Movie Project #2: Stagecoach [1939]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Stagecoach [1939]

Stagecoach [1939]
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht
Genre: Adventure/Western
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell
Running Time: 96 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I finally watched my first John Ford/John Wayne film, The Searchers, at the end of last year’s project. Rather than just stop there, I thought it would be a good idea to see another classic from them.
Accolades: Seven Oscar nominations (two wins — Best Music, Scoring and Thomas Mitchell for Best Supporting Actor), rated the ninth greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute, inclusion on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list

Well, I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.

Stagecoach is a film of many firsts. It is director John Ford’s first sound Western, his first collaboration (of over 20) with John Wayne, and his first Western shot using the gorgeous Monument Valley of the Southwest. The film is also widely considered to have single-handedly elevated the Western into respectability. Nearly 75 years later, Stagecoach still stands as one of the finest of the genre.

Although John Wayne is inarguably the biggest name on the bill, he is merely just one of many who are given equal footing here. The film tells the tale of nine strangers, all of varying backgrounds, who are riding in a stagecoach together through dangerous Apache-infested territory. There’s Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute who is driven out of her hometown by a catty group of ladies that dub themselves the “Law and Order League.” There’s Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), an alcoholic doctor who would be excellent at his job if he could just stay sober for a minute. There’s a pregnant woman, Lucy (Louise Platt), who is heading west to be with her injured soldier husband. Other travelers include a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), an embezzling banker (Berton Churchill), a Confederate gambler (John Carradine), a U.S. Marshal (George Bancroft) and the stage driver (Andy Devine). Then, of course, there is John Wayne.

Stagecoach [1939]

Wayne plays the role of The Ringo Kid, a fugitive who is picked up by the Marshal on charges of murder. Even though he is a criminal and escaped convict, we never get the impression that Ringo is a bad man. He never puts up a fight against the Marshal; instead, he seems more interested in making sure this stagecoach — namely, the women — make it to their destination safely. Wayne plays this character in a way that only he can, and he makes for a great hero in a carriage that badly needs one.

That isn’t to say the other characters are worthless. The prostitute Dallas (of whom Claire Trevor’s performance was actually given top billing) does well in the face of adversity, even as the others treat her as if she were a leper. The Marshal is a handy man with his gun, and even ol’ Doc Boone proves to be an asset, even if he is forced to down copious amounts of black coffee to sober up in a crucial time of need.

Stagecoach [1939]

In many ways, Stagecoach feels like a road movie, and it has a big payoff near the end. The Apaches — portrayed as nothing but savages, unfortunately — make their first appearance and begin chasing down the stagecoach. The ensuing action scene is nothing short of remarkable, even when viewed today. There are visual stunts that simply would not be attempted anymore, including one death-defying moment where an Apache is knocked off a horse directly in the path of the stagecoach and the other running stallions. By all accounts, the stuntman seemed to be okay, but holy hell that looked dangerous.

Stagecoach runs at a brisk 96 minutes, and there is never a dull moment to speak of. The film has excellent pacing; because of this, it could stand as an excellent introduction to the Western genre. John Ford, John Wayne, a memorable cast of characters and an outstanding action setpiece — what else is needed?

9/10

 
Bonus trivia: Orson Welles famously stated that he watched Stagecoach over 40 times while filming Citizen Kane.

Movie Project #50: The Searchers [1956]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Searchers [1956]

The Searchers [1956]
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Alan Le May (novel)
Genre: Western
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles
Running Time: 119 minutes

That’ll be the day.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I had never seen a John Wayne film (outside of the terrible propaganda movie, The Green Berets). How could I have missed out on one of America’s most popular figures? There isn’t a better place to start than with John Ford’s The Searchers, ranked the seventh greatest film of all time per this year’s BFI Sight & Sound poll.

The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) has returned home from the Civil War after a three year absence. He takes in residency with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family. Almost immediately upon arriving, cattle from a neighbor are stolen. Ethan and a small group of Texas Rangers head out to investigate, only to find that the theft was a diversion from the Comanche Indians meant to draw them away from their families. The men realize this too late, and they return to find the house in ruins. Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew are all dead, and his two nieces are missing. Now, with vengeance on his mind, Ethan heads out to find the Comanche tribe that he suspects has kidnapped the two girls.

The Searchers [1956]

Upon first glance, this appears to be a formulaic American Western. It’s a battle of cowboys against Indians, with both groups out for blood. However, there is another layer to The Searchers that I didn’t expect to find, and it comes from the character of Ethan Edwards.

Ethan is the very definition of an anti-hero. When he returns home at the beginning of the film, hints at his troubled past are subtly acknowledged. He didn’t arrive until three years after the war ended, he has a large amount of unmarked money on his person, and he refuses to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers. He is a clear loner, and his stubborn tendencies make appearances throughout the entire film. He is also a blatant racist with absolutely no shame toward his beliefs, and at one point he even laughs as a Native American woman is kicked down a hill. In short, he’s an asshole, but he is a damn interesting character.

The Searchers [1956]

For most of the film, Edwards is joined by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an adopted member of his brother’s family. This accompaniment isn’t by Ethan’s choice, as he has an obvious resentment for this character (calling him a “half breed” early on, which Pawley rebuts that he is 1/8 Cherokee). Their partnership is shaky, and the men do not like each other at all. But both have the same goal, and somehow it makes sense to work together.

The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in vibrant Technicolor, and it makes strong use of its landscape (Monument Valley, Utah). It has been said that David Lean watched the film over and over again to generate ideas on how to use the desert in his brilliant Lawrence of Arabia. The VistaVision format really makes the colors pop, and this is easily one of the more visually stimulating American Westerns I have seen.

The more I think about The Searchers, the more I appreciate what it offers. I’m not ready to call it one of my favorites of the genre — some of the racism is really hard to stomach in this day and age — but it’s easy to understand how this has been so influential over the years.

8/10

 
And that wraps up this year’s movie project! Once again, this has been an enlightening journey. Stay tuned this week for a wrap-up of the entire project!