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?


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

32 thoughts on “Movie Project #2: Stagecoach [1939]

  1. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric and company:

    Excellent choice and insightful critique!

    ‘Stagecoach’ is essential early John Wayne. Not only to watch and savor Monument Valley and dusty surroundings, But to catch the first grasps of an actor creating a persona and the makings of a legend. While taking note of a template for later westerns that would be returned to again and again and swell the genre.

    Nicely done, my friend!

  2. Will says:

    Nice review of a great film. I wish the Native Americans weren’t so demonized in these old westerns, but you can’t change history. In any case, I grew up watching John Wayne and this was always one of my favorites. I’d also recommend Red River if you haven’t seen that one.

  3. Will says:

    I think my first comment got lost on the superhighway somewhere. Anyway, I had said this was a nice review of a great movie, and that it bothers me that these old movies demonize the Native Americans so much, but that you can’t change history. At least a little bit later (1950s) there’s people like Sam Fuller who made socially progressive movies that stand out distinctly from stuff like this. Anyway, I grew up watching John Wayne and this was always one of my favorites. I’d also recommend Red River if you’ve never seen that. One of Wayne’s best performances.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi Will, thanks for the comment(s)! 😀 I know WordPress can be finicky at times. But yeah, I completely agree with you on these old Westerns and their terrible characterizations of Native Americans. At least Stagecoach wasn’t as blatantly racist as The Searchers — that film’s entire subplot involving the Indian wife was just embarrassing.

      I’ll have to go for Red River with my next Wayne film. Thanks for the rec!

  4. Dan Heaton says:

    Eric, it’s so great that you got the chance to watch Stagecoach. I think that it’s one of those movies that anyone who’s going to delve into Westerns should check out. The first reveal of John Wayne is such a classic moment; it’s like Ford decided “I’m going to make him a star” and designed a movie around it. Wayne’s career was not in good shape, and this film got him rolling towards stardom.

    You mention that the Native Americans were just portrayed as savages. While that is true, I think of them as really just another external obstacle for the group to overcome. This doesn’t let Ford off the hook, but it seems less nefarious then some other examples from the genre.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi Dan, that’s a great observation about Wayne’s introduction. That zoom-in pretty much set the stage for him, and he took the ball and ran with it. Hell of an intro.

      As far as the Native Americans, at least this film wasn’t quite as blatantly racist as The Searchers. I still can’t get over how terrible that “Indian wife” subplot was.

  5. ruth says:

    Great review Eric, but sorry to say but I’m not too fond of John Wayne for some reason. Btw, I just saw a great classic All About Eve, oh my, how could I’ve missed this film for so long!

  6. David Duggan says:

    There’s a 1989 version of this song with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and others. It’s a jumble of political correctness and apologist BS and an180 degree concept of the original that it makes it unbearable to watch. I’ve also have seen the colorized version of the original and it is also unbearable to watch. There ain’t nothing like the original. Yippy ki yeah

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Hi David, thanks for the comment. I wasn’t aware about the 1989 remake — that sounds awful! Ditto for the colorized version of the 1939 film. Such a shame that Hollywood felt it necessary to mess with this classic, not once but twice!

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