Fox // 1966 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // October 13th, 2011
These were the ten who fought Indians, outlaws, and each other as they rode to greatness on the stagecoach to Cheyenne!
When sitting down to watch the 1966 remake of Stagecoach, the first thing to do is forget that there was a 1939 version of Stagecoach. It does no good to compare this film to John Ford's classic.
If you must have a reference, think Airport. Yes, Stagecoach the Second predated Airport by four years, but it's the same sensibility: a star-studded, transportation-based disaster epic.
In the post-Civil War West, Chief Crazy Horse and his merry band of Sioux are making mincemeat of settlers and cavalry. Despite this, a motley group of travelers sets out to make the dangerous trip -- by stagecoach, of course -- to Cheyenne. Each has a reason to get out of Dodge -- or wherever it is that they're leaving -- and make this rugged journey.
There's good-time gal Dallas (Ann-Margret, Tommy); charming drunkard Doc Boone (Bing Crosby, Going My Way); liquor salesman Peacock (Red Buttons, Sayonara); gambler Hatfield (Mike Connors, Mannix); pregnant Mrs. Mallory (Stefanie Powers, Hart to Hart), wife of a cavalry officer; and Gatewood (Robert Cummings, The Bob Cummings Show), a banker who's taking off with stolen payroll money. Riding shotgun with driver Buck (Slim Pickens, Blazing Saddles) is Marshal Curly Wilcox (Van Heflin, Johnny Eager).
Right as the trip gets under way, Curly gets him a good one when he encounters an escaped convict, The Ringo Kid (Alex Cord, Airwolf). Ringo's out to clear his name after being wrongly convicted, but Curly cuffs him up and tosses him in the stage.
From there, it's a long ride to nowhere, kind of a Love Boat-Americana style. The passengers ride and bicker, and bicker and ride, get to know each other better and display obvious personality traits, and everyone fears an Indian attack -- with good reason, since in this old school western, we're talking "Injuns" of the blood-thirsty variety, not the noble Native Americans of latter-day films. A surprisingly gruesome Indian attack opens the film, but we slog through nearly a full hour before getting a second one, so action isn't really the purpose here.
I actually think this was intended as a "prestige" offering. It certainly has enough game elements to make a viable "For Your Consideration" Academy Award ad, with some truly lovely CinemaScope photography by William H. Clothier, who'd been Oscar nominated twice for westerns (Cheyenne Autumn and The Alamo); a rousing score by the oft-nominated Jerry Goldsmith (who won for scoring The Omen); and good-looking costumes and art direction.
The cast boasts a trio of Oscar winners (Crosby, Heflin, and Buttons); a fast-track starlet and sex symbol (Ann-Margret) doing a rare dramatic role; a long-time TV star (Cummings) in a character role; a rising TV star (Connors); a couple of fairly new faces (Powers and Cord); and everyone's favorite Western supporting player, Slim Pickens, along with Keenan Wynn as a late-game bad guy. In those pre-home video days, when the John Ford classic wasn't so readily available for comparison, this must have seemed like a winner.
I'm guessing if there was an Oscar push for an actor, it would have been for Bing, in the role that won Thomas Mitchell an Academy Award for the earlier Stagecoach. Crosby gives a fairly entertaining "actorish" performance filled with comedic bits -- particularly his interplay with fellow potential sentimental nominee Buttons -- and gestures that, if handled subtly, would be called "nuances." This was Crosby's final feature film, but there were no awards forthcoming.
In fact, there were no awards at all for Stagecoach, as far as I can find. While a fairly traditional historical film won the Oscar that year (A Man for All Seasons), 1966 was also the year of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Alfie, and Morgan!, and Blow-Up; western fans had The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Professionals, and if they wanted something more traditional, there was always a John Wayne film playing somewhere.
The sad fact is, the 1966 Stagecoach just isn't a particularly good movie. Remaking the 1939 classic might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the '66 cast just isn't up to the standards of the '39 cast, particularly poor Alex Cord, called upon to re-do the iconic Wayne role. The film is quaint when it should be engrossing, pedestrian when it should be exciting, and despite the presence of some "stars of tomorrow," hopelessly square.
How square? Consider the Very Special Surprise at the end: a Norman Rockwell painting of each cast member in costume is displayed on screen while Wayne Newton sings the theme song.
No Oscar nomination for that one, either.
Stagecoach '66 was directed by Gordon Douglas. For some reason, the name didn't ring a bell, but I'm certainly familiar with his work: Them!, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!, Viva Knievel!, and a number of films that didn't have end-punctuated titles, including a bunch with Frank Sinatra, such as Robin and the 7 Hoods, Tony Rome, Lady in Cement, and The Detective.
Stagecoach comes to us by way of Fox's limited edition Twilight Time line. The film sports a very good looking letterboxed transfer and a reasonable mono audio track. The sole onscreen extra is an isolated score track. There's also a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo and a reproduction of the original poster art.
Fox gets a little creative with the critics' quotes on the box.
"A big, brawling action picture," raved Pauline Kael. Well, actually Kael was a little less enthusiastic: "The 1966 Stagecoach was undistinguished -- a big, brawling action picture that gets audience reactions by brutal fights and narrow escapes photographed right on top of you. The director, Gordon Douglas, doesn't trust you to project yourself imaginatively into his stagecoach; he tries to force you into it -- which may make you want to escape to the farthest row in the balcony."
Or Leonard Maltin's declaration of this as a "Colorful, star-studded western." Yes, Maltin did say that, and went on to add, "...is OK but can't hold a candle to the 1939 masterpiece. Overlong, with only occasional action scenes to liven it up."
Stagecoach '66 had some mighty big boots to fill, but even without the shadow of its classic predecessor hanging over its shoulder, it's still just middling entertainment. Fox's Twilight Time release looks great, and I appreciate that it's not completely bare bones -- the essay is an especially nice touch -- but the film is pretty forgettable.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score