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Stagecoach
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols (based on the story “Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox)
Stars: Claire Trevor (Dallas), John Wayne (Ringo Kid), Andy Devine (Buck), John Carradine (Hatfield), Thomas Mitchell (Doc Boone), Louise Platt (Lucy Mallory), George Bancroft (Curly Wilcox), Donald Meek (Mr. Peacock), Berton Churchill (Mr. Gatewood), Tim Holt (Lieutenant Blanchard), Tom Tyler (Luke Plummer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1939
Country: U.S.
Stagecoach Criterion Collection DVD
Stagecoach When asked to think about early Hollywood westerns, it is impossible not to immediately think of Stagecoach. Many argue that this is the film that took the western out of the B-movie category and made it respectable; its technical artistry, depth of character, and carefully woven themes made it, as Pauline Kael described it, “one of the most highly regarded and influential films ever made.” Directed by the legendary John Ford, whose career spanned from the silent era to the late 1960s and was largely responsible for pioneering the so-called “psychological western,” and starring a very young and slim John Wayne as a charming, reluctant outlaw, Stagecoach is one of the essential entries to the western, that most American of film genres.

Stagecoach, released during the heralded year of 1939, which also gave us Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as well as Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, is memorable for many reasons: It has endearing and well-developed characters, a driving narrative force, timeless themes, and the kind of distinctive yet involving technical merits that helped raise the motion picture to an art form. Ford makes magnificent use of racing tracking shots and low angles where horses fly over the camera to make the action sequences hum, and he utilizes close-ups and zooms to bring the characters to life in way that was rare for the genre. Stagecoach was also the first movie Ford filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley (it was only the third movie ever filmed there), which would later serve as the backdrop for other Ford classics like My Daring Clementine (1946), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956).

Even in black and white, Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon (who was nominated for Oscars for both Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk in 1940) make the scenic backdrops come alive. And yet, even though the landscape is such a vital part of the movie, it never becomes overbearing; instead of overshadowing the characters and action, it becomes another element in the richness of the cinematic text (the fact that actual stagecoaches traveled this area in the 1880s makes it all the more authentic). Ford knows just how to frame the untamed, rocky wilderness, alternating between the vast nature of the land and the expansive nature of the sky. Oftentimes, Ford will get the camera low and frame a shot so that the land takes up only the bottom third of the screen, allowing the huge expanse of cloud-filled sky to take up the rest of the image. He makes excellent use of the squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio, making up for its lack of breadth with an incredible use of focused depth.

The majority of the narrative takes place on a dangerous stagecoach ride across the harsh, Indian-filled Utah desert to the town of Lordsburg. We follow the variously intersecting paths of nine distinct character/passengers: Dallas (Claire Trevor), a good-hearted prostitute who is constantly discriminated against; Ringo Kid (John Wayne), a young man recently escaped from jail; Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunken doctor who, along with Dallas, has recently been run out of town; Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), a cowardly whiskey barreler to whom Doc Boone immediately takes a shine for obvious reasons; Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a prim young lady trying to catch up with her army captain husband; Hatfield (John Carradine), a smarmy Southern professional gambler; Mr. Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a crooked banker whose favorite phrase is, “What’s good for the banks is good for the country,” thus guaranteeing that he would be hated by Depression-era audiences; Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), the sheriff who wants to bring Ringo Kid back to jail even though he likes him; and Buck (Andy Devine), the comedic stagecoach driver whose constantly cracking voice reminds one of a 13-year-old boy in the worst throes of puberty.

Although the story is straightforward in its approach, Stagecoach is much deeper and more thought-provoking than one might expect. Many people have the mistaken assumption that all early westerns were naïve and unsophisticated in their black hat/white hat morality. Although many were, Stagecoach is a prime example of why that isn’t always true. For example, although the ending sees two characters happily riding off together, there is a subversive element to the scene that confirms the film’s underlying critique of “polite” society, hardly the message most westerns of the time period were sending.

This brings us to the most obvious social theme running throughout the film: discrimination and the hypocrisy of social respectability. The passengers on the stagecoach are socially divided, with the banker, the lady, and the gentleman gambler on the respectable side, and the outlaw, the prostitute, and the drunkard on the other side. However, as the film progresses, we begin to see that it is the “disreputable” members of society who are actually the moral superiors. The banker is really a crook and the Southern gentleman is the kind of man who would shoot someone in the back, and then hide behind a courtly veneer. The lady, Mrs. Mallory, is the only “respectable” character who, at the end, shows a potential for understanding that those on society’s fringes are people, too. It is Ringo and Dallas, an outlaw and a prostitute, who end up displaying the most moral fiber: Ringo by not running away when he has the chance, and Dallas by caring for Mrs. Mallory in her time of need, even though the lady has treated her like a pariah.

Like many films, Stagecoach has a fascinating production history. When the movie was made, it had been 13 years since Ford had made a western, a genre that was slowly declining and losing popularity. When Stagecoach was a hit and revived the genre, there were arguments between Ford and producer Walter Wanger about whose idea the movie really was (Ford won, as he should have). And let’s not forget that John Wayne--if you can believe this--was languishing in obscure B-movies at the time (his punishment for having headlined Raoul Walsh’s 1930 bomb The Big Trail), and if it hadn’t been for Ford’s insistence that he be cast here, he might have never become the deified star he is today. The shot that introduces Ringo Kid--a quick dolly in from a full-body shot until Wayne’s face fills the screen, with the camera going out of focus for just a second, almost as if the frame can’t contain him--is as iconic a shot of Wayne as has ever been committed to celluloid.

However, Stagecoach will always be remembered for the vast impact it had on all westerns that followed it. The influence of its harrowing, stunt-filled Indian attack scene can be seen in films as disparate as George Miller’s postapocalyptic western The Road Warrior (1981), and the showdown on the town’s main street between John Wayne and the men who killed his family is perhaps the archetypal conflict in the entire western genre (even though Ford makes the bold choice to cut away in the middle of the action to focus on Dallas). The fact that this film has been remade twice (a horrible 1966 version with Bing Crosby and Ann-Margaret and a mediocre 1986 television version with Willie Nelson) without coming even close to the original says quite a bit. But, even if it had never been remade, Stagecoach would still be seen in just about every western made since 1939--that is its legacy.

Stagecoach Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set
Stagecoach is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by western authority Jim Kitses
  • Bucking Broadway, a 1917 silent feature by John Ford, with new music composed and performed by Donald Sosin
  • 1968 video interview with John Ford by Philip Jenkinson
  • Video interview with director and Ford biographer Peter Bogdanovich
  • Video interview with Ford’s grandson Dan Ford about the director and his home movies
  • “Dreaming of Jeanie” visual essay by Tag Gallagher
  • “True West” featurette
  • “Yakima Canutt” featurette
  • Screen Director’s Playhouse 1949 radio dramatization
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by David Cairns and Ernest Haycox’s “Stage to Lordsburg”
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateMay 25, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Although Warner Bros. released a good two-disc special edition of Stagecoach five years ago, Criterion’s new transfer is a much better representation of the film, as it avoids the digital noise reduction that Warners gave its transfer, which resulted in a less grainy, but softer looking image. Fans of the film should rejoice because Criterion’s new high-definition transfer, which was made from a recently discovered 1942 nitrate duplicate negative (meaning it is only two generations from the original negative, which has been long lost), was given thousands of hours of digital restoration to repair scratches, tears, dirt, warping, splices, and other imperfections. The resulting image, while not perfect, is still by far the best the film has ever looked on home video and probably the best it has looked since it played in theaters in the late 1930s and early 1940s. There is a strong presence of grain in the image, which enhances its filmic appeal without losing detail or clarity. Contrast is good, even though the image seems a little dark overall, which is likely representative of its original look. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from multiple soundtrack negatives and prints and digitally cleaned up with Pro Tools HD and Audio Cube, certainly has a dated aura to it, but it sounds cleaner and sharper than I’ve ever heard it.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    All of the supplements on Criterion’s two-disc edition, with the exception of the MP3 downloadable Screen Director’s Playhouse 1949 radio dramatization (which starred John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and John Ford), are new and exclusive to this edition. Western authority Jim Kitses’s (author of Horizons West) audio commentary is a must-listen, as it imparts a great deal of fascinating information about Stagecoach and the western genre it so indelibly influenced. Stagecoach is further explored in a 15-minute interview with director and Ford biographer Peter Bogdanovich, who discusses the film’s many merits and also his own experiences talking with Ford and watching him at work on the set of Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In “Dreaming of Jeanie,” Criterion stalwart Tag Gallagher offers a meticulous visual essay that analyzes Ford’s visual style. Fans of the western genre will surely delight in the inclusion of the previously lost and now restored Bucking Broadway (1917), a silent feature directed by John Ford and starring Harry Carey, which has previously never been available on home video. It is an intriguing example of the early western and one of Ford’s very first films, and it plays even better than expected with new music composed and performed by Donald Sosin. Ford himself makes a lengthy appearance in the supplements via journalist and television presenter Philip Jenkinson’s extensive video interview with Ford, which was recorded in 1968, thus giving Ford the opportunity to reminisce (in his own cantankerous way) about his entire career (the interview runs for some 75 minutes). Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford, presents several minutes of color home movie footage featuring his grandfather, which is a real treat. Additional background on the film’s production and legacy can be found in “True West,” a 10-minute featurette in which journalist Buzz Bissinger (author of Friday Night Lights discusses the key role trader Harry Goulding played in bringing Monument Valley to Hollywood’s attention, and a 10-minute interview with stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong about the work of legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, who executed the thrilling horse-to-horse leaping in Stagecoach. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a thick insert booklet that contains an essay by David Cairns and Ernest Haycox’s “Stage to Lordsburg,” the short story on which the film is based.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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