Stagecoach (1939)

Dir. John Ford

Intro

From the looks of this poster, are we sure the horses aren’t the villains?

The American West was once an extremely popular genre for dime novels and pulp magazine short stories. One author, Ernest Haycox, was a particularly prolific writer of the genre in the early 20thcentury, having written over two dozen novels and around 300 short stories. Two of them were adapted into movies in 1939, the novel Trouble Shooter was adapted into the film Union Pacific starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, and the short story “Stage to Lordsburg” was adapted the film addressed in today’s post Stagecoach starring Claire Trevor as Dallas and John Wayne as the Ringo Kid.

The production of this film was interesting because big-budget Westerns were out of style, with many Westerns of the time being B-movie fare, as well as the fact that director John Ford insisted on casting John Wayne in the leading male role. Hard as it may be to believe, John Wayne was originally known as a B-movie, low budget actor because of his roles in Western films, meaning that producers were wary of devoting money to the project because of John Wayne’s track record, as well as the film’s higher budget. And if the earlier producers had gotten their way, John Wayne would have been replaced with… Gary Cooper? The man who played Will Kane in High Noon when John Wayne refused? Huh, that is a connection I did not anticipate in writing these reviews back to back.

Anyway, Stagecoach was the film that launched John Wayne’s career and made him a household name. Is it as good as that distinction makes it sound?

I’m sure it was this shots like this that cemented John Wayne’s role as a Western icon.

Synopsis

In the year 1880, a stagecoach is preparing a trip from Tonto, a town in what was called the Arizona Territory, to Lordsburg, New Mexico. The passengers include Dallas and Doc Boone, a prostitute and drunken doctor respectively who have been chased out by the townswomen of the “Law and Order League.” They are joined by Mrs. Lucy Mallory on her way to join her cavalry officer husband, and by Samuel Peacock, a whiskey salesman whose wares are quickly exhausted by Doc Boone’s alcoholism. The driver, Buck, asks Marshal Curley Wilcox to be his shotgun guard; Wilcox accepts because the fugitive Ringo Kid is going to Lordsburg to murder the man who killed his father, Luke Plummer.

Before the stagecoach can depart, a cavalry lieutenant tells the driver and passengers that Geronimo, a violent raider based on a real Apache resistance fighter, is attacking travelers throughout the area. The lieutenant provides the stagecoach a small troop escort to Dry Fork, where another cavalry group is currently staying. At the edge of town, two more passengers join the stagecoach journey: the Southern gentleman Hatfield, a man with an extreme penchant for gambling, and the domineering banker Henry Gatewood, who is running away with embezzled cash from his bank.

On the road, they come across the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne, whose horse has gone lame and so he accepts going into Wilcox’s custody to save his own life. When the coach reaches Dry Fork, the group is informed that the cavalry had moved to Apache Wells, meaning that they’ll be unprotected because the other cavalry must leave them and return to Tonto.

From left to right: Hatfield, Buck, Wilcox, Doc Boone, Mrs. Mallory, Peacock, Dallas, Ringo, and Gatewood.

Everyone votes to continue despite the danger, and tensions rise as the group has lunch before their departure. The gentlewoman Mallory is perturbed at having to be near Dallas, as she is a prostitute, but Ringo invites Dallas to sit at the main table anyway. Hatfield attempts to keep Dallas away for Mrs. Mallory’s sake. When back on the road, everyone becomes thirsty and so Hatfield offers Mrs. Mallory his silver folding cup so she doesn’t have to drink from the canteen with the men, while he denies Dallas the same offer. Mrs. Mallory recognizes the family crest on the cup and its revealed that Hatfield had served in the Confederate Army under Mrs. Mallory’s father, hence his insistence in joining the stagecoach to protect her.

Arriving at Apache Wells, the group discovers that that Mrs. Mallory’s husband had been wounded in battle and the cavalry had moved out of there as well. The shock of this leads her to faint, but its revealed that it wasn’t just the news that caused it, but the fact that she had gone into labor. It is revealed that Mrs. Mallory’s desperation to reach her husband is so that he can be there as their first child is born, but now she’s about to give birth in the middle of nowhere with a group of strangers. Dallas takes charge and forces Doc Boone to sober up to help deliver the baby, while she assists him. Mrs. Mallory gives birth to a healthy girl but is too weak to care for the baby by herself, so Dallas takes on the responsibility.

That night, Ringo asks Dallas to run away and marry him, saying they could live on a ranch he owns in Mexico. Dallas is reluctant, due to her past, but eventually agrees after Doc Boone tells her she deserves to be happy. While Dallas wants to marry him she says that Mrs. Mallory and the baby need her right now, so she helps Ringo escape and plans to meet him at his ranch later. However, just as he is about to leave on horseback, Ringo sees Apache smoke signals, heralding an attack, and he returns to Wilcox’s custody to help protect the stagecoach.

Look, you don’t have to try and woo me. You’re a noble criminal and I’m a hooker with a heart of gold, we were bound to end up together.

What follows is an epic sequence in which the stagecoach tries to outrun the war party while having to cross a river and large portion of flatland. When everyone believes the danger has passed, an arrow strikes Peacock in the chest. Buck tries desperately to run the horses faster but gets injured with an arrow and loses one of his reins. Ringo jumps from horse to horse to try to help steer, while Wilcox, Hatfield and Doc Boone try to shoot their Apache pursuers. Even after several Apaches are successfully shot off their horses, the war party remains large and keeps getting closer to stopping the coach. Dallas hugs the baby tightly while Mrs. Mallory prays. Hatfield, with only one bullet left, levels his gun to Mrs. Mallory’s head as an act of mercy, but he too is shot before he can pull the trigger. Thankfully, the cavalry from Lordsburg arrives just in time and saves the stagecoach from the raiding party.

This is a great action scene and all, but I still can’t help but look at that coach and remember that seven people were in there at once for most of the trip.

Hatfield dies, but no one else’s wounds are fatal. Even Mr. Peacock survives and, before being taken to a doctor, invites Dallas to his and his wife’s home for a visit. Mrs. Mallory learns that her husband’s wounds were not serious and expresses remorse of her treatment of Dallas and thanks her. Dallas is understanding and gives Mrs. Mallory her shawl for the baby. The domineering banker Gatewood, after complaining about poor law enforcement in the area, is then arrested for his embezzlement.

Ringo is permitted by Wilcox to walk Dallas home. She tries to get him to leave her at a brothel, but he refuses, instead taking her to a bad part of town where she admits she lives. Ringo doesn’t seem to care about her past, but Dallas is upset because Ringo still has plans to go murder Luke Plummer, which will either result in his death, or in his arrest, thus leaving her alone. Ringo leaves Dallas to confront Plummer, who is playing poker in a nearby saloon. Plummer’s men inform him of Ringo’s presence, as does Buck, Doc and Marshal Wilcox. Plummer goes up against Ringo with two other men, but Ringo wins the shootout.

Dallas is relieved to see that Ringo is still alive but is dejected when he tells her he is giving himself over to Wilcox. Wilcox says that she can accompany Ringo to the edge of town on their wagon, but before they start, Wilcox and Doc scare the horses, allowing Ringo and Dallas to escape over the Mexican border and be happy together instead of taking Ringo into custody.

Analysis

This is a very large cast to have to pay attention to, especially as they each have their own individual stories and relationships to one another. However, the movie does an excellent job in establishing who everyone is at the beginning, and then letting their relationships move forward organically. What I find to be the best expression of this is the introduction of Dallas, who is being mobbed out of town by a group of older, austere looking women, and looking to Doc Boone for help, even though they are both social outcasts hated by the town. The film never explicitly states Dallas is a prostitute, but this display and how Mrs. Mallory and Hatfield treat her gives the audience enough information to know that she is an outcast for some reason. Since this film was made in 1939, it probably wasn’t possible to call her a prostitute on screen, but the subtle indicators throughout the film fill in the blanks.

The film is also visually impressive and amazing, especially relative to other Westerns from the 1930s. There are some obvious reuses of footage and location but considering how good looking the shots are its hard not to see why they did it. The most notable of these shots are the ones that include Monument Valley, as there is a portion in the beginning of the film and before the chase scene later in the film with the only difference being the direction the stagecoach is going. While that would normally indicate that they are going in the opposite direction, here’s its used just as a backdrop. The notable thing in this case being that Stagecoach was actually the first major Western to be shot there, and even more notably it is one of the examples where the film actually takes place around the Utah-Arizona border area. John Ford loved shooting in the location so much that he shot nine more films there, even when those films didn’t take place in Arizona or Utah. A lookout point in Monument Valley was even named after him.

Hehe, nice butte. These two buttes are called “The Mittens,” by the way.

The chase sequence where the stagecoach is being attacked by Apache warriors is amazing. It is a great action sequence that is not only intense but also shot gorgeously as the horses do look like they are going extremely fast and people are moving and climbing around the coach. The interior of the coach might have been its own separate set, otherwise filming and choreography would have been nearly impossible, but outside and the inside shots still feel seamless. It’s difficult to make two separate shots feel a part of the same scene, at least from a film from the 1930s, but Stagecoach is able to accomplish that.

If you watch this scene and say it’s not impressive, you are a liar.

I will say that I am perturbed by the whole racism thing, as the relentless bad guys are the Apache. Geronimo was an actual person in real life who fought U.S. forces and conducted raiding parties in the name of the free-moving ways of the Apache, but for him to just be name-dropped in this film as a point of terror feels diminishing and unnecessary. We don’t even know if Geronimo is the one attacking the group, as he’s never pointed out. Additionally, over a dozen Apache gets shot over the course of the chase sequence while the members of the stagecoach only suffer two injuries and one fatality. While good for the narrative, it feels as if the Apache are solely being used to created conflict and then conveniently die for the sake of entertainment. I can write this off as a product of its time, but that doesn’t make it feel any less cheap to me, and its probably the only reason I don’t like the scene despite its impressive qualities.

That being said, threat from Native Americans did exist in the time period this movie is set in, and the film’s presentation of Native Americans is far from the worst depiction on film. Stagecoach is also not even remotely as bad as John Wayne’s actual opinions on Native Americans, among other minority groups.

Stagecoach is one of the many classic Westerns that has been remade a few times. It was adapted for radio three times in the ‘40s, was remade with a star-studded cast in 1966, and was remade again for television in 198, featuring all four of the country music supergroup The Highway Men as stars. I only watched the 1986 version alongside this version, and I would say it was okay. It was at least in keeping with the original story and the acting and characters were still good. I will say that I think the action in the 1939 film was better though, at least because I remember it more than the chase sequence from the 1986 version.         

Also, because I’m a Wyomingite, I have to mention that the 1966 version, instead of having a westbound stagecoach in the Arizona Territory, had an eastbound stagecoach in the Wyoming Territory headed to Cheyenne. Just an interesting change in setting in my opinion.

Conclusion

Stagecoach is a classic in the Western genre, not only for breathing life into it again after it had become stale and cheap, but also for introducing the star power of both John Wayne as an actor and Monument Valley as a tourist destination to the movie going public. Stagecoach is an equal part character piece and action set-up that many come to expect from the Western genre, but at the time it was considered the return of prestige to the American West.

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