I love when I catch myself in a bias, and have the reality of the art bitchslap me. Having watched a number of John Ford and John Wayne films over the years I had come to expect certain things from both men. From Ford you get the landscapes, shallow screenplays, and often overweening visual poesy. From Wayne you’d get the wooden acting, hammy bodily gesticulations, and racist pseudo-patriotism. When I watched The Searchers, a monumentally overrated film, I nailed these flaws in both men. So, I was expecting much of the same, only more of it, and worse, from Stagecoach, the first pairing of these two men because 1) it was older, 2) it was made in the 1930s, 3) in black and white, and 4)much of film acting in that era was little beyond the silent era’s necessitated overacting. Thankfully, I was wrong. Very wrong. No, I would not state that Stagecoach is an inarguably great film- it has some flaws (mostly minor) and is essentially a B film, in many ways, but it’s one of the greatest B films ever made and a near-great film- Western or not, and both Ford and Wayne excel in it, which then begs the question: if they were so right in their first pairing, why did they go so wrong in later films, like, ahum….The Searchers?
The answer is rather easy: the screenplay. Later Ford films, like The Searchers, simply had nothing to rival the great dialogue and character development present in Stagecoach; a film that is a sort of the Ship Of Fools film, wherein characters from disparate backgrounds are tossed together (think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat). The film opens in a town called Tonto, in Arizona Territory, where six passengers are bound for Lordsburg on the local stagecoach. They consist of a blond prostitute, Dallas (Claire Trevor), who is scorned; as well as another ‘fallen’ figure, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunk; the wife of a soldier, Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) and a meek salesman, Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek). Also on board, surreptitiously, is banker Henry Gatewood, (Berton Churchill), who has embezzled $50,000, and a Southern gentleman gambler named Hatfield (John Carradine) who seeks to protect the pregnant Mrs. Mallory, daughter of his former military commander. Leading the stage are its comic relief driver, Buck (Andy Devine), and local U.S. Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft). The stage is escorted part of the way by the U.S. Cavalry. Not far out of town they pick up the escaped prisoner, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). He is going to Lordsburg to avenge the deaths of his father and brother by Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler). All the precautions are because the Apaches, led by Geronimo, are on the warpath.
Over the course of several adventures- Mrs. Mallory’s giving birth, fording a river with the stagecoach, ambush by Apaches, and rescue by the cavalry, all the people make it to Lordsburg, save Hatfield, who is shot by the Apaches, moments before he was going to kill Mrs. Mallory to save her from capture and rape by the Indians. Also, Dallas and the Kid have fallen in love, after he sees how good she is with Mrs. Mallory’s baby; although she has doubts about him if he finds out her profession. At Lordsburg, Hatfield is taken for burial, Gatewood is arrested for theft, and the Kid has his duel with Plummer, killing him and two henchman. Despite the reward for his capture, the Marshal lets the Kid and Dallas ride free to Mexico, to begin their life together ‘safe from the blessings of civilization.’
The two disk DVD, by Warner Brothers, is a good one. Disk One has the 96 minute film, shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and the video quality is variable- ranging from speckled to fine. There is a commentary on the film from Scott Eyman, biographer of John Ford. Overall, it’s quite a good commentary. Not great, but good, because it flows well, and Eyman never seems to be merely reading from a script. That said, it is rarely scene specific, but its flood of relevant information makes the lack of specificity a minor loss. He makes some excellent points, as well, such as pointing out moments where the characters act against stereotype, as well as trivial quirks, such as 1:08 into the film, where he points out the clearly visible shadow of the film camera on the back of the stagecoach as it prepares to ford a river. This focus on both the relevant and the minor shows the love Eyman has for the film, as well as his eye for detail. To his credit, he even admits that it took him multiple viewings to fully appreciate the film’s full power and excellence. A final point he makes, and one which I’ve long echoed, is how much more exciting and how much more interesting this film is because of the live action stunts of Yakima Canutt in comparison to the dull CGI stunts that abound in today’s films; and he’s correct. Finally, there is also the original theatrical trailer. Disk Two has three main feature: a radio adaptation of the film, starring Claire Trevor and Randolph Scott; a making of documentary called Stagecoach: A Story Of Redemption, which has some interesting reminiscences and insights; and a 90 minute long American Masters documentary called John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker & The Legend. All are quality bonuses, but the last one is the best of the bunch.
Stagecoach is not only a quality film, but an influential one. It set the standard for the modern Western, outside of B film level entertainment (both in its literacy and daring- the stunts of Canutt, during the Apache attack, are justly famed), and it made a star out of John Wayne, right from his dramatic entrance into the film (replete with out of focus zoom and twirling rifle). But it also is a great example of a film that, on the surface, seems to be all cliché and melodrama, but via Dudley Nichols’ and Ben Hecht’s non-wasteful screenplay (adapted from Ernest Haycox’s short story The Stage To Lordsburg which had roots in Guy de Maupassant’s short Story Boule De Suif), and acting, rises well above such. It resists cliché by subverting it with the performances and writing. There’s not even a mediocre performance in the film (look at how often details of plot are conveyed via the eyes of characters). I know of no film where the eyes of its actors convey so much, so many times, and so consistently. Even John Wayne comes across as sympathetic, gentlemanly, and lovable, and most of his ‘acting’ comes in reaction shots where he is silent or says little. One need only look at many other films from the 1930s to see how different Wayne’s acting style was from the remnants of the overly theatrical acting styles of the silent film era actors that were still around. Claire Trevor is adorable as her non-trite version of the hooker with a heart of gold, and Thomas Mitchell won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as the Doctor, and deserved it. His progression from drunk to indignant righteousness in the face of Luke Plummer’s gunbarrel, is truly a pleasure to watch, and a clinic in acting subtlety and bravado in tandem. The other Oscar the film won was for musical scoring, for Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken, yet, the score is really unmemorable, and the worst scene in the film (one of only a few points which keep the film as a near-great, not great film) is a scene where the Apache wife of a local Mexican sings. It simply is out of place in the film. The cinematography, by Bert Glennon, is quite good, especially in the Apache chase sequence that alternates between live locations shooting, and rear screen projections, and in numerous compositions in Monument Valley.
As mentioned, watching Stagecoach, then comparing it to later films in Ford’s canon, is sort of depressing, because it makes one wonder how much of this film’s success was just happenstance, since, such a literate and well acted film never again made its way to the screen under the John Ford name. Nonetheless, watching this film was a pleasure, both in and of itself, and in how it is that rare work of art that forcefully demonstrates to me that even I can succumb to the rigors of habit, in expecting too little from a certain work of art merely because most works of art, in any genre, or from any artist, so often conform to one’s worst expectations. Thus chastened, I implore anyone else with that or a similar bias to toss it aside, for a while, and allow its destruction under Stagecoach’s ever turning wheels. What’s left won’t be worth much, if at all, but often it’s the loss of something that is the best part of the thing. I think Doc and Curly would agree.