Review of Stagecoach

Copyright © by Geoff Hendricks, 3/30/11


  John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne, is one of the best pre-Sergio Leone Westerns. It is a terrific film, and it succeeds on many levels. It’s also one of the most influential films ever made- Orson Welles claimed that he watched it fifty times before making Citizen Kane, and unsurprisingly, that film’s cinematographer, Gregg Toland, was a regular Ford collaborator. In fact, Stagecoach comes within a hair of greatness, but just barely misses- primarily due to some stereotypes and a few too many clichés. After all, it is a Western.

Right away, I should probably admit any potential biases that may cloud my critical judgment of the film. I am not a big fan of Westerns, Wayne in particular. Too many Westerns are trite and overly formulaic, and Wayne always repelled me. His phony machismo, his strutting every minute he’s onscreen, and his stiff delivery of his lines all just make me wanna turn away from the screen and watch something else. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of any inarguably great Westerns directed by people not named Leone.

However, it succeeds in making its stereotypes as realistic as possible, with some very good performances from Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, and even Wayne. Along with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, this is the best John Ford film I have seen, and it is a significantly better film than The Searchers is. It achieves its greatness in the way it makes its stereotypes realistic in many scenes, the believable and compelling interactions between characters in many scenes, and the performances from the actors. It does an incredibly good job of portraying the way people behave when thrust into dangerous situations, and forced to cooperate with each other for survival. It also serves a brilliant exposé of “civilization”.

It starts by showing the various passengers of the stagecoach. Ford does a masterful job of painting them with just a few brushstrokes—we know all we need to know about them as soon as the stagecoach takes off, and while the characters are stereotypes, they remain mostly believable. Claire Trevor plays Dallas, a “hooker with a heart of gold”. Thomas Mitchell (best known for playing Uncle Billy in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) plays Doc Boone, a drunken doctor who is really a genius. John Carradine plays Hatfield, a “Southern gentleman” who is really a cad. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, a Southern belle who is traveling to see her probably dead cavalry husband. George Bancroft plays Marshal Curly Wilcox, the sheriff who is out to catch the Ringo Kid, because he actually wants to protect Ringo from Luke Plummer, who murdered his family, and because Curly was friends with the Kid’s father. All these characters sound ridiculously stereotypical, but Ford somehow makes it work, and therein one of the reasons for the film’s near-greatness.

Truly, only two or three of these characters do not work. Whisky sales representative Samuel Peacock, played by Donald Meek—both the actor and the character have appropriate names, does not make much of an impression, except that the jokes about how other characters mistake him for a preacher get old fast. Of course, the fact that he is a little weakling who serves no real importance to the trip means that he will die. Berton Churchill plays Henry Gatewood, the evil banker, and his scenes are insufferably preachy, and date the film quite badly. Save for some of the technology used at the time, and some bad makeup for Native Americans, it is impossible to tell that this film is from the 1930s…except when Gatewood is onscreen. He inexorably ties this film to its roots in the New Deal era of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The other character who does not work is Buck the stagecoach driver, played by Andy Devine. Many critics have noted that Ford was horrible at comedy, and it shows through in the scenes involving Buck. Maybe it is because Devine truly has one of the most awful voices in cinema history, but let us just say that it is a vast disappointment when Geronimo fails to kill him. All I can say is that he is never funny, he does not elicit a single laugh from the audience, and he could give Jar Jar Binks a run for his money on the Annoying Meter.

It turns out that the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union has railroaded Dallas and Doc Boone out of town—the former for being a prostitute, and the latter for being an alcoholic. They then get on the stagecoach to Lordsburg. Lucy also gets on, hoping to find her husband, and Hatfield gets on to protect Lucy. It turns out that Geronimo is on the loose…right in the area through which the stagecoach will travel. Curly gets on so that he can find Ringo and protect him from the Plummer boys, who murdered Ringo’s family. Peacock gets on largely because Boone has used his force of personality to urge him onto the stagecoach, and Gatewood wants to get out of town as quickly as possible after having embezzled the company funds.

A young cavalry officer, played by Tim Holt (best known as George Minafer in Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons), warns them of the danger Geronimo poses. However, this does not stop the passengers, as they all elect to move forward regardless. All except the cowardly Gatewood that is, who flags the stagecoach down just before it leaves Tonto, and thus does not hear of Geronimo until long after they have left.

Soon after they depart, the stagecoach encounters the Ringo Kid himself, played by John Wayne. It turns out that his horse went lame; otherwise, he would have already been in Lordsburg. Curly takes him into custody, and we find out that Ringo really is not bad; he just wants to avenge his family. It also turns out that Doc Boone was a friend of the family, as he had operated on Ringo’s brother, after a horse had bucked him. Ringo recognizes him, and congratulates him on doing a good job…even though he was drunk the whole time. He also takes a very quick liking to Dallas, although he seems unaware of Dallas’s profession.

Of course, tensions do develop, and quickly. For example, we find out that Doc Boone proudly served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, whilst Hatfield fought proudly for the Confederacy. They almost reach fisticuffs when Doc accuses of Hatfield of having shot someone in the back…a rather ungentlemanly thing to do. Subtler tensions also develop between Lucy Mallory and Dallas, who treats Dallas as an inferior, as if she were pond scum, and not a real human being.

Eventually, the stagecoach reaches the nearly deserted cavalry outpost at Dry Fork. Doc Boone reunites with an old Army friend, and of course, decides to get drunk with him. However, Tim Holt reveals that they have received orders to go back to Tonto, and they find out that the cavalry moved on to Apache Wells before the stagecoach got there. Therefore, the travelers agree to take a vote on whether to go back or to press ahead onto Lordsburg. Only Peacock votes against going to Lordsburg, so they decide to press on to Apache Wells, where they will meet a cavalry unit that will go on the rest of the journey with them.

Unfortunately, as they head from Dry Fork to Apache Wells, Gatewood starts complaining about FDR. The film presumably takes place shortly after the end of Reconstruction, yet that does not stop Gatewood from complaining about a man who was not born yet or who is still wearing diapers. Fortunately, the other characters make Gatewood shut the fuck up, as Doc Boone says something to the effect of, “Yes, I am drunk, Gatewood. But in the morning, I shall be sober, whilst you shall still be a thief.

Eventually, they reach Apache Wells, and meet some of Buck’s Mexican friends (earlier, he had mentioned that his wife is Mexican). Unfortunately, Chris, apparently the Mexican leader, reveals that the Cavalry has already moved on, and left Apache Wells, after a brief melee with Geronimo. They also reveal that the Apaches injured Captain Mallory, Lucy’s husband, in the skirmish, and that his Cavalry unit took him to a doctor in Lordsburg. This news causes Lucy to go into childbirth, as we discover that she was pregnant, and wanted to see her husband so that he may see their daughter.

Of course, this requires Doc to sober up quickly, so that he may deliver the baby, and Dallas to act as the midwife. In a comic scene that actually works quite well, they have to brew black coffee for Doc, whilst John Wayne splashes water on his face. They also discover that Chris’s wife is an Apache, as they also bring her in to help with the delivery.

Cinematographically, the film is very strong, as cinematography was perhaps John Ford’s strongpoint. Ford’s judicious use of close-ups, his use of long shots and low angles in scenes of conversations, and the sweeping vistas of the small stagecoach against the vastness of Monument Valley work well to emphasize the aloneness of the travelers against the forces of nature. Obviously, he retained his great visual touch from his silent film days.

Unfortunately, this brings me to the rather wan and forgettable film score. One thing that always hurt Ford’s Westerns in comparison to the later Westerns of Sergio Leone was his tin ear for music. That has not to say that the score is overtly bad, it is just not memorable, and it does not serve the action well. I’ve often thought his films would’ve been better without scoring, as several directors—most notably Michelangelo Antonioni, have proven that silence can be far more effective than melodramatic scoring is. Not that film scoring is a bad thing—the epics of Sergio Leone would not be half as good without their grand Ennio Morricone scores, but Stagecoach lacks a Morricone to make its music memorable and irreplaceable.


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