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Stagecoach (1939)

by on 2011/06/18

“They’re saved from the blessings of civilization.”

* * * *

I’m going to stick my neck out here, though I believe my reasoning’s valid. I’d venture to say Stagecoach is the earliest feature of interest to a modern western fan. A short, sharp, fast-moving tale of flight through dangerous territory, it needs none of the cinematic advances pioneered in the last seven decades.

But that’s not really why most people watch it, is it?

Remembered as the landmark (public) meeting of two eventual legends — John Ford and John Wayne (both of They Were Expendable) — it marked some very important turning points. It was a major new adventure in the early days of sound, marked a dramatic shift away from poverty row B-westerns, and was considered a filmic primer by none other than Orson Welles.

Its story concerns a small group of travelers on a shuttle between towns in Arizona and New Mexico. Threatened by Geronimo’s Apaches on the warpath, driver Buck is guarded by Marshal Curly. Their passengers include a cross-section of society at the time: a banker, an alcoholic doctor, a notorious gambler, a salesman, and a would-be debutante. The leads, Claire Trevor and John Wayne play a prostitute, Dallas, and escaped prisoner, Ringo, respectively.

The varied cast — each with their own characteristics and motivations — adds thematic depth to the existing narrative. A classist morality play of sorts, Stagecoach gets a lot of mileage out of the storm around Dallas and Ringo. While they’re happy to treat each other like normal human beings, the others turn up their noses and steer a wide course.

For their own parts, the leads are a bit of a mixed bag. Claire Trevor is certainly attractive, but delivers her lines too aggressively for my taste. Her performance might be a remnant of a more theatrical tradition, but when another actor upstages John Wayne, you know they’re over the top.

Mind you, Wayne may be playing my favourite of his roles here. As the Ringo Kid, I expected more of an uppity, violent rogue. Instead, he’s at his quietest and subtlest, unusually self-controlled. I began to feel he was in his element, as seasoning in an ensemble, not an overpowering soloist.

The production, as a whole, is similarly grounded. Action beats coexist with traditional folk music threads. Neither dominates, but there are also no jarring transitions between the two. They easily slip from one to the other, in a natural rhythmical pace.

That said, I didn’t enjoy an interlude sung by Elvira Rios. I understand the function of it, as it covers a (then) sensitive plot point, and yet that knowledge just didn’t do much for my sense of enjoyment. Fortunately, we get back on track soon enough, and the adventure picks up with renewed vigour. The climactic stretch is as exciting now as most any car chase you will see.

That’s not to say it’s without issues. One character punching another unconscious feels weak, like a choreographed trial. A stuntman, run over by horses, impresses, if less for a sense of conviction than mortal peril. Characters are struck by bullets and arrows from improbable directions. And one lady looks desperately bored in her flight out through hell.

Still, how many movies from the Thirties hold up for today’s average, jaded viewer? It’s a testament to the strength of Ford’s craft and artistry that Stagecoach works, unimpeded by any of my slight qualms. I’m not surprised its director and star steered the course of popular westerns for another generation or so to come.

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Not rated

96 minutes

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