Criterion // 1939 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 25th, 2010
A powerful story of 9 strange people!
"Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from."
The year is 1880, and a group of strangers in Arizona Territory are boarding a stagecoach heading eastbound to Lordsburg. Those taking the journey are the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor, Key Largo), the alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the shadowy southern gentleman Hatfield (John Carradine, The Grapes of Wrath), U.S. Marshal Curly (George Bancroft, Angels with Dirty Faces), stage coach driver Buck (Andy Devine, Around the World in 80 Days), the mild-mannered Peacock (George Meek, Young Mr. Lincoln), and the refined Lucy (Louise Platt, Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Along the way, the group runs into The Ringo Kid (John Wayne, True Grit), an outlaw who recently broke out of prison. Ringo isn't really regarded as a very dangerous guy, but the Marshal determines that he needs to be taken into custody and placed back in the hands of the law.
Over the course of their journey, this colorful band of travelers will learn a great deal about each other as they encounter a variety of challenges, from helping the pregnant Lucy as she goes into labor to fending off an attack from a violent band of Apaches. Meanwhile, The Ringo Kid starts to develop feelings for Dallas, which introduces an entirely different set of complications: Ringo is on his way to prison, and Dallas' reputation causes others in the group to view her rather spitefully. Even if the group survives the journey, is there any hope that these two outcasts might have a chance at finding happiness together?
Stagecoach was released in 1939, a year regarded by many as the greatest year in the history of cinema (I don't subscribe to that opinion, but it's certainly easy to see why many do). The film is frequently credited with restoring the western genre, moving the western from a disregarded B-movie genre to exciting A-list status. It also is noted for being the first time director John Ford teamed up with actor John Wayne, a relationship that would go on to produce such superb films as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. So, there is no questioning that the film is deserving of esteemed status in cinema history. However, modern viewers should take comfort in the fact that Stagecoach is not merely an "important" film, but also a very good one that still holds up quite well.
Throughout the 1930s, western movies were often populated with broad, simplistic characters working their way through predictable, recycled plots. The good guys wore white, the bad guys wore black, and the women stood on the sidelines wringing their hands. In addition to bringing exceptional craftsmanship and strong production values to the genre, Stagecoach offered complex characters that aren't always easy to read and that get a chance to evolve significantly over the course of the film. It's an imperfect film (Ford and Wayne would go on to make superior westerns later in their careers), but it remains a tremendously involving entertainment.
Few actors have ever received an introduction in a film as striking as the introduction John Wayne receives in Stagecoach: a dolly shot zooms in rapidly as Wayne spins his rifle, frantically arriving at a heroic, iconic close-up. Wayne had been a prolific B-movie actor for years, but that shot in Stagecoach symbolically pronounced him a movie star. It helps that Wayne's performance in the film is so solid; it's a memorable and atypically sensitive turn from the actor.
Even so, Stagecoach is very much an ensemble piece, with just about every player involved making a positive impression in some way. John Carradine keeps us guessing as a man who seems poised to turn into a villain at any moment (there's one delightfully contradictory image of Carradine draped in a classically villainous black cloak while wearing a pearly-white cowboy hat). Andy Devine and Thomas Mitchell both play the sort of roles that they played so many times before and since, while George Meek demonstrates great comic timing in an understated role (there's a little exchange between Devine, Meek and a newborn baby that cracks me up.)
Though many of the names in the cast are quite recognizable now, at the time Claire Trevor was the biggest star, so she receives first billing. Her performance may very well be the best in the film, as she successfully plays a character that seems heartbreakingly sad and world-weary. She clearly has a great deal of self-consciousness about her profession, particularly when some members of the group demonstrate rather spiteful behavior towards her. The scenes between Trevor and Wayne are some of the film's most resonant, as the two quietly express their feelings for each other and recognize that they each finally have a chance to be in a relationship free of judgment. The movie turns the restrictions of the time regarding what could and couldn't actually be said on prostitution and sex into a strength, as Ford subtly allows the characters to express their feelings an a touchingly indirect way.
The print Criterion had to work with for their restoration was in pretty rough shape, so don't be surprised to discover an exceptionally large amount of scratches, flecks, dirt, and grime throughout. Even so, a lot of work has been put into making the film look better than ever before, and Criterion is to be commended for the effort even if the image isn't exactly stunning. Detail is inconsistent and scenes can range anywhere from gorgeous to fuzzy, but it never gets so bad that the image distracts from the on-screen drama. Audio is okay, as dialogue is relatively clean and clear and the sound effects are respectable enough. Alas, the original score does sound rather pinched and faded at times.
This two-disc set comes loaded with a variety of excellent supplements, kicking off with a strong commentary from western historian Jim Kitses (who does a nice job of both placing the film in historical context and analyzing the content of the movie). On the second disc, you have "Bucking Broadway" (55 minutes), a silent western by Ford boasting a new original score by Donald Sosin. You'll also find an extensive archival interview with John Ford (73 minutes), plus new interviews with Peter Bogdonavich (15 minutes), John's grandson Dan Ford (8 minutes), and author Buzz Bissinger (11 minutes). There's a featurette devoted famed stunt man "Yakima Canutt" (11 minutes, plus a video essay on Stagecoach by writer Tag Gallagher. As if that weren't enough, you also get a radio adaptation of the film starring Wayne (28 minutes), a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay David Cairns and the original short story that inspired Stagecoach. Even by Criterion's standards, this is a pretty awesome supplemental package.
Though the film is considerably more nuanced than many westerns of the era, it does slip into oversimplification at times. Of particular note is the way the film depicts the Apaches, making them nameless and faceless savages who only exist to bring violence into the plot. This portrayal is disappointing, though Ford would later go on to offer considerably more complex portraits of Native Americans in his later films. As a result, the large-scale battle sequence lacks the dramatic tension that it requires (though fortunately the suspenseful "western showdown" climax delivers on every level).
A very fine early western gets an absolutely superb release from Criterion. By all means, add Stagecoach: Criterion Collection to your DVD shelf.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Silent Film
* Radio Adaptation