Classic Movie Review: Stagecoach (1939)

Title: Stagecoach
Release Date: March 3, 1939
Director: John Ford
Production Company: Walter Wanger Productions

I’ve seen John Wayne in films like The Quiet Man and The Longest Day, but I somehow have never watched one of his Western movies all the way through.  This is especially surprising considering that my late stepfather always seemed to have a John Wayne movie on the tv whenever I visited.

Stagecoach creates drama from the simple premise of putting a group of strangers together in a precarious situation and letting their characters drive the story.  The threat they face is the risk of an Apache attack on their stagecoach as it travels between towns in the Arizona territory.  Like most Westerns, the Apache are depicted as violent savages, with no mention that the Apache have been wronged by settlers claiming their land and the US Army waging war on them.  Of course, the white settlers of 1880 would have little to no sympathy for the Apache so it is accurate in that sense to depict them that way in 1939.

Outside the problematic depiction of the Apache, the film is a tense drama with 9 individuals aboard a stagecoach (2 on top, 7 within), contrasting the cramped interiors with the wide open spaces of the scenic Monument Valley as the backdrop.  The characters include:

  • Buck (Andy Devine), the stage driver – a comic relief character who is a bit overplayed.
  • Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), a law enforcement official who guards the stagecoach with a shotgun.
  • Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute driven out of town by a “Law and Order League.”  Trevor was the top-billed actor in this film and Dallas has one of the most well-developed character arcs.
  • Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), an alcoholic doctor also forced out by the “Law and Order League.”
  • Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a whiskey salesman that everyone refers to as a pastor, perhaps because he’s the moral center of this film.
  • Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant woman determined to join up with her husband who is in the Cavalry.
  • Hatfield (John Carradine), a Confederate veteran and gambler who joins the stage because he (rather patriarchally) thinks that Mrs. Mallory needs protection.
  • Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker who is embezzling money.  His character serves the role of complaining a lot, and in a large cast is the I think could’ve been removed without harming the story.
  • Henry, the “Ringo Kid” (John Wayne), an escapee from prison intent on tracking down the men who killed his father and brother.  He’s found stranded in the desert early on the journey, and Curley arrests him, although Henry is not held in chains and ends up becoming a leader/protector of the group.

Along they way there is conflict among the group over the Civil War, and whether or not they should journey into Apache territory without Cavalry protection, and even matters of class.  Mrs. Mallory is repeatedly afforded treatment as a “lady” while the same is denied to Dallas, and only the Ringo Kid speaks up about the inequality.  They also face crises ranging from Mrs. Mallory going into labor to needing to float the stagecoach across a river.

When they finally arrive at their destination in Lordsburg, New Mexico, Ringo seeks out his rivals, the Plummers.  In these Hays Code days, the inevitable 1-against-3 duel is only hinted at rather than shown on screen. What I found fascinating about these final scenes is the staging of Lordsburg, with dozens of extras milling about on darkened, dusty streets.  The whole scene is unsettling and claustrophobic compared with the open deserts of the stagecoach scenes.  With reservations noted, this is a compelling Western drama, and if the tropes seem overly familiar, its worth remember that Stagecoach was the origin of many ideas imitated in the ensuing decades of Western film-making.

Rating: ****