Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Claire Trevor, John
Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George
Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill
Director: John Ford
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: May 25, 2010
“There are some things a man just can't run away from.”
Stagecoach was not John Ford's first film...the venerable director had been making movies for more than two decades, dabbling in all genres but preferring the Western as a uniquely American offering. It wasn't John Wayne's first picture, either...in fact, the legendary star had made some 80 movies before Stagecoach.
But it was the first pairing of a director and an actor who were destined to work together, and it was the film that cemented both as Hollywood icons. The 1939 movie was Ford's first talkie Western, and his first venture into breathtaking Monument Valley with his cameras. It was a setting that would become a signature for the artist, and provide the backdrop for some of the greatest Westerns ever made.
Stagecoach is a perfect film from a perfect year for movies, the same one that gave us Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din and countless other indelible American classics. It's said that Orson Welles watched the film repeatedly while making Citizen Kane, and now that I've read that, I can begin to piece together John Ford's influences over that masterpiece in my mind. It brought together an incredible ensemble cast of colorful characters, but it was the troubled appearance of one star that really helped bring the list of ingredients to a fruitful boil.
It's difficult for modern audiences to conceive of this, but in 1939, John Wayne was considered at best a hack star. He had already appeared in far more movies than most current stars could even dream of, and had very little to show for it. John Ford had wanted to work with him for the better part of a decade. The studios rejected the idea, feeling Wayne had no box office potential whatsoever. Ah, sweet irony.
Stagecoach brought the Johns together, and it would become one of the most fruitful collaborations between a star and a director until maybe Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa. Throw in the incomparable settings of Monument Valley, and I'd dare say you had a foolproof formula for success.
But adding to this trifecta of perfection was an impeccable script and an impressive supporting cast, all coming together to tell the tale of an unlikely band of strangers having to make a dangerous stagecoach trip through hostile Apache territory. Each has his or her own reason for the trip. Dallas (Trevor) has been run out of town by the local group of busybodies...we're never directly told why, but we can guess...and so has Doc Boone (Mitchell), a physician with too much fondness for the bottle.
Mr. Peacock (Meek) is simply trying to get home to his family, but his profession as a whiskey drummer makes him the Doc's new best friend, and likewise, Lucy Mallory (Platt), an aristocratic lady, is trying to reach her husband where he serves in the army, and turns out has a very good reason for doing so. Accompanying her, almost on a whim, is Hatfield (Carradine), a notorious gambler with a gentleman's air. What he almost does at the end for the sake of Lucy's honor is as shocking as it is memorable.
That leaves Gatewood (Churchill), a banker with his own devious reasons for wanting the stagecoach to push through to its destination despite the dangers and lack of protection. His speeches are quite amusing by modern standards, especially when he worries about the country's runaway deficits of...ready?...a billion dollars a year. It bears repeating...ah, sweet irony.
The stagecoach is driven by the plucky Buck (Devine) under the watchful eye of the Marhsal Curley (Bancroft), but there is to be one more addition to the motley bunch: an escaped outlaw named Ringo Kid (Wayne). He broke free from prison, and Curley is determined to see him returned, but Ringo has his own dark designs on his final destination.
As mentioned, John Ford was hardly a newcomer to the motion picture business, but with his expert handling of Stagecoach, he delivered an instant American classic and singlehandedly revolutionized the Western for the sound era and ensured that it would go from B grade entertainment into a respectable and highly important genre.
He also helped shape the vocabulary of cinema, not necessarily with new techniques, but new ways of using old techniques. Close-ups and reaction shots became not just framing devices but integral parts of the narrative, and his tracking shots, hearkening back to the days of D. W. Griffith, brought to life a chase scene that is still as thrilling and suspenseful as anything seen on modern screens.
And, of course, it's said that Ford made a true legend out of John Wayne. Many in the business believed Wayne had no acting talent, but by letting his star's performance shine through with his natural physical presence and reactions to the events around him, Ford proved the world wrong, and brought John Wayne permanently out of low budgeted hell and into the mainstream.
Put it all together, and it's easy to comment on the artistic value and historical importance of Stagecoach, but perhaps the best compliment of all is simply that it remains a highly entertaining film to watch from start to finish, even some 70 years after its debut. Ford and Wayne would continue to make classic pictures, many times in collaboration, but there's something special about the movie that wasn't a first film for either man, but became a true jumping-off point for both of their incredible careers.
There are bound to be issues with a film print this old, but with that as a given, I'm certainly appreciative that the masterful hands at Criterion were the ones to deliver this classic to us in high definition. Yes, the film shows noticeable aging...scratches and nicks here and there...but overall, this is an impressive and detailed offering that brings out the beauty of John Ford's cameras with striking contrast and clarity in both lighter and darker sequences. It will never be perfect simply because you can't take away the years, but this is more than enough to make modern fans happy.
The uncompressed mono boasts some unexpected dynamic range, thanks to a couple of big sequences that might even make you forget you're only hearing a single channel. Dialogue is clean and clear, and well delivered against the musical score and the intense scenes where the horses' hooves thunder and the guns are blazing.
For a film as seminal as this one, you'd expect nothing less than a red carpet treatment from Criterion, and they don't disappoint. The movie boasts a solid and informative commentary track from Western expert Jim Kitses, who offers a wealth of knowledge to modern students of the film. There is also a charming reflection from Peter Bogdanovich, who befriended both Ford and Wayne as a young man, and has several good stories to tell in 14 minutes.
There is also a vintage 1968 interview with Ford, as well as a modern one from his grandson with some of his grandfather's home movies. There are modern video tributes to the man most responsible for bringing John Ford to Monument Valley, as well as legendary stunt man Yakima Canutt. A new video essay by Tag Gallagher offers more insight into the style of Ford and this movie.
There is a 1949 radio broadcast of Stagecoach featuring both John Wayne and Clair Trevor and introduced by John Ford, a trailer, and perhaps most impressive of all, a rarely seen 1917 silent film directed by Ford called Bucking Broadway, with another legendary Western star, Harry Carey.
There's nothing better than seeing a movie that's a true classic in every sense of the word getting the unmatched attention and treatment that only Criterion can give. Stagecoach on Blu-ray is an absolute delight, with an impressive transfer and enough extras to keep modern fans and students busy for hours. Highly recommended.