Imagine you are 25 year old Orson Welles, and you are obsessed with creating cinematic history with your next film. You have spent hour after hour studying the best and most creative works of the finest filmmakers from all over the world. You come across a particular John Ford western, and are so inspired by its technical precision that you watch it at least three dozen times while working on your masterpiece … Citizen Kane (1941). Such is the influence of Ford’s Stagecoach. It may or may not be the greatest western film of all-time (a matter of preference), but it’s inarguably the most influential.
More than 75 years later, it’s difficult to imagine a time when John Ford and John Wayne were not joined at the swaggering hip making movies together. By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of bit parts and B movies. The “firsts” here include: John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, the first movie filmed in Monument Valley, Ford’s first talkie-western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne
It’s difficult to think of a more iconic star-making screen introduction than that first shot of John Wayne twirling and cocking the rifle as the camera zooms in on his face (see photo below). It should be noted that The Duke (as he was often referred) was 32 years old in the film and is wearing his own cowboy hat – one he would wear in many movies over the years (until it finally was in such bad shape, it was placed in a glass display case at Mr. Wayne’s home).
The film hit while the industry was still experiencing some of the pains of leaving the “silent” world behind and taking advantage of “talkies”. Additionally, the technology of color film was just beginning to be used more frequently, but many studios and directors were clinging to the traditional black and white look. As a genre, westerns had never been able to make that step into the mainstream … that is, until Ford and Wayne came stampeding to the forefront with Stagecoach.
Dudley Nichols (Oscar winning screenwriter for Ford’s The Informer) adapted the original story from Ernest Haycox (a prolific writer who helped elevate westerns from dime story pulp to respectability and box office profitability) into a screenplay that examines the early attempts at transitioning the “wild west” into a more civilized society. Social commentary abounds as several characters from disparate background are crammed into a confined space (the titular stagecoach) for an extended period of time. Some viewers may complain about the use of clichés, but in fairness, what we have come to label as cliché, was anything but at the time.
Adding their own special touch to the wide range of characters were some of the finest actors of the era. Claire Trevor was the best known star in the cast at the time, and she plays Dallas, the good-hearted woman whose past/profession causes her to be treated as an outcast by most in the group. Ms. Trevor would go on to accept the unofficial title of Film Noir Queen, win a Best Supporting Oscar for Key Largo (1948), and have the School of Arts at UC-Irvine named for her. Donald Meek plays the meek (yes his name often fit his character) travelling salesman ironically named Peacock. Contrary to what one would guess given his diminutive physical stature, Mr. Meek fought in the Spanish-American War. John Carradine is perfectly cast as Hatfield, the elegant gambler carrying a secret. Mr. Carradine is the father of the acting Carradine brothers (including David and Keith), and enjoyed a 65 year career with more than 350 projects. Drunken Doc Boone is played by Thomas Mitchell, who many will recognize as memory-challenged Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He also appeared in such top shelf films as Gone with the Wind, High Noon and Lost Horizon. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife who is on a mission to reunite with her soldier husband. The villainous banker is played with gusto by Berton Churchill, and the only thing he’s missing is a twirly mustache. Mr. Churchill was a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933. Law Enforcement is represented by Marshal Wilcox, played by George Bancroft, and the stagecoach is driven by the great Andy Devine (as Buck). Mr. Devine manages to create a bit of comedy relief by the use of his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, as well as his underrated physical acting movements. Other notables making an appearance are Tom Tyler (once known as the strongest man in America) whose initial shaky transition from silent film to talkies is readily apparent in his few scenes; Woody Strode (one of the saloon patrons) who is known best for his fight scene in Spartacus; and Tim Holt who brings the charging Calvary to the rescue, and is best known as one of the prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Of course, it’s John Ford and John Wayne who draw most of the attention when this film is discussed. Born Marion Morrison, The Duke played football at USC before turning his full attention to acting. Here he plays bad-guy-with-a-heart Ringo Kid, and gets to show a pretty full spectrum of machismo, humanity, dignity and sensitivity. His extraordinary physical screen presence led him to the top of the film world with roles in some of the most popular films over the next 4 decades, capped by a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969). John Ford, who was 45 years old at the time of Stagecoach, won 4 Best Director Oscars (plus two special Oscars for his WWII documentaries): The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green was my Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).
Two others deserve special mention. Stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt (a World Champion rodeo cowboy) was seemingly involved in just about every risky stunt in Hollywood during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stagecoach provided the opportunity for what may be his best and most daring stunt – leaping onto the moving stagecoach and its 6 horse team and then sliding down under the carriage and out the back … all at breakneck speed! It’s fascinating to watch, and in this age of computerized special effects, it demands a level of awe and respect. While this film provided the first on screen glimpse of Monument Valley, it was Cinematographer Bert Glennon who figured out the best ways to take advantage of this breathtaking setting. Mr. Glennon was nominated for 3 Oscars (including Stagecoach), and was a frequent collaborator with both John Ford and Cecil B DeMille. The second half of his career was devoted mostly to TV series, rather than movies.
Stagecoach received 7 Oscar nominations including wins for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and Best Music (score) for Richard Hagerman, W Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The other nominees were for Best Picture, Best Director (Ford), Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. While it might seem implausible that such a ground-breaking film could only win two Oscars, it’s a reminder why 1939 is considered by many to be the best ever year for movies. Check out this list of other releases that same year: Gone with the Wind; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Young Mr Lincoln.
Despite being the first movie to feature the “dead man’s hand” – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights (the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was gunned down), this film continues to live on in cinematic lore. Often included in the discussion of the best westerns of all-time – along with High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers – it was a joyful experience to finally get to see this one on the big screen in a theatre setting (thanks to Dallas Film Society and Chris Vognar). It’s clear how this film elevated the western genre, and it certainly deserved recognition by the National Film Registry in 1995.