Stagecoach (1939)

The film that revolutionized westerns from B-movie to A-list & typified everything magic we think of the genre today, Ford’s classic masterpiece is a wildly-ambitious, sharply-edited, vividly-scripted/acted tale of romance, comedy, big action pieces, proximate danger. 9.6/10

Plot Synopsis: John Ford’s landmark Western revolves around an assorted group of colorful passengers aboard the Overland stagecoach bound for Lordsburg, New Mexico, in the 1880s. An alcoholic philosophizer (Thomas Mitchell), a lady of ill repute (Claire Trevor) and a timid liquor salesman (Donald Meek) are among the motley crew of travelers who must contend with an escaped outlaw, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), and the ever-present threat of an Apache attack as they make their way across the Wild West.

*Possible Spoilers Ahead*

Official CLC Review

A New Dawn Of Westerns

Before John Ford’s Masterpiece, Westerns Were Disregarded As Talentless B-Movies – The Academy & Stagecoach Changed Eras

Photograph Courtesy Of: The Criterion Collection

Pre-1939, the only way you could watch watch westerns was as a B-feature of a more popular movie. A bizarre reality to imagine today with multiple All-Time Classics amongst the Greatest Films Ever Made like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, A Fistful Of Dollars, Django Unchained, No Country For Old Men, & Once Upon A Time In The West, these masterpieces could’ve been sidelined – or even not existed – if it wasn’t for the groundbreaking efforts of pioneer director John Ford’s herculean efforts to show the sunbaked genre as more than violence and saloons. The film that revolutionized westerns from B-movie to A-list & typified everything magic we think of its genre today, Ford’s Stagecoach is a wildly-ambitious, sharply edited, radically-scripted/acted tale of romance, comedy, big action pieces, proximate atmospheric danger, breathtaking natural vistas, the establishing performance of John Wayne’s career, & a folklore-inspired score.

The Original Hitchcockian Storyline

A Tale Of 9 Perfect Strangers On A Stagecoach Through The Wild West – A Mix Of Comedy, Romance, Atmospheric Danger

Photograph Courtesy Of: The Criterion Collection

Stagecoach is a masterpiece of filmmaking often lauded by critics and textbooks for being a perfect canvas of moviemaking because of one precursor: a mix of every genre imaginable. The film blends rip-snorting comedy, star-crossed lovers/forbidden romance, dramaticism, atmospheric horror with proximate danger around every canyon bend, and bigger-than-life blockbuster action pieces – all into a mix so smooth and easy to satiate yourself with, it might one of the most enjoyable films I’ve ever watched and one I did not want to end. Indeed, this is pure cinematic magic Ford & co. were able to achieve, and the mix is possible by the film’s brilliant Academy-Award winning screenplay. A tale of 9 perfect strangers thrust together on a stagecoach through the wild west, the script feels like an early-version of Hitchcockian plotting: wherein ordinary people are thrown into the most extraordinary circumstances and they & we learn something about society and ourselves through their prismatic treatment. The characters of Stagecoach are some of the most fascinating in genre history – archetypes emblematic of America, brought to life by magnificent performances.

The Performances & Characterization

The First-Ever Role For One Of Hollywood’s Biggest Movie Stars, John Wayne Defines Protagonists & Leads A Very-Diverse Group

Photograph Courtesy Of: The Criterion Collection

Of course, the biggest accomplishment of the canvas is clearly The Ringo Kid – a heroic classism dose of old-fashioned Americana that’s surprisingly dark given he’s a daredevil outlaw on-the-run from the law and multi-reflexive characterization out for blood for a good reason on the people who killed his family, bbrought to life by a mesmerizing performance by John Wayne. Becoming one of the biggest actors in Hollywood and the entire history of cinema, it is clear to see why Wayne became so shortly thereafter this first-ever performance on the big-screen: he is, as Ford called him, ‘the perfect everyman’ and lead – one whose unmistakable starpower lights up the screen more than the brutal desert sun background. Besides Wayne the rest of the characters on this ride-of-a-lifetime are equally-charismatic and timeless: the raspy-throat, bucktooth, happy-go-lucky, plump cowardly-comedic presence of Andy Devine’s Buck, disgraced, whiskey-minded Mitchell’s Doc Boone who learns to find his duty to profession again, a prostitute driven out of town by ‘higher’ women and feels unworthy of love in Claire Trevor’s Dallas, pregnant and dutiful wife Platt’s Mrs. Mallory, villainous (racist) gambler John Carradine’s Hatfield, Bancroft’s leg-of-the-law Marshal Wilcox, shaking dog-tail-between-legs aptly-named Meek’s Mr. Peacock, & Berton Churchill’s grumpy old capitalistic fatcat banker Gatewood.

The Cinematography

A Canvas Of Breathtaking Natural Vistas, Big Sky, Long Shots, & Endless Canyons; A Cinematic Journey Into Monument Valley

Photograph Courtesy Of: The Criterion Collection

These characters are once-in-a-lifetime and a peculiar magic mix of archetypes of classical U.S. personalities at the time-frame all moving physically and symbolically towards some level of shared understanding, experience, and equality on this journey – in the society symbolized by the most American of all possible backdrops: The Wild West. Not only is the jaw-droppingly beautiful Monument Valley the perfect backdrop for this cinematic epic winding through its valleys and canyons, it’s brought to life by special Bert Glennon cinematography. From even the opening credits sequence, there is a pervasive use of extreme long-shots to capture the limitless, expansive vistas and big skies/monolithic rock formations of the biome, one that perfectly captures the grandeur, dramaticism, and scale of it all – even in black-and-white. There are intricate silhouetted shots and avant-garde shot constructions juxtaposed against the old western towns, spur-tipped boots, pistol gunsmoke, saloons, and horsedrawn carriages that established the atmosphere, feel, and clichés of westerns here – and it’s a beautiful sight if you love this genre.

The Score & Epic Action Sequences

An Eclectic/Diverse Score Taking Themes From Folklore & Western Traditions – A Finale Amongst The Best Action Scenes Ever

Photograph Courtesy Of: The Criterion Collection

The score of Stagecoach is equally, if not more impressive than its cinematography’s epic scale. Richard Hagueman, W. Franke Harling, Louis Gruenberg, John Leipold, & Leo Shuken have delivered one of the most idiosyncratic and diverse/eclectic scores in genre and blockbuster history – one that understandably took that many people to produce and won each of the many contributors Oscars. The soundtrack takes cue from the rich history, traditions, and charm of The American West by extrapolating folk music into a sonic background – one that wrangles lassoed arpeggios and ones of entirely different auricular tone seamlessly together to background whatever genre its set against: soaring orchestral ones in the romance section, wompy trombones in the comedy ones, folk songs in the big western scenes, and native american drums in the horror ones. Finally, the Alkali Flat Chase deserves singular recognition and accolade amongst all the breathtaking action scenes in the film: the scene might be one of the greatest action scenes ever shot. A masterpiece of real stuntwork and epic scale without VFX or technology and only imagination and ambition to achieve things like jumping horses and shootouts at high mph, when the atmospheric danger of Geronimo & the Apache’s felt throughout the film finally surrounds our little stagecoach and swarms them in the salt fields from all directions, it is impossibly exhilarating and jaw-dropping; a scene a century before its time and Top 10 action scene ever in CLC’s vote.

A Major Flaw

A Racism Prevalent Through Early-1900’s Film – A Demonization Of Native Americans w/o Mention Of U.S. Seizure Of Their Land

Photograph Courtesy Of: The Criterion Collection

Flaws in Stagecoach are limited to its era: a pervasive racism and demonization of Native Americans in early-1900’s cinema. The film paints them as bloodthirsty villains we cannot escape the atmospheric danger we’re drenched in by them, outright calls them ‘savages’, and does not even follow the basic rule of morality journalism by sharing their side: that white settlers invaded, stole their land, and committed genocide on their entire civilization. There is no debate that Native Americans are the heroes and white settlers one of history’s most ‘savage’ villains, not the irresponsible and reality-distortion reversal this film plays up and sticks to. The film does not even try to hide its racism – even the only other person of color prominently featured in the film: Martin’s hispanic shopowner who helps and gives the stagecoach passengers shelter and protection on their journey, is dramatically-crosseyed (zoomed-in-on every frame he’s present) and given the thickest accent ever to try to insinuate some sort of less evolved presence. Although not a textbook or technical flaw on an otherwise-perfect film, the offensive nature of this inarguably-racist content does demand some justice against and we had to drop it from the 10/10 it might’ve otherwise warranted – CLC that was founded by, is run by, and will always defend, people of color.

Conclusion

The Typification Of A Genre For Eras

The Quintessential Early Western & Groundbreaking Piece We Have To Thank For A Century Of Films To Follow: A Butter-Smooth, Epic, Ambitious Cinematic Joy-Ride

Photograph Courtesy Of: The Criterion Collection

Overall, Stagecoach is a coup-de-maìtre amongst the greatest films ever made – and quite arguably the greatest (but easily most groundbreaking) western movie. The unfortunate perverse racism against Native Americans present throughout early-1900’s cinema does soil a bit of its enjoyment even though it’s not a textbook flaw, but it is otherwise a perfect film that deserves its status for changing the entire trajectory of filmmaking. Many of the greatest films of All-Time owe their entire existence to Ford, Wayne, & co. painting the genre as so much more in potential than its stereotypical view of the time, and without its jaw-dropping ambition and mythic execution, we might’ve never gotten masterpieces like The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, A Fistful Of Dollars, Django Unchained, No Country For Old Men, and Once Upon A Time In The West. The film that revolutionized westerns from B-movie to A-list & typified everything magic we think of its genre today, Ford’s classic is a wildly-ambitious, sharply edited, radically-scripted/acted tale of romance, comedy, big action pieces, proximate atmospheric danger, breathtaking natural vistas, the establishing performance of John Wayne’s career, & a folklore-inspired score.

Official CLC Score: 9.6/10