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With: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler
Written by: Dudley Nichols (and Ben Hecht, uncredited), based on a story by Ernest Haycox
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 02/15/1939
IMDB

Stagecoach (1939)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Enter the Ringo Kid

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Note: I wrote the above review over a decade ago, and probably after having seen the movie on a cruddy old VHS tape. I have seen Stagecoach many times since, and have come to love it.

During the production of Citizen Kane in 1941, Orson Welles screened John Ford's Stagecoach something like 40 times in order to learn how to make a movie. "It's not my favorite Ford," Welles would later say, "but what a textbook!"

The thing about watching Stagecoach in 1998 is that it does come across as a textbook, an essential piece of film history to be studied, but not savored. I've found that the more one learns about film, the better Citizen Kane gets, but also the more one learns about film, the less interesting Stagecoach becomes. Yes, Ford elevated the western to more elegant heights, but Scorsese did the same to the gangster film with GoodFellas without matching the elegance and honesty of Mean Streets.

Before Stagecoach, westerns were pretty much by-the-numbers good guy vs. bad guy flicks. Ford changed everything by loading a cross-section of society into a stagecoach travelling across Apache territory. The rich folks look down their noses at the scoundrels, but the scoundrels are the ones with the heart and the courage to be the heroes at the end of the day. It's a pretty great formula that has been copied a thousand times in the cinema, but in Stagecoach, it looks, well, like a textbook. Part of the problem was the screenplay by the pretentious Dudley Nichols, whom Ford took very seriously. While other directors were able to dilute Nichols' work to make it more bearable, Ford enhanced it. Ford's sentiment that he inherited from D.W. Griffith ages badly, and it coats the film with a sticky goo that distances the modern day viewer.

Ford and his stuntman Yakima Canutt also invented some incredible stuntwork and action sequences for the Apache battle. One Apache climbs on, around, and under the horses and the coach itself before he is shot and knocked off. These scenes are impressive, and they bring the film briefly to life, but they, too, have been integrated so firmly into film language that it's no longer a surprise.

The movie's biggest accomplishment was casting John Wayne in the role of the Ringo Kid. It's a great sympathetic role of a jailbreaker and sharpshooter who falls passionately in love with the prostitute (Claire Trevor). It won him a stardom seldom equalled in the movies, and led to a great many more movies, at least a dozen of them masterpieces. Thomas Mitchell won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the drunken doctor. John Carradine is also on board, but in a role hardly worth mentioning.

One has only to look at Ford's friend Howard Hawks to see how far they had advanced. By 1939, Hawks had already made Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, and Only Angels Have Wings, movies much more sophisticated in technique and character. I don't think Ford hit his stride until after World War II, with films like My Darling Clementine (1946), The Fugitive (1947) and the Cavalry Trilogy (1948-50).

One should see Stagecoach in order to know its place in film history, but I find that I can not get excited about it. One would rather wrestle with poetry than textbooks.

Note: In 2010, the Criterion Collection released a great, must-have Blu-Ray edition; certainly seeing it like this makes a huge difference, and an improvement over whatever muddy VHS tape I watched when I first reviewed the film. The new HD transfer looks like a genuine, projected film print, complete with texture and grain. It comes with a commentary track by my friend and former film professor Jim Kitses, one of the leading experts on Westerns in the country. Peter Bogdanovich provides a little video introduction. There's a lengthy, TV interview with Ford himself, taped in 1968. The disc also includes a restored version of a very early Ford Western, Bucking Broadway (1917). The liner notes include an essay by David Cairns and the original short story by Ernest Haycox. There's also a trailer, and tons more stuff. Unfortunately, some of the extras from the 2006 Warner Home Video DVD are not here, so completists may want to keep both. Please upgrade my rating to four stars for the Criterion Blu-Ray.

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