#6 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is the movie that most people seem to think begins John Ford’s career. Well, that ain’t true at all. It’s not his first western, and it’s not his first film with John Wayne. What it happens to be was an inflection point in Ford’s career and in the direction of American cinema. One of several large westerns in 1938 and 1939 that blew up the box office, Stagecoach helped signal the return of the western into pop culture, having languished for a decade because of the difficulties of capturing sound on location, something rather necessary for stories about wide open spaces. Ford had been making movies for twenty years by the time he made Stagecoach, his output ranging in a host of different genres, coming out of the inferno of studio filmmaking a steady, practiced, and assured hand behind the camera (and a merciless prankster and brutalizer to his actors). His easy mastery of the camera, manipulation of actors to get specific performances, and ability to shoot to the edit effectively helps to elevate a great script by long-term collaborator Dudley Nichols into a classic.
Nine people climb aboard a stagecoach in Tonto, Arizona Territory, headed for Lordsburg, New Mexico. Seven passengers, the driver, and the marshal all embark for different reasons, determined to make it through the Apache held territory being patrolled by the horsemen of Geronimo. That’s pretty much the plot of the film. It’s really simple stuff, but what makes the film shine is its emphasis on building and developing the characters themselves, taking nine stereotypes and pushing them in this strenuous situation to grow as they either support each other or rub up against one another.
An ensemble piece, if there is a star of the show it is John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Second billed because Claire Trevor was a bigger star at the time, but it’s Wayne’s show despite appearing for the first time about a third of the way through the film. He’s on the run from the law after having broken out of prison with the objective of finding and killing the three Plummer brothers who are responsible for the death of his brother and father. The marshal of Tonto (George Bancroft) joins up to find Ringo. Trevor plays Dallas, a woman being driven out of Tonto for unspecified reasons (she’s most likely a prostitute). There’s also a liquor salesman, Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), a young married woman (Louise Platt) out to join her army captain husband, a gambler (John Carradine), the local banker (Berton Churchill) who’s absconding with the bank’s funds, and the Tonto town doctor Boone (Thomas Mitchell), driven out because of his constant drunkenness. Driving the gang is Buck (Andy Devine), having taken on the difficult job to support his Mexican wife and her large family.
What’s interesting to me about the journey is that, when stepping back from the character driven moments that really dominate the film, it’s a steady build of tension towards the inevitable showdown with Geronimo. Rumors turn into scary reality as the stagecoach makes it further into Apache territory and they find that the local cavalry has disappeared, a ranch has been burned, and the Apache wife of a Mexican man who mans an outpost disappears into the night. The actual confrontation itself (complete with horrifyingly irresponsible horse stunts) is exciting and clearly filmed as the stakes grow and the situation grows increasingly dire. And yet, that’s not the end of the movie.
The reason the film is Wayne’s is because of that ending. It’s all about the Ringo Kid and his personal situation. In Lordsburg he has to face down the three Plummer brothers, and he’s no longer just on a single-minded quest for vengeance. His interactions with Dallas have given him a greater purpose than just revenge, and yet he can’t just walk away from his responsibility to his family. There’s more at stake than just justice, there’s the future.
And I think that points to what the film is ultimately about. All nine figures are dealing with either their pasts or trying to figure out a path in the future. Doc Boone has to shake off his failure in Tonto, sober up, and deliver a baby when the situation calls for it (he immediately starts drinking again after his professional success since this is no teetotalling picture). The marshal has to figure out what kind of country he wants, driving his action on whether to simply arrest Ringo or let him do his business and clean up the West a tiny bit. Dallas needs to find a new life, even if it means retreating into the old world she tried to leave behind.
There’s a line of dialogue late where Doc Boone says that Ringo will be free from the blessings of civilization, and I think it highlights something I’ve noticed on this trek through Ford’s filmography. He tends to focus on those on the outskirts of society, those who can never quite be a part of it fully. The most famous example will come later in The Searchers when Wayne remains outside after his quest to save his niece is completed, but it’s easy to see it through most of Ford’s films. Stagecoach is no exception, and it feels similar to something Wayne did in Red River with Howard Hawks. The men who make civilization possible, the hard men willing to make the hard choices to tame the worst impulses of uncivilized men cannot live in a civilized world. They’re necessary for the creation of civilization, but they have to remain apart from it. The Plummers are the bad parts of humanity that can grow into a cancer, and they must be rooted out if civilization is to actually thrive. The Ringo Kid is the answer to them, but when the job is done he’s not the kind of man who can thrive himself. Civilization is bound to soften, not harden.
There’s always so much more to say. The nine riding the stagecoach end up representing a kind of civilization unto themselves, all from different walks of life and backgrounds. There are former Union and Confederate soldiers. There are prim easterners and rough westerners. There are representatives from the working class and the management class. There are idlers and go-getters. And all of them are wonderfully written with a barebones plot that allows many opportunities for the characters to grow and interact. This film is really stuffed with goodness, and it’s honestly no wonder Orson Welles was borderline obsessed with studying it in preparation for the filming of Citizen Kane. It’s efficient, visual storytelling with a great depth of interpretation.
It’s also a bit of a crowd pleaser with high quality action and likeable, not just interesting, characters. There’s a reason it helped kick off the Golden Age of the Western in Hollywood.