Criterion // 1939 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 20th, 2010
"Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from." -- The Ringo Kid
The year was 1939, the year of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Citizen Kane. John Ford had made almost a hundred films, and John Wayne wasn't far behind. Yet despite their long association, the pair had never actually worked together on a film. Then Ford bought the rights to a short story, "Stage to Lordsburg," and decided to cast Wayne as the lead. Their budget just barely scraped into A-movie territory, but thanks to a solid cast and a well-plotted script John Ford brought the world Stagecoach, the template for the Western for the next several decades. This film is a piece of cinema history, and Criterion has done another knockout job bringing it out on hi-def. Although some people may quibble that this release doesn't look perfect, that doesn't change the fact that this film, and this release, are essential for any serious fan of cinema.
There's a stagecoach heading to the town of Lordsburg, but to get there they must travel through territory being terrorized by Geronimo. Despite the danger, all the passengers have their reasons for going make the trip. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne, The Searchers) has broken out of prison to avenge his family's death. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, Gone with the Wind) and Dallas (Claire Trevor, Key Largo) have been run out of town, and everyone else has reasons equally good. It's going to take all of them acting together to survive this stage to Lordsburg.
This is it, this is where it all starts. Chances are if you think of a Western, it owes its basic style and substance to Stagecoach. Even revisers and iconoclasts like Leone and Peckinpah were reacting to the basic myths of dignity and domesticity that start here. This is also the film that announced the arrival of John Ford as a major talent. Stagecoach inaugurated a string of brilliant films that was interrupted only by World War II. The film also heralded the talent of John Wayne, whose previous starring attempt The Big Trail had failed miserably. Here he sets out the type of character he would riff on in Westerns for another four decades. Although he got more intense, he never got any better than he is here.
Stagecoach also brought together all of Ford's big obsessions for the first time. There's the good-natured drunk, here played by Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning performance. There's the liberal social politics, demonstrated by the sympathy for prostitute Dallas in the face of scorn from the married gentlewoman. There's also Ford's respect for justice over the letter of the love, embodied by the sheriff's treatment of Ringo, and, finally, there's Ford's first use of Monument Valley, that vast track of American landscape that loomed so large in Ford's imagination.
But forget all that. Stagecoach is not only a great film, but good one too. I re-watched the film on this Blu-ray disc with a 10-year-old girl who I'm pretty sure has never seen another Western in her life. For 94 minutes, she was putty in Ford's hands, utterly rapt as the stage trundled towards Lordsburg. When the Apaches finally appear for the justly famous final chase, she slowly sat up as the tempo built, her feet tapping along to the Oscar-winning music. Seventy years after its first release, Stagecoach is still a simple, moving story that is tightly told. I don't know if it has universal appeal, but in an era of increasingly digital cinema, Stagecoach still holds the power to entertain. I can't help but think that John Ford would consider that the highest praise.
Stagecoach is an undeniable slice of cinema history, and Criterion has presented it as such, with an excellent technical presentation and a host of solid extras. First, the transfer. Stagecoach is a seventy-year-old film, and the original print has long been lost. Criterion, as the included booklet explains, used the best elements they could to produce this transfer and cleaned them up as best they could. They made the wise decision of erring on the side of caution and not fixing problems where the restoration work would be obvious, preferring the authentic negative to a digitally altered fake. That said, Stagecoach looks pretty great for its age. Black levels are strong and consistent, with no obvious contrast-boosting. Grain is appropriate and well-rendered, and detail surprisingly strong considering the necessity for restoration work. The print itself isn't in the greatest shape at spots, with some scratches and dirt remaining, and I have no problem saying that Stagecoach is the worst-looking of the Class of '39, especially when compared to the stellar Blu-ray releases of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. No, this release doesn't have Criterion's usual jaw-dropping revelations, but this is my final word on the transfer: my grandmother was about my age when Stagecoach was released, and if this is the version of the film I have to show to my grandkids, I'd do it happily.
The audio is in the same boat as the video. This is a fine, uncompressed transfer of a mono soundtrack. Dialogue is crisp and easy to hear, and the music doesn't cause any serious distortion or sound out of place, and hiss is kept to a minimum.
When the banker Gatewood makes off with the payroll in the beginning, he struggles with his obviously heavy valise. That bag might as must have easily been carrying the extras for Criterion's edition of Stagecoach. Although none of the excellent extras (a commentary, Ford documentary, a making-of, and a radio adaptation) have been ported over from the previous Special Edition, they're hardly missed in the deluge of features on this Blu-ray disc. First up is an audio commentary by Western authority Jim Kitses, and he gives a scholarly overview of the film and its interpretations. I found the previous commentary by Scott Eyman a little bit more engaging, though no more informative. The bulk of the extras, unsurprisingly, focus on Ford. There's a feature he directed from 1917 that runs a little over 50 minutes; it's called Bucking Broadway, and it adds an interesting layer to his association with the Western. There's also a video interview with Ford, a recollection by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, and an interview with the director's grandson Dan that features home movies by his grandfather. Two featurettes focus on the making of the film, including one about the Monument Valley location and the other about famed stuntman Yakim Canutt. There's also a "visual essay" that looks at the way John Ford applied his personal style to the shooting of the film. Finally, if you're not sick of the film yet, there's a radio adaptation featuring Wayne and Trevor included. The disc ends with the film's trailer.
The included booklet has a nice introductory essay David Cairns, and in a nice touch, the story "Stage to Lordsburg" that inspired the film.
Stagecoach is a hair's breadth away from being a perfect film. For my money, no Western has ever been improved by a musical interlude, and Stagecoach is no exception. If I'm quibbling, I also think the film spends a little too much time in Lordsburg before Ringo and the Plummers' meet. Still, that's me picking the smallest of nits.
Stagecoach is an important piece of cinema that's still fun to watch seven decades later. Although the audiovisual presentation isn't as initially stunning as other Criterion restorations, this is easily the best the film experience in thirty or forty years. Add the fine presentation to a host of informative extras and you've got a Blu-ray disc that's vying for the top of the best release list from Criterion. Upgrading from the previous DVD is a no-brainer, and the film is easy to recommend to anyone who hasn't seen it.
Stagecoach is guilty only of being brilliant.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film
* Radio Adaptation