Ford Takes Wayne on the Trail to Dallas
To fully appreciate, to truly understand exactly how good and how important John Ford's "Stagecoach" is you really need to have watched the westerns which came in the years before. You see prior to "Stagecoach" westerns had become tacky, they were filmed on back lots, had simple storylines and were basically all too obvious. Yet what Ford did with "Stagecoach" is to make westerns more than just a cliche, more than just about gun fights and dodgy backdrops. He also made John Wayne a star, yes the legendary John Wayne had already made more movies than many make in a lifetime but it was "Stagecoach" which made him an A-lister. It is because of this that "Stagecoach" still remains not only an impressive western but also a very important one.
After drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell - Destry) and lady of ill repute Dallas (Claire Trevor - Man Without a Star) are thrown out of Tonto they board the stagecoach heading for Lordsburg where they find themselves in the company of a travelling liquor salesman, a corrupt banker, a gambler, Lucy Mallory, Buck (Andy Devine) the driver and Curly who is riding shotgun. Along the way they pick up Ringo Kid (John Wayne - Winds of the Wasteland) who is looking for revenge for the murder of his brother. But all of these passengers have secrets and as they pass through Indian country with the threat of Geronimo attacking they must put aside their differences in times of trouble.
This may sound like I am going against all I said but there is one side to "Stagecoach" which watching it now seems all so obvious, that of the actual stagecoach journey which we watch. For the most it has all those elements which in the years since we have come to expect with various moments of trouble along the way leading to gun action. But there is a deeper side to "Stagecoach" than just the troubles on the trail and that is the various issues which John Ford explores through the storyline.
The set up to this puts everything in place as we have 9 people on the stagecoach and as the movie progresses we learn more about them. There is Dallas, the lady of ill repute and as such has not only been booted out of town but is treated as dirt by many of the other passengers. Then there is Doc Boone who can't seem to survive unless he is drunk. The dodgy banker, the sheriff and the stage coach driver. But also there is Ringo, basically a good guy, the gentleman to all ladies but someone who has been forced to turn bad in his need for revenge over the murder of his brother.
As the movie progresses we watch these characters develop, relationships form and in some cases acceptance rather than disapproval is granted. All of which intertwines with the action as they have to deal with the constant threat of an attack from Geronimo and his Indians. What is particularly special is that Ford keeps you guessing, we don't know everything about all the passengers to start with and there are surprises at various points which although catch you off guard are not out of keeping with the storyline.
Plus it has to be said with both Andy Devine and Thomas Mitchell cast in important supporting roles there is also a touch of humour. Mitchell who won an Oscar for his performance manages to mix drama with comedy beautifully as the drunken Doc Boone, making you laugh one moment but impressed the next when to use a baseball metaphor he steps up to the plate. And you just have to listen to Andy Devine's whiney voice to start smiling, yet he does more than just whine and delivers some of the movies funniest lines.
Whilst Andy Devine and Thomas Mitchell do a marvellous job of infusing "Stagecoach" with a bit of light hearted humour and the likes of John Carradine, Louise Platt, Donald Meek and George Bancroft give solid performances "Stagecoach" is very much a movie which belongs to Claire Trevor and John Wayne. Claire Trevor is brilliant as Dallas delivering both vulnerability and strength as this woman who is looked down upon for her reputation. Trevor makes her lovable yet not in a too obvious way and so when she starts to feel for Ringo for his respect he shows her it feels just right.
But of course "Stagecoach" will always be credited as turning John Wayne from a b-movie star to an A-lister. The way we are introduction to Wayne as Ringo Kid is brilliant, the camera zooming in from a distance to focus on Wayne's good looks as the stagecoach approached is magnificent. And what follows is just as impressive as whilst we get elements of the John Wayne we would see in all his movies, the anti-hero, he shows some serious acting skills especially in the way he relates to Dallas.
Aside from all of this you also have to marvel at the sheer feel of "Stagecoach" and the way John Ford uses the stunning backdrops. Seeing the towering rocks of Monument Valley, Utah as a backdrop to the stagecoach going past gives it a real epic feel and a huge improvement on those older westerns which felt cheap for their back lot fake ness.
What this all boils down to is that "Stagecoach" even now some 70 odd years later is still a hugely impressive western. Not only does it have those elements we have grown to expect from the western genre but it has another level as we learn more about the characters aboard the stagecoach and relationships form. But it is a case that unless you've seen some of those earlier, cheesy westerns the importance and power of "Stagecoach" can easily be missed.