Stagecoach is probably my favorite western. It’s most definitely a landmark in the genre, with it being the first collaboration between John Wayne and John Ford. While there may be better westerns out there, this one always gets to me. It seems to bear more resemblance to a road movie than a western, but it’s still interesting for its treatment of western archetypes.
Stagecoach primarily consists of a group of passengers travelling on the stagecoach between Tonto and Lordsburg. There are reports of Apache Indians in the area, so the cavalry accompanies them most of the way. Each passenger has his or her own reasons for travelling to Lordsburg. Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) is a higher-class southern gentlewoman, travelling to meet her husband who is stationed in Lordsburg. Hatfield (John Carradine) is a former Confederate soldier turned gambler, and travels along to protect Mrs. Mallory from the Native Americans and the other unsavory passengers on the stagecoach. These include Doc Boon (Thomas Mitchell), a drunken physician, and Dallas (Claire Trevor) a prostitute. Also aboard are Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), a timid liquor salesman, and Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker with something to hide. Rounding that off is the notorious outlaw, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), accompanied by the Marshall, Curly (George Bancroft). The stage is driven by Buck (Andy Devine).
The characters make their prejudices known before they even board the stagecoach. Dallas and Doc Boon are chased out of town by the Law and Order League, and most of the passengers disregard both of them, especially Dallas. Doc Boon and Ringo are the only ones who are nice to her. Eventually, because she’s just a nice person, most of the rest of the passengers learn to respect her or at least tolerate her. While Dallas, Ringo, and Doc Boon prove to be good and helpful people, some of the higher class people prove to be just the opposite. It is implied that Hatfield has become a scoundrel since the war, though he does show some good qualities as well. The worst though is Gatewood, the banker. He only cares about himself for the whole picture, and does not band together with the rest of the group. Though bankers are generally considered to be pretty respectable, he is under suspicion for the entire journey, and these suspicions prove correct by the time the party arrives in Lordsburg. It’s interesting and gratifying to see these differing social types come together.
Even though there have been countless movies that have taken this premise, it’s done incredibly well here, and that’s because of the cast. They all work extremely well together, and the script gives all of them almost equal time. They become more of an ensemble, even though Wayne clearly stands out from the rest of the cast. He plays the tough guy well, but with a sensitivity that you don’t usually see in westerns. This is miles apart from his later role in Ford’s The Searchers, and he becomes much more likable here. He is just as much of an outsider here, but he is not as alone. The romance between Dallas and Ringo is wonderfully handled here; it’s pretty understated but just through the glances they exchange you can tell they care about each other. Both of them defy societal conventions to be together, and it’s pretty great to see.
There are many things I love about this movie, and one of them is the ending shootout. It’s a staple of all westerns, but here it takes up pretty minimal screen time, which is interesting to see. You do have a giant battle with Apaches beforehand that is pretty riveting however. Ringo is out for revenge on Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler), who killed his father and brother. Surprisingly, he is not as single minded in his quest for revenge as most western heroes; though he is unable to turn away from his course he does at least consider it when Dallas asks him to. As I said, the shootout itself is very brief; it’s almost anti-climatic. I don’t think Ford even shows all of it; we don’t see whether Plummer has been shot or not until the next scene. Whether this is just clever editing to avoid violence for the sake of censorship or whether it is actually intended to minimize the importance of the revenge plot is unclear, but I prefer to think it’s the second one.
Stagecoach is a great movie, not just a great western. It may seem pretty simple today, but it works flawlessly. Not only does it feature a great cast of characters working together perfectly, but it also plays with western archetypes in different ways. It made John Wayne a star, and rightfully so. Though other westerns might be more complex, you’d be hard pressed to find one better executed than Stagecoach.
“We’re the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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