Written by: Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht
Directed by: John Ford
John Ford. His name is synonymous with Westerns. Before he came along, Westerns existed as B-movie schlock, vapid displays of conservative values to pass an evening away. Even Ford himself worked within the conventions of the genre for years. But with Stagecoach in 1939, he changed the game forever, moving the Western out of the realm of the B-picture and into the realm of art.
The titular stagecoach carries passengers from the Arizona Territory to Lourdsbourg, New Mexico. To get there, the drivers must head through hostile Apache territory. The motley crew includes a prostitute, a lady on her way to see her husband, an alcoholic doctor and the whiskey salesmen he brought along. Shortly after departure, the coach picks up fugitive Ringo the Kid (John Wayne). Knowing of the Kid's vendetta against the Apache, Marshal Wilcox (who rides with the driver as protection, ignores Ringo's outlaw status and invites him along, just in case.
With the nine characters riding and driving the stagecoach, Ford and his writer Dudley Nichols explore a myriad of topics, ranging from sexual to racial prejudices to alcoholism to revenge and redemption. While, as with Ford's later masterpiece The Searchers, the director handles the topics in ways much too obvious today, when placed within the context of the day they seem prescient and progressive.
But I find myself wondering if, by focusing on the social messages of Ford's films, we sometimes forget just how much fun they are. I'm not big on Westerns, but I make exceptions for three people: Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and John Ford. All three display an uncanny ability to wring originality from a genre that forever seems trampled in the dust by its horses' hooves. But the plight of these stagecoach riders in the midst of an Apache uprising is genuinely compelling, thrilling even.
One could possibly attribute these thrills to the film's simple but effective structure. Ford divides the movie into 8 distinct episodes, 4 action pieces and 4 character examinations. The six major characters all form their own innovative Western archetype: the alcoholic, the outlaw, the whore, the reputable businessman, the loyal wife, and the Confederate. Pick any Western made since this film and you can likely tick off at least three such characters, some of whom may inhabit more than one of these aspects.
As inventive and groundbreaking as the film remains, perhaps its greatest contribution to the Western was the breakout performance by John Wayne. Wayne, who had appeared in over 70 films at that point (including some of Ford's), still worked chiefly as a hired hand, but all that changed the moment Ford introduced his character. In one of the most famous character introductions ever, the camera spots Ringo and zooms in so quickly the operator could maintain the focus until the camera stopped again. It jolts you out of your seat and makes you want to identify with Wayne before he even utters a line.
Of course, after this film, Wayne was never the same. Suddenly he became the biggest star since Bogey, maybe even bigger. His macho walk and staccato drawl firmly enshrined him in the annals of film history, and it's all because of this film. Yet despite the myriad of roles he took after this film, Wayne put in just about all of his best performance in his subsequent collaborations with Ford, the best and most famous of which being his work in The Searchers.
Just about a perfectly directed film, Stagecoach represents the best of what John Ford has to offer, even if he'd better his own standard with later masterpieces like The Searchers and My Darling Clementine (which boasts one of the best shootouts in the history of film, even though the shootout is never the point). It's the birth of the modern Western, and one of its finest entries. Now hand me my hat, partner.