talk is cheap, in other words.

Ringo and Dallas make a plan to run away, Ringo first and Dallas soon after.  He is set to be detained when they make it to Lordsburg, so his escape feels in line with the behavior of an outlaw who would skirt justice.  When he decides to stay, demonstrating selflessness, it is because he sees a smoke signal suggesting the ‘enemy’ is near.

It’s the threat of greater evil that convinces Ringo to stay and protect the group.  It’s the nature of the west, in other words, that compels him to act lawfully and allow himself to be detained, this time more so than before.

What follows is a genuinely thrilling sprint through the desert.  The Native Americans attack the stagecoach, and other than interior shots of the stagecoach, just about the entire thing is shot on location.  It makes the film feel incredibly modern, in some ways even more impressive than modern action movies.  There are a number of hard to believe stunts, all shown bare within camera, without a cut to hide the action.

We see one stuntman jump between horses while galloping at speeds in excess of, I don’t know, thirty miles per hour?  He leaps onto the first horse pulling the stagecoach, then falls underneath the horse but continues holding on.  When the character is then shot, the stuntman lets go, allowing the stagecoach to pass right over him, he somehow avoids getting trampled by the horses or the stagecoach.

Similarly, John Wayne’s character hops from horse to horse in seemingly death-defying fashion, managing to reign in a horse untethered from the carriage when one of their men is shot.

The cavalry comes in at the last second, like in many movies, to save the day.  Despite being expected, the end of the sequence is no less thrilling.  Maybe it’s just because you feel as though you were holding you’re breath and are simply happy to exhale.

Stagecoach is lean and to the point.  It’s a thrilling movie that feels ahead of its time, and it’s one that transcends its genre, just as with the best horror movies.  John Ford took a B-movie genre and B-movie actors, including Wayne, and made an A-list movie.  They would go on to have a fruitful collaboration, and this movie’s influence would extend well into the future.  As Wayne aged out of this genre, Clint Eastwood aged into it.  He would win an Oscar for directing (and starring in) 1992’s Unforgiven, some 50 years after Stagecoach.

The western is an enticing genre because of the implied danger of the wide open west.  You merely need to show us a cowboy, and we already have some anticipation of what he stands for as well as what stands in the way.

 

Final note about the film… Orson Welles claims to have watched Stagecoach 40 times before shooting Citizen Kane.  So there ya go.

Up Next: I’m Carolyn Parker (2011), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), I Shot Jesse James (1949)

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