Review: Stagecoach (1939)



John Ford
Dudley Nichols (Story: Ernest Haycox)
96 min.
Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler
MPAA Rating

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One of the key reasons I’ve never liked westerns is being forced to watch so many John Wayne films as a kid. I never found him to be a compelling actor and his performances are often carbon copies of one another, but there are films in his history that can transcend his occasional woodenness and take advantage of his appeal to tell a grander, more interesting story.

Stagecoach may not have the grit of The Wild Bunch, it may not be as interesting as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it is the perfect historical reference, highlighting many of the common themes, settings and styles of the western genre. The story surrounds a single stagecoach heading across the open west where the Apache are on the war path and threatening to kill anyone who crosses their territory. Along for the ride are a motley crew of western archetypes, each with a complex relationship with the other passengers. Claire Trevor plays a woman of ill-repute forced to leave town by a gaggle of gossips and puritans; John Wayne takes on the role of Ringo Kid, a man escaped from jail attempting to settle the score with men who want him dead; John Carradine appears as a southern “gentleman” and gambler who has started pursuing Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt); Platt’s Lucy is a refined woman and wife of a military officer on her way to find him; Thomas Mitchell is the drunk doctor run out of town alongside Dallas (Trevor) for not paying any of his bills; George Bancroft is the law man who has “captured” Ringo and has sworn to bring him in and return him to jail; Andy Devine is the semi-brave, semi-coward who is driving the stagecoach; Donald Meek plays a traveling booze salesman; and Berton Churchill takes the part of a corrupt, blowhard banker who always has a loud opinion about their situation but never has a solution that doesn’t involve running away.

It’s not hard to imagine how these characters interact with one another and it’s part of what makes the film so compelling. While many of them adhere to set character archetypes, they mix those stereotypes together to create a cohesive ensemble that seldom feels one-dimensional. Trevor, Mitchell and Wayne are the clear standouts from this group although only Churchill and Carradine are the only average ones in the bunch.

One of the dangers of storytelling is telling the audience not only what’s going on, but what to think about it. Ford manages to avoid those pitfalls by frequently showing instead of telling. This is a visual medium. If we wanted to be told what’s going on, we would read a book where our own imaginations have to fill in the blank. And even when hints have to be given (such as Dallas’ call for lots of hot water). You have to respect a lot of what Ford does with the film. It feels more like an origin of the genre and not a continuance of it.

So many films in ever genre just copy styles and situations hoping audiences won’t notice the lack of originality or the absence of character development. And while a lot of people are taken in by the fakes, the genuine treasures are the films like Stagecoach that do terrific work setting and delivering upon expectations.
Review Written
November 15, 2010

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