Empire “Masterpiece” #82 / Issue #255 / September, 2010
John Ford’s Stagecoach is about as linear as adventures come. Based on a pulp-magazine story by Ernest Haycox (there are some claims that it was based on Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, but they’re probably nonsense) the film’s task is to get a coach-full of travelers from the Point A of Tonto, Arizona through dangerous Apache territory to the Point B of Lordsburg, New Mexico. Each of the passengers has their reasons for the trip. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) is hunting down The Plummer Boys. The up-tight (and, it turns out, heavily pregnant) Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is traveling to meet her husband and his cavalry regiment, while dashing gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) has taken it upon himself to protect her on the trip.
Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) is trying to escort the escaped Ringo back to jail, and crooked bank manager Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is absconding with the proceeds of a robbery. “Proud lawified dregs” drunkard Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, who won an Oscar for the role) and hooker Dallas (Claire Trevor, with top billing) are being kicked out of Tonto by the hatchet-faced Law and Order League, and Boone’s new best friend, Whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), whose name nobody ever remembers correctly, is on business. And Andy Devine’s Buck is the hapless driver, trying to make enough money to eat more than dreaded “beans beans beans” for a change.
For all its narrative straightforwardness, however, Stagecoach is impressive for what it represents. It wasn’t Ford’s first Western. Not by a long shot. That was The Tornado in 1917 (now lost) and was followed by dozens of two-reelers and features. It wasn’t John Wayne’s first either. The former Mr Marion Mitchell Morrison had been propping up the b-movie Western industry for a decade already, from the big-budget flop The Big Trail, to Desolation Row quickies like Ride Him Cowboy and the Three Mesquiteers series. It wasn’t even the first time Wayne acted in a Ford film: he’d appeared unbilled in several of the director’s movies (submarine drama Men Without Women; football flick Salute) in the late 1920s and 1930.
But Stagecoach is nevertheless of film of beginnings. It was Ford’s first Western for thirteen years, and his first with sound. It was the first Western he made with Wayne, “introducing” the star with a rack-in that’s so dramatic it goes out of focus.
And it’s the first of his iconic series filmed in the awe-inspiring Monument Valley: twenty miles of spectacular desert rock formations in between Utah and Arizona, which thanks to Ford would become indelibly linked with the landscape of the Western in the mind’s eye of viewers for ever after.
Stagecoach was the first Western to achieve the status of a “prestige” picture for many years: a trick achieved by playing up its melodramatic and romantic aspects to broaden its appeal. The Western was by this point so disreputable that even a name director like Ford had trouble getting the project of the ground. David O. Selznick, at that point one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, whose magic touch would lead to Gone With the Wind shortly afterwards, wouldn’t touch it. Neither would the equally impressive Darryl Zanuck at Fox, and it fell to Walter Wanger, an indie producer releasing his films through United Artists, to bankroll the film. Wanger’s empty pockets meant it was impossible to film Stagecoach in colour, as originally intended, and Ford would have to wait a decade until She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to give Monument Valley the Technicolor treatment.
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Stagecoach bridges a gap between “old” Hollywood and the new generation that was approaching. Ford isn’t a great one for moving his camera (making Wayne’s entrance all the more startling), so most of the dialogue scenes are stagey. The major action sequence, where the stage dashes to its destination under Apache attack, is full of crazy silent-movie stunts, like the celebrated moment where veteran Wayne action-double (and un-credited second-unit director) Yakima Canutt, falls first under the horses’ hooves and then under the wheels of the stage.
The film isn’t without its flaws – there’s some script confusion regarding whether Gatewood does or doesn’t know that the telegraph wires are down, and we might ponder why, during the chase, the Apaches don’t just shoot the bloody horses. The characters are undoubtedly archetypes – heroic gunfighter; whore with a heart of gold; sozzled doctor; card-sharp who fancies himself a gentleman. But there’s still a sophistication to Stagecoach that goes well beyond its silent movie and stage melodrama roots. Citizen Kane is the film widely credited with the “deep focus” revolution (keeping everything in the frame sharp), but Orson Welles picked it up here, from a scene during the Apache Wells interlude. He told Peter Bogdanovich that he’d watched Stagecoach at least forty times during Kane’s preparation and filming.
Stagecoach was “modern” too, with the boo-hiss Gatewood – “what’s good for the banks is good for the country!” – tapping into a depression-era hatred of bankers that has started to resonate again rather recently. And while the Spaghettis may have messed with Ford, Leone would nevertheless lovingly set Once Upon a Time in the West in Monument Valley, and Corbucci would lift the death of Luke Plummer for Minnesota Clay. Today’s blockbusters – b-movies promoted to the status of main-features all – have their roots in the little coach that could. Stagecoach is a small film, but it casts a long shadow.