Directed by John Ford
Based on “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Donald Meek, Louise Platt, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, Berton Churchill
In 1939 audiences were treated to the spectacles of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. They were given the drama of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the heart of Goodbye, Mr Chips. So how did a western end up in the discussion of great films from that year? Perhaps it’s because it was directed by John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath). Or maybe it was the presence of a young and dashing star named John Wayne (Red River). For whatever reason, this film transcended the western genre and has continued to live as one of the great achievements in filmmaking.
This film was based on a short story called The Stage to Lordsburg, written by Ernest Haycox (Apache Trail). The script was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dudley Nichols (The Informer). In addition to Wayne, the cast of this movie features some of the great actors of the day. The cast includes Claire Trevor (Key Largo), Andy Devine (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), John Carradine (Captains Courageous), and Donald Meek (You Can’t Take It With You). Louise Platt (Street of Chance), Thomas Mitchell (It’s a Wonderful Life), George Bancroft (The Docks of New York), and Berton Churchill (So This Is London) are also featured. This one would go on to earn seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.
This story begins by bringing together an unlikely band of characters who might not have anything to do with one another were it not for their shared transportation. The movie features characters who are relatable and complex. Both the men and women are strong and sometimes flawed. The story takes this colorful group on an adventure, adding new faces along the way. This isn’t just an adventure on the frontier, it’s also about the interactions between the competing personalities. The looming threat of Apache violence is always there, but there is tension from many other sources. The moments in the stagecoach create excellent moments where the dialogue really unveils the motives of the people on board.
Stagecoach examines a lot of different ideas, including the class system that separates the characters. Through dialogue and action, the movie shows the prejudices of some, and the insecurities of others. The story also brings up questions of redemption and forgiveness. What makes all of this work is the fact that the film never loses track of the bigger picture. All of these elements blend together into a very complete story with some incredible twists. This is a western, and the elements of the genre are strong throughout the movie. What makes this transcendent is that the story could’ve been told in any setting and any era.
When Ford began shopping Stagecoach around he was met with resistance because he refused to cast anyone other than John Wayne in the starring role. Eventually he found the financial backing and was allowed to keep the casting the way he wanted. The only concession Ford made was to bill Claire Trevor above Wayne, as she was more well-known at the time. Like many of Wayne’s best performances, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in his place. He is young and handsome, and looks like a young man who might have actually lived on the frontier. Wayne’s work is thoughtful and intuitive, and he creates chemistry with all of the other actors in the movie. He also does a great job with the physical aspects of the role. It’s an iconic performance that catapulted him into major stardom.
Claire Trevor plays a prostitute without falling into the clichés of the character. Instead of being a loud and crass woman, she brings out a compassion and intelligence. Beneath it all, she also carries a sense of self-awareness that really makes her performance pop. John Carradine also adds good work of his own. In addition to looking the part, Carradine plays the Southern gambler perfectly. The Southern charm is evident on the surface, but there’s so much more going on underneath. Andy Devine and Donald Meek also add great characters to this one. Both of them played similar roles many times, but their casting feels perfect for this story. The chemistry these two actors created with the rest of the cast really stands out.
Louise Platt, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, and Berton Churchill also add great performances to the mix. The entire cast seemed to understand the tension between their characters, as well as their internal conflicts. They also did a great job understanding that their roles were written as archetypes rather than “characters”. Their intuitive work helped to bring something far more meaningful to their work, as well as the movie as a whole. Thomas Mitchell’s performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This was a great way to cap 1939 for Mitchell. He also had roles in a number of other classic films that year, including Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Only Angels Have Wings.
This film helped to cement the connection between John Ford, John Wayne, and Monument Valley. Much of the film was produced at the iconic location, with other scenes shot in Arizona and the RKO Encino Movie Ranch. The location was inhospitable, but Ford was able to get great work from the cast and crew. The great visuals helped Bert Glennon (Dive Bomber) earn a nomination for Best Cinematography (B&W). The movie also earned nominations for Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction. Despite its age, this movie still looks incredible. Some of the iconic shots are almost breathtaking. The action was also nicely planned and captured, including the great stunt work. Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken added a great score to this one as well. Their work earned them the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring.
It’s hard to put into words what makes this such a special movie. Perhaps it’s just that the elements all came together in near perfection. While it is a Western, there’s something here that fans of drama will really enjoy. I would also suggest this one to fans of the stars. Even the smaller roles have a lot going on. I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.