Stagecoach is a majestic Western. There is a temptation to follow up such an encomium with the statement “but it’s so much more than that” but I don’t think that’s really necessary. If there’s one thing that is clear from the history of Hollywood filmmaking it’s that the Western form can encompass just about any human experience imaginable and that it’s this flexibility which has made it such a rich genre and prevented it from ever quite dying out. Certainly, Westerns now aren’t much like the ones that my father went to see as a boy but they’re still there – we’ve had three corkers this year in the various shapes of Brokeback Mountain, The Proposition and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - even if they don’t always don the cowboy motley.
But there’s certainly something very special about John Ford’s Stagecoach - and not just because it was directed by John Ford. It feels like the revival of the Western as an A-picture genre and that has as much to do with what it isn’t as what it is. The genre had been languishing in the B-picture doldrums for a number of years since big-budget flops of the early 30s such as The Big Trail and Cimarron and formula had long-since passed over into cliché. These pictures from the 1930s, many of them starring John Wayne, tend to have very clearly defined good guys and bad guys with plots based around either revenge or the bringing of the villains to justice. Stagecoach circumvents this by muddying the waters so that the good guys aren’t morally whiter than white and the bad guys are either shaded in various tones of grey or made faceless, ferocious monsters. Even more significantly, where B-Westerns tended to have narratives which were paper-thin excuses for action, Stagecoach takes its time with setting and characterisation. Finally, it is cast to the hilt with an actress on the verge of stardom, a B-favourite about to hit the big time and a large number of reliable character players. In other words, Stagecoach oozes class where most other Westerns of the 1930s ooze pulp.
It’s also the film which saw the genre get back outdoors. For financial reasons, B-Westerns were shot on cheap sets and small backlots and this is evident when you watch them – they don’t have room to breathe. Stagecoach, though only partially shot on location, has an epic, expansive feel and a lot of this comes from Monument Valley, a place which is inextricably linked with Ford even though he only shot seven films there. On the border between Utah and Arizona, Monument Valley was part of a Navajo Indian reservation which was, in 1939, relatively unspoiled and certainly unfamiliar to filmgoers. It’s an extraordinary location, reminiscent in its ethereal mysticism to the more remote corners of our own Islands and to see it for the first time is to experience the same wonder that the French soldiers must have felt when they came upon the head of the Sphinx sticking out the sand. Ford uses Monument Valley in two key ways. Firstly, it’s a representation of something permanent, something which has been there for millions of years and will outlast all of us. Secondly, it’s an important contrast to the banal human squabbles played out in front of it – this seems to me to become a key theme in the later, complicated works about mindless racism such as Fort Apache and The Searchers. In other words, Monument Valley is a potent reminder that one day we will be part of the dust kicked up by our descendents.
This seems particularly appropriate in Stagecoach where the everlasting towers of rock form a backdrop to anecdotes which illustrate a variety of human vices – greed, envy, lust, drink and prejudice. The vices are vividly illustrated through a rich assortment of characters all travelling on a stagecoach to Lordsburg. Much of the film is taken up with their interaction to the extent that the film is as much influenced by the traditions of social comedy as by previous Westerns. The people in the film have wonderful faces and they stay with us long after more complex characterisations have faded; John Carradine’s dark elegance as the Southern gambler, Berton Churchill’s blustering banker, the wonderful Donald Meek as a timid whiskey salesman. Most of all, we have Claire Trevor’s wounded dignity as the prostitute Dallas, shunned by all around her except her fellow outcasts, and the immortal Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone. It was the best role Mitchell ever had and he contented himself in later years by playing variations on it. Boone is a drunk and probably a quack but he’s wise and reflective and his awareness of his own folly is his redemption. He also gets some of the best lines in the film, misquoting various classical sources.
Striding amongst these assorted representatives of humanity is John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, the role which made him a major star and which he spent a lifetime playing off and reacting against. There’s no question that roles such as Ethan Edwards would have lacked quite the same startling quality had Wayne not already played this paragon of tolerant goodness. Ford had long considered Wayne for the lead in one of his films but was waiting for the right time to cast him and, according to Dan Ford, he made the actor sweat before finally casting him as the Ringo Kid. Ford certainly gives him a memorable entrance, a tracking shot which is so mesmerising that it barely matters when it goes out of focus for a moment. In Stagecoach, Wayne certainly personifies courage and the outlaw spirit but he’s given plenty of humour and social tolerance, qualities which weren’t always present in his later work. He’s certainly every inch the star here, as if he’d been spending the thirties in cold storage waiting for Ford’s call and the woodenness which all too often comes over him in his early B-Westerns is nowhere to be seen.
Wayne is given a great showcase here, not only because the role is so right for him but because it’s in such a beautifully made film. Popular opinion seems under the impression that the film was shot by Gregg Toland, the master-DP who did stunning work on Young Mr Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath but it was in fact lit by Bert Glennon who worked with Ford on several occasions and had a remarkable career stretching back to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1923. The visuals are constantly stunning, often hiding the fact that much of the picture is set-bound, and the compositions seem relaxed but are rigorously arranged. Pacing is everything and it says a lot for Ford and his crew that they get away with a double-climax without too much strain – although the plot device of the Plummer gang is perhaps a bit redundant after the marvellous Apache sequence.
Politically, Stagecoach comes from the height of what is generally described as John Ford’s ‘Popular Front’ period when he was part of Hollywood liberalism at its zenith. Along with screenwriter Dudley Nichols, Ford turns ‘Stage To Lordsburg’ into a plea for tolerance in the name of the underdog in American society. At the beginning, when he and Dallas are run out of town by the Ladies’ Law and Order League, Doc says, “We are the victims of a foul disease known as social prejudice” and, along with Ringo, they are treated as pariahs by the other passengers. Ford’s disdain for the Ladies League is palpable and, at the end, the heroes of the film are our three social outcasts all of whom find redemption through courage of one kind or another. The obvious representation of 1930s Republicanism in the film – the banker Gatewood – is a corrupt coward whose constant cries of “America for Americans” and paeans in favour of freedom from government restrictions are the ironic context for his fall from grace. It’s also notable that, throughout the film, the Mexicans are portrayed with dignity and sympathy – Buck, the stage driver played by the great Andy Devine, is even given a Mexican wife.
Indeed, the film is eminently liberal but for one vital exception. The tolerance demonstrated towards the prostitute, the drunk and the escaped convict is not extended towards the Native American Indians who attack the stagecoach in one of the most famous action sequences in Hollywood history. In some respects, this is only tolerable because of the historical context in which the film was made, when Indians were almost always screaming maniacs – although it was rather less forgivable in 1975 when Breakheart Pass was released. However, it’s also worth remembering that while Stagecoach may, to all intents and purposes, be racist, it represents the much-needed boost to the Navajo economy which Ford began providing in 1938 and continued to provide throughout his career. As Ford put it, while other people were wringing their hands over the conditions of the reservations and worrying about white American guilt, he was providing the Indians with the work and the dollars. None of this seems to have unduly worried the Navajos cast as the marauding attackers and the fact that they were playing Apaches was a source of much amusement to them. Ford, however, seems to have been uncomfortably aware of the way he treated the Native Americans in his thirties films and much of his later work deliberately raises the issue in order to explore it in more depth until the final stumbling apology of Cheyenne Autumn.
But, politically troubling or not, there is no question that the action sequence when the Apaches attack the stagecoach is wonderfully exhilarating and staged to perfection – largely thanks to Yakima Canutt’s legendary stunt work as he doubled for Wayne. Incidentally, the famous query put to Ford, “Why didn’t the Apaches just shoot the horses” is utterly fatuous since, as the director pointed out, it wouldn’t have been much of a scene if they had done. His more considered answer was that it was the horses which the Apaches were after, and I’d be willing to buy that. It’s a wonderful set-piece and lesser films would have us impatiently waiting for it but Stagecoach is so richly entertaining and beautifully made that, appropriately, the journey is more than half the fun.
Warners have long been promising us a replacement for their 1997 Stagecoach disc and there were high hopes that it would look stunning. Sadly, although the 2-disc DVD has considerable merit, it doesn’t look remotely stunning.
Part of this is due to the nature of the film. Stagecoach was never well looked after, largely because it was an independent production, and this fact is all too evident in the DVD transfer. For various reasons which have never been satisfactorily explained, the original negative no longer exists so we have to make do with what we can get. The fullscreen picture on this Warners disc has its merits – a reasonable level of detail for the most part - and seems to have been slightly cleaned up compared to the 1997 DVD but there’s some real problems here. The major one is the artificially bright image which is simply unsightly and unnecessary. There’s also some excessively zealous digitisation which leads to a softness in places. The opening half hour is the worst, both in terms of what I describe above and for general print damage, and after this, things do improve. I also have no complaints with the crisp monophonic soundtrack. But I know Warners can do better than this even with the materials on hand.
No complaints, however, about the package which is exemplary. The extras are not copious but all are very satisfying. On Disc One, along with the theatrical trailer, we get a commentary from Scott Eyman and it’s a good one. Eyman has a wide knowledge of Ford’s films and gives a fine, entertaining account of the making of the film and its various themes. The second disc contains a twenty minute documentary about the film which is superficial but interesting enough, a radio adaptation featuring Randolph Scott and Claire Trevor – which is interesting to compare with the film simply because it emphasises how important dialogue and character are to the movie – and, best of all, an 80 minute documentary about Ford and Wayne produced for the American Masters TV strand. This is packed with good stuff and is a perfect introduction for newcomers to the work of the two men. Those with some knowledge will relish some of the interviews, particularly those with the great John Milius who has an adoration of Wayne which borders on the unhealthy.
Stagecoach is a glorious piece of filmmaking which is one of the most endlessly rewatchable movies I have ever seen. This DVD doesn’t present it at its best but the overall package is a very good one.
Apropos of nothing, I always felt that when Sam Peckinpah sent the bloody bodies of those Temperance Ladies flying in The Wild Bunch, he might have been avenging the memory of Doc Boone and Dallas who were run out of town by their spiritual sisters
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:48:12