John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’ Made the Then-Unknown John Wayne Into an Overnight Star

Since the advent of the DVD, Criterion has established the gold standard for critical editions of classic films. Just about the highest praise that one can pay a DVD or Blu-ray release is that it is comparable to Criterion. Even by Criterion standards, however, this new edition of John Ford’s Stagecoach is a standout.

Stagecoach is a film that is almost impossible to overrate and one whose influence is almost impossible to calculate. It was the first important sound Western and was single-handedly responsible for making it an important film genre for adults for the first time since the silent era. It elevated John Ford’s already high reputation to a higher level and made the then-unknown John Wayne into an overnight star.

In 1939, John Ford was already a well-known director, having made over 90 silent and sound films, and winning an Oscar in 1936 for The Informer, but Stagecoach would kick off an extraordinary string of successes that was interrupted only by Ford’s military service. Although a veteran director, something clicked for Ford at this precise moment in his career and in a 12-month period he would astonishingly complete four superb movies — Stagecoach, Young Abe Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath — a period of creativity which lay the foundation for his reputation as among the greatest American-born directors in the history of film.

The artistry in Stagecoach is astonishing, and the film can support any degree of analysis and study. As Jim Kitses relates in the commentary on this Criterion edition, when Orson Welles was asked what directors had most influenced on him, he replied that he had studied the old masters, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford,” and confessed to having watched Stagecoach over 40 times immediately prior to making Citizen Kane.

Critics have endlessly praised the low angles and low ceilings in the latter, acknowledging both Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland, but those elements were clearly already in evidence in Stagecoach. Welles and Toland were not inventing a new film visual language so much as reverently “plagiarizing” Ford. While Welles and Toland made their artistry blatant throughout Citizen Kane, Ford’s virtuosity was more subdued, at times intentionally disguised. Ford was less concerned with people noticing how clever he was than in producing effective film narratives. He sacrificed his legend for the sake of his art.

Although he had appeared in countless serials and “B”pictures in the ’30s, for all intents and purposes, John Wayne’s career begins in Stagecoach with the startlingly dramatic introduction of his character, Ringo Kid. As we watch onscreen the stagecoach pulling up a hill, we hear a gunshot that causes the horses to pull up. The camera jumps to Ringo Kid, a butte in the distance over his shoulder, a saddle dangling from his left arm as he cocks his rifle with a sharp swing of his right hand. The camera then dollies towards him while going briefly out of focus, before coming back into focus in a close up of his surprisingly youthful face.

Has any actor ever had such a striking first “star” moment? Although only one member of an ensemble cast, Wayne managed to dominate. (In this I differ with Jim Kitses in his disc commentary, in which he insists that Wayne does not in fact dominate the film.)

Although the film made Wayne not merely a star but an icon, it is in fact one of the great ensemble films. The joy of watching Stagecoach stems from watching the subtle interplay between the characters. It’s a symphony of difference – moral, social, regional, class. In his wonderful book John Wayne’s America, Garry Wills offered a subtle and wonderfully nuanced analysis of the spatial relations of the characters in the film. Early in the film the tension and positioning between the “good” characters like Lucy Mallory, her self-appointed protector Hatfield (who is coded as aristocratic despite being a gambler), and the banker Gatewood, look starkly down on the prostitute Dallas and the alcoholic Doc Boone. Ford has his actors engage in a highly choreographed avoidance of one another.

After the birth of Lucy’s child, delivered by the alcoholic doctor she looks down upon and assisted by the prostitute she abhors, a reorientation between the passengers occurs. Each takes far less notice of observing social barriers from that point on, and when Dallas enters the room where the men are holding vigil while holding Lucy’s baby daughter, not one of them evidences the moral condemnation that had dominated before.

Part of the appeal of Ringo Kid is that he remains blissfully ignorant of all such social distinctions throughout, refusing to acknowledge or respect any of the artificial standards by which the others live their lives. He not only sees Dallas as being as much of a lady as the obviously genteel Lucy Mallory, he is incapable of seeing any qualities in her than those she exudes when she is lovingly holding Lucy’s baby.

I agree with Kitses and other commentators that the greatest courage in the film belongs to Dallas. Having been driven out of her previous town by the self-appointed moral guardians of the town, she delights in Ringo Kid treating her as a lady. She tells the Kid, who proposes to her, that she is traveling to Lordburg to stay with friends who might have work for her. Not even the niceties of the Motion Picture Production Code can come close to hiding the fact that Dallas is clearly a prostitute. When the Kid insists, against her protests, to walk her to where she is staying, the viewer experiences her degradation and mortification. Few moments in American film display a character so completely stripped bare.

Perhaps the romantic ending – the Ringo Kid reconfessing his intention to marry her even after he has learned everything about Dallas that there is to learn – may be a tad sappy, especially when they ride off into the dawn together, but would want it any differently? Aren’t we just a tad ecstatic that Dallas gets her knight in shining armor, even one wielding a carbine?

In the end the moral and social distinctions all prove to be illusory. Lucy is pregnant though also somewhat mysterious in her passion to be reunited with her military husband, but also surprisingly inept when she gives birth, the whorish Dallas taking care of her child, instead. The haughty Hatfield, despite his Southern aristocratic airs, is a fallen soul and is reduced to an unscrupulous gambler (Doc Boone intimates that he may have shot a man in the back), his attachment to Lucy, like the silver cup he carries in his coat, a nostalgic symbol of his past. The imperious and moralistic banker is arrested as an embezzler, while the alcoholic doctor and prostitute both perform heroically when called to do so.

In The Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck’s character, the grifter Jean Harrington, tells the moralistic rich boy with whom she has fallen in love, “You don’t know much about girls. The good ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.” The same holds true of the passengers in the stagecoach, as a moral leveling takes place through the course of the action, making a sham of the fine distinctions between rank and moral character that seem so important in the first few minutes of the film.

Ford’s technical mastery is obvious throughout the film. His brilliant use of doors and entrances was as striking here as in countless other films, as was his use of hallways. His repeated use of the gaze of one character to another is genius. Ford’s characters look at one another with almost balletic choreography. In the extended scene in which Lucy and Mallory first meet there are multiple glances, both when they first look at one another – he with the shock of recognition and she with wonder at why he is looking at her as he is – and then as they look at one another through the waiting room window.

Later, when the stagecoach is preparing to leave, Hatfield decides on the spur of the moment to chivalrously serve as Lucy’s escort after she looks back at him out of the window of the stagecoach and he looks back at her through his own window. We witness the moment when Ringo Kid falls in love with Dallas, as he gazes at her with adoration as she holds Lucy’s baby. Ford’s ability to communicate so much to the viewer in moments such as these is one of the reasons watching his films are so rewarding.

However, Stagecoach is certainly not beyond criticism. Ford sometimes lays the pathos on a tad thick and the narrative is marred – sadly as in almost all Westerns — by a sense of American Manifest Destiny that justifies the whites, the heroes of the film, in taking the sacred land of the Apaches, who were “the villains”. There are some startling continuity failures, such as John Wayne looking off with a barren desert behind him and seeing smoke signals rising above an incongruous wooded area or a couple of occasions in which the stagecoach, supposedly being followed by the cavalry, is plainly not being followed by anything at all.

Some complain about the deus ex machina at the end, the U.S. Cavalry arriving at the precise moment when everyone on the stagecoach has run out of ammunition. There is also a striking error in the scene where they cross the river, where the shadow of the camera clearly cuts across Curley and Buck riding on the coach. While completely granting the strength of the criticism of Ford’s insistence on the preeminence of the white settlers and their rights over those of the Native Americans, none of this significantly reduces the power of the film. The minor technical errors can be accommodated by anyone with a minimal capacity to suspend disbelief.

Few films are as important or influential aqs Stagecoach, and in this new edition we get a gorgeously remastered print, easily the finest in existence. As befits such a great film and a Criterion release the disc is, as one would expect, stuffed with extras, including an informative commentary by Western film scholar Jim Kitses. So much of the film in general and Wayne’s performance in particular stemmed from Westerns Ford had made with Harry Carey and in the silent era, so it is appropriate that a previously unavailable 1917 silent Western the two made together, Bucking Broadway, is included as an extra.

There is also a very nice video essay by Ford biographer Tag Gallagher about Ford’s visual style and a somewhat uncomfortable-to-watch interview with John Ford (Ford was notoriously grumpy with interviewers) from a televised 1968 interview with English presenter Philip Jenkinson and an appreciation of Ford and Stagecoach by Peter Bogdanovich. A radio version of the film with John Wayne and Claire Trevor (and Ward Bond as Doc Boone) is also included, along with a video interview with Ford’s grandson about the director’s home movies (movies that feature not just Ford family members but famous friends like John Wayne, Liam O’Flaherty, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, and Gregg Toland. There were also some nice videos made for this release, one featuring Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger’s appreciation of the role of trader Harry Goulding in making John Ford aware of the glories of Monument Valley.

I was especially happy that there was an appreciation of the Yakima Canutt, the great stuntman who not only established the ground rules for stunt techniques in Hollywood, but performed some extraordinarily famous stunts in this film. In his most famous sequence, Canutt, dressed as an Indian, jumps off his horse onto the back of the lead horse of the stagecoach team. Ringo Kid shoots him and he then falls to the ground and slides underneath the stagecoach. Canutt then dressed up as Ringo Kid and jumps off the coach onto one team of horses to another to recover the reins that had fallen to the ground. Fittingly, Canutt’s first leap off the coach adorns the cover of the case, a nice supplement to the stunt coordinator’s tribute in the video feature.

The booklet that accompanies the disc has little in it except for one very big thing” the complete text of Ernest Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg”, upon which the film was based. Thus one can see the film, read the short story upon which it was based, and the radio drama based upon the film.

This Criterion disc is nothing short of the fulfillment of a fantasy of anyone who loves the films of John Ford. It creates the hope that Criterion can at some point obtain permission to do versions of other Ford films, such as the cavalry trilogy or perhaps even Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers. In the meantime, this new edition of one of the landmarks of world cinema will certainly go down as one of the most important reissues of 2010.

RATING 10 / 10
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