Stagecoach (1939): John Ford
Hollywood history is riddled with years high and low. No year soared higher than 1939. As Stagecoach is probably the only action movie still possible to watch from 1939, it’s The Exploder’s best chance to discuss the year.
The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach are not simply classic films, they are Best Picture Winners in nearly every other year. But they went up against Gone with the Wind, arguably the most successful film ever made, and lost.
An absolute classic of the genre, Stagecoach was the only Oscar loss for director John Ford. He won four other times the Best Director statue, a feat unequaled so far.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A brazen group of stagecoach passengers brave Apache territory to ride to Lordsburg.
John Ford fought producers across Hollywood to cast lesser-known actor John Wayne in the starring role for Stagecoach. Until then, Wayne was known but hardly a star.
The movie hit theaters, and Wayne skyrocketed into stardom. AFI ranked him 13th on its list of greatest male stars in Hollywood’s golden era.
Before that, Wayne was the Ringo Kid.
A stagecoach carrying eight people departs Tonto, Arizona Territory, for Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. Not far from its origination, the coach comes upon the famed Ringo Kid, a prison escapee dead set to reach Lordsburg for nefarious purposes.
Ringo’s first appearance onscreen is memorable, as the camera frames him and zooms in. All the other characters were introduced in whiz-bang manner, rapid fire. Not Ringo, he appears on his own.
Of course, Ringo is famous in these here parts. Marshal Curley knows who he is. Ringo knows the marshal and the coach driver, Buck. “Hi ya, Buck,” he says ***. “How’s your folks?”
For that kind of jab, Marshal Curley (George Bancroft) arrests Ringo. He’ll take him to jail in Lordsburg, which is fine with Ringo because he ain’t got money for the coach. Ringo was set to threaten his way onto the coach, until he saw a cavalry unit ride behind him.
Ringo boards the coach and sits on the floor. He has an easy rapport with Dallas (Claire Trevor), and especially Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell in a Oscar-winning performance), who fixed his brother’s arm when Ringo was a kid. Ringo tells Boone that he’s a fine doctor, when sober. Most folks would call that a backhanded compliment, but I think Ringo believed it genuine.
The conflicts and alliances of the coach passengers are already known to the audience before Ringo boards. Ringo fits in squarely on one side. He opposes the banker Gatewood (Burton Churchill) and the disgraced southern gentleman Hatfield (John Carradine), mostly for being brash and overbearing. That’s probably how the audience feels, so we immediately ally with Ringo, despite his being under arrest.
Ringo’s chummiest with Dallas. He fights for her recognition when no one else, including Dallas, will. He demands her vote be taken by Curley. Ringo ensures Dallas drinks water after Mallory. All with an easy smile that says, “I’m so friendly I can wear a scarf and it won’t detract from my manliness.”
Ringo’s desire to make Lordsburg is hidden for much of the movie. At first, he will only say that he’s going there for “a job.” Turns out the job is murder. Dallas begs Ringo not to go. He’s going to shoot down the Plummer brothers, three men who murdered Ringo’s entire family. Curley arrested Ringo because he anticipated this showdown, and he thought it the only way to save Ringo’s life.
Wayne’s sly grin never flies far from his face. One moment he might be ordering a braggart to pipe down, the next he’s fighting for a lady’s honor. He’s also a family man. When he sees Dallas hold Mallory’s newborn baby, he likes the sight, and knew then and there he would make an honest woman out of her.
Ringo proves a great shot. He perches atop the sprinting coach, shooting down Apache horsemen. His pinnacle moment comes when he kills the three Plummer brothers. We don’t see how he does it, but we hear the gunshots. They are quick and effective, and Ringo comes through unscratched.
Ringo knew Dallas was a prostitute, but he didn’t care. Two societal castoffs ought to find solace in each other. Ringo’s conviction that he would kill the Plummers never wavered, never struck fear into him, and he wanted Dallas to see the far future, not his potential for dying on Lordsburg’s mud-caked streets.
Stagecoach served notice to the world–John Wayne, unflappable, gets results.
Rarely does a film’s chief villain appear onscreen for only three or so seconds, but that’s exactly what happens with Geronimo in Stagecoach. Chief White Horse played Geronimo, though you won’t learn that from the credits. The old man stands still, stoically (stereotypically), perched on a rock overlooking the path of the lone stagecoach through New Mexico Territory.
The Apache threaten the coach and frontier society throughout the film, but not overtly. Aside from a group of Apache chasing horsemen in the credits, they never outright menace the coach until a final charge through the desert flats.
Americans knew of Geronimo when he was alive, when Stagecoach came out, and today, as perhaps the most famous Native American in US history. Too bad he was barely onscreen.
Geronimo threatens to kill every soul in Stagecoach, but he’s a man we don’t see until more than an hour has passed. Purists might scoff at calling the movie an action film, because it only has one action scene. But it is one hell of a scene.
After the coach fords the river they are in the clear. Or so they think. Gatewood apologizes for his rotten behavior. Boone offers a toast to everyone’s health. Just when he does that, Peacock the whiskey salesman, ever baneful to Boone, takes an arrow to the chest.
Marshal Curley, ready for this fight the moment they left Tonto, aims his rifle at two warriors cresting a hilltop. Two shots, two kills.
War party attack! And boy, do they. Buck (Andy Devine) whips his horses into a frenzy driving them from the bushed hillocks onto flat, white plains. Behind them are about two dozen Apache warriors, some with rifles and some with non-combusting weapons.
The coach thunders across the plain at maximum speed. Hatfield takes a pistol. Curley shoots and kills another Apache. Shots are fired back and forth, by whom and at whom doesn’t matter, because it’s everyone.
The camera work in this scene is fantastic. As the horses speed along, the camera matches speed beside it, capturing the horses’ incredible labor and Ringo climbing onto the coach’s roof. He’s handed a shotgun. Ringo coolly uses the roof rails to steady himself and pop shots at the raiding party.
But what’s going on inside the coach? Peacock, it seems, is not dead. Boone leans over him, trying to help, but deleterious Gatewood won’t cease squawking about their danger. Boone punches him out.
Ford again places the camera in a unique spot. In one moment it’s on the ground. The coach thunders over it, followed by some warrior horses.
One Apache reloads his rifle at full gallop. The Apache are tearing up the coach, but they aren’t doing any further damage to the people inside. Hatfield is joyously popping shots at the raiders. Even Boone, who can shoot when sober, shoots, but likely ain’t sober. Peacock must be either OK or dead.
The Americans are surviving the raid and the Apache are not. Despite losing several warriors, their numbers don’t appear to decrease. Likely they could not all shoot at the same time, so when one fell another galloped closer to take his place.
The camera work, again it should be said, excels, framing the coach from the front, side, and rear. These aren’t quick cuts on a soundstage, they are real horses and people out in the world, and the camera is eager to show that.
Boone happily cuts down a rider and Ringo successfully mounts the lead horse after Buck has been injured driving them, but the Americans are in trouble. They run out of bullets at the same time. Dallas peeks at Lucy Mallory’s (Louise Platt) baby, who hasn’t suffered a bit.
Hatfield checks his revolver–one bullet left. He chambers the round and slowly aims the barrel at the side of Mallory’s head. In the frame is Mallory’s head resting against the coach wall, ignorant of the bullet inches from her brain. A pop is heard. The gun tumbles from Hatfield’s hand; it’s he who’s been shot.
Mallory perks up. She hears a sound. A bugle. An American cavalry bugle! They’ve come to save them!
The US Cavalry, riding from Lordsburg, perhaps, or from the heavens above, charge toward the eight or so remaining Apache as the coach rides to the safety of “civilization.”
The desperate dash of the coach toward Lordsburg is the only action scene in Stagecoach. That scene is a landmark of action moviemaking, featuring one of the best and most famous stunts in history.
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid did not receive top billing in Stagecoach. That honor went to Claire Trevor as Dallas, a prostitute with a heart of gold. (That description, I’m hoping, wasn’t yet a cliche in 1939.)
As the film begins, Dallas is being ejected from Tonto by the women of the Law and Order Society, women whose faces are all nostrils, it seems, because their noses are turned up so highly.
The snooty women throw out Dallas because she’s a woman of ill repute, which, in the Old West, meant one thing–hooking. No one ever says so in Stagecoach, but sometimes you have to read between the lines. (If I was a child watching the movie, I would think that the upscale women kicked Dallas out simply for disliking her.)
Dallas is eager to leave town. As she boards the coach, two local men cat call her when they see her stocking. She doesn’t wish to return, ever. “There are worse things than Apaches,” she says later.
Dallas accepts withering glares and distasteful treatment from her fellow townsfolk. One almost senses that she feels deserving of the maltreatment. She has no cause to argue against it.
Still, she pushes back. Dallas offers her shoulder for Mallory to use as a pillow. Mallory turns her down. Dallas stays awake all night with Mallory after the latter gives birth. No thanks are given. Dallas swaddles the baby and does everything but nurse her. Never does Mallory thank Dallas.
Dallas pours that angst into fighting with Ringo, for Ringo. She begs him to skip his self-appointed date to avenge his parents’ death by killing the Plummer brothers. She wails and pines, to no avail.
Trevor brings a lot of emotional power to her role. Subtlety is not in her wheelhouse. I might consider this overacting, but she was such a great foil for Wayne that they balanced out.
The other coach passengers are equally memorable. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a whiskey salesman and a coward. He’s the only person staunchly opposed to riding through the desert unescorted. By “staunchly opposed” I mean meekly acquiescent to the whims of the other passengers. Pun intended.
Peacock’s best friend (at least from one perspective), is Dr. Boone. Mitchell’s Boone is the town drunk and prototype of Otis the town drunk in The Andy Griffith Show if there ever was one. Boone is ejected from town by the same Law and Order women that ejected Dallas. Boone takes the event in stride (because he’s a lovable drunk), referencing the Iliad, proving that it’s not only Millennials who quote pop culture randomly.
Mitchell won one of the film’s two Oscars (four people for the score), and it’s easy to see why–he was great, deftly wavering between bulbous drunk and stern practitioner of medicine/moral compass. Never without a drink in hand, Boone can deliver babies as well as he can throw back a shot.
The Apache warriors, barely seen, must be Stagecoach‘s henchmen. They are fearless warriors intent on killing Americans and Mexicans. We don’t know their motives, only their tenacity.
During the coach’s ride through the desert the Apache follow, setting fire to any settlements they find. They finally chase the coach toward Lordsburg. They could have done this any time–there’s no way the Apache did not know where the coach was at all times, and that mostly it was undefended.
That suggests a sinister toying with the coach passengers’ emotions, because it was the exact moment when they thought they were out of danger that the Apache attacked.
And they attacked with fury. Their riding skills are unparalleled. One rider is shown shooting, reloading, and shooting again at full gallop and hands free of the horse reigns. They aren’t so great at shooting rifles, at least less good than the whites, because they only hit one person. Their skills with a bow seem terrific, as the only arrow shot pierces Peacock’s chest.
Despite losing two-thrids of their forces they charge on, until the US cavalry arrives to turn them back. Fearless, terrifying warriors all, were the Apache.
For being a general jerk, town banker Henry Gatewood is relegated here. Though Gatewood never actively opposes the stagecoach’s journey (he’s the most adamant for completing the journey to Lordsburg), he stole a lot of cash from his bank (and thus its customers).
Gatewood spends all of his time yelling at the passengers and man spreading in the center seat. The guy even threatens the US Army for not escorting the coach through Apache territory. “It’s your duty to escort us,” he screams at a soldier. “Actually, sir,” the soldier more or less responds, “It’s your duty to shut the hell up and my duty to follow orders.”
Gatewood delivers a fine monologue on the terrible state of the union. For some folks, the country is always getting worse, and Gatewood’s one of those folks. He bemoans the flimflammery of the Army, detests the government’s growing oversight of business, and longs for a businessman as president, all while clutching a valise stuffed with 50 grand.
Is Gatewood bluffing his anger to distance people from him and avoid suspicion about his valise and reasons for desperately wanting to go to Lordsburg, or is he a general asshole? We only see him on the day he stole the money and the days of the intense ride, so who knows. Nope, I’m settling on general asshole.
Of nefarious motives is the snake-like Hatfield. Hatfield is a degenerate gambler, something the Law and Order scumbags don’t mind, as he’s allowed to stay in town. If you’re keeping score: drinking’s bad, whoring’s bad, gambling’s fine.
Hatfield takes one look at Mallory and declares her to be “like an angel in a jungle.” His Southern Gentleman senses are all tingling, and he quits town simply to escort Mallory to Lordsburg. My 21st century eyes read this act like classic Hello Milady syndrome. Mallory appears less than enthused about it, but she’s nine months pregnant, so nothing short of birthing the goddamned baby will please her.
Turns out that Hatfield, a Confederate, finds himself disgraced from his family for his gambling. In the film’s best verbal exchange, Hatfield chides Boone for smoking a cigar in the coach. “A gentleman doesn’t smoke in the presence of a lady,” Hatfield says. ” Three weeks ago I took a bullet out of a man who was shot by a gentleman,” Boone fires back. “The bullet was in his back.” To hell with your moralization you rebel degenerate.
Hatfield is the only passenger to die in the movie. He dies with a smile on his face. Many have read this moment as a commentary on the death of Confederacy or Hatfield finally finding honor in death where he none in life. I think his passing symbolizes both.
So many horses appeared in Stagecoach that perhaps they are the true stars. Often they outnumber the humans onscreen. They are the ones taking unnecessary risks during the shootouts that comprise the film’s final act.
Several Apache riders are shot while riding at full gallop. The men fall, and so do the horses. Watch carefully, and you’ll see the horses roll and immediately get back up. They were likely trained to do just that, perhaps only that, and hurt neither themselves or their rider.
As far as humans go, no person working the film achieved more that stunt actor Yakima Canutt.
Canutt was a rodeo champion and silent film actor. As the talkies came into vogue, he realized he needed a career change, because the flu had damaged his voice.
He moved into stunt work and in Stagecoach produced one of the greatest stunts of all time. One brave Apache tries to board the coach’s horses by leaping from his horse to the lead pair attached to the coach. The warrior stands on the wood beam connecting the horses. Someone from the coach shoots him. The warrior falls beneath the horses and the coach. The camera follows him the whole time as all those hoofs and wheels clack over him. At shot’s end, we see the man’s head rise, indicating that he didn’t immediately die.
Not to be outdone, Canutt tries a similar move again. During the coach’s desperate flight from Geronimo’s raiders, Buck, the coach driver, is shot. He can’t steer the horses. It’s up to Ringo. Instead of taking the reigns, he chooses to leap onto the lead horse and drive from the front.
Ringo (his stunt double) hops from the coach onto the harness between the first pair of horses, then the middle pair, and finally the lead pair. An adult male horse averages eight feet long. Add the space between head and tail, and you’re looking at a nine-foot leap at least, while horses are moving at top speed.
Two world-class stunts that, nearly 80 years later, wowed me. What must have movie-goers thought in ’39?
If you thought the magnificent stagecoach run through the white flats of Arizona was the film’s climax, you are forgiven for your wrongness. You forgot this was a John Wayne movie.
The coach reaches Lordsburg in tatters, Ringo driving it. He steps out and reveals to Marshal Curley that he withheld some bullets during the Apache fight. How many? Three, one for each Plummer brother. A couple of town drunks recognize the Kid, and they run tell Plummer that their nemesis has arrived.
Plummer, the first we’ve seen of him, is playing stud poker. He stands when hearing of Ringo’s arrival, into shadowed obscurity, clutching his cards. Carelessly he tosses them onto the table, a winning hand, a Dead Man’s Hand. The screen shows the aces and eights Plummer held, the same hand of Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot to death in 1876. Plummer, had he studied history, would have known that his hand foreshadowed his death.
Dallas and Ringo wander through the active town. Dallas, upset that Ringo won’t heed her advice and quit his revenge tour, begs him to say goodbye on the boardwalk. “Ain’t never going to say goodbye,” Ringo says.
Plummer, now united with his two brothers, waits tensely in the bar. All the bar’s patrons wait tensely, knowing that the next person to walk in the bar might get shot.
Doc Boone is the next one in, and very nearly is. Despite his brush with death, he asks for whiskey and gets it. The bartender takes the gilt mirror off the wall.
Dallas and Ringo continue their awkward walk through town. Ringo has not a care in the world. Dallas is embarrassed of herself.
“I asked you to marry me, didn’t I?” Ringo says. Actually, Duke, you didn’t. Maybe that’s what Dallas is so upset about. That or the murder you’re cooking up.
Back in the bar, Buck pops in to say that Ringo will be stopping by in “six or seven minutes.” Plummer tries to go outside, but Boone stands in his way and, in his most heroic moment, demands Plummer give him the bartender’s shotgun he took. Plummer, after threatening Boone, obliges. “Don’t ever let me do that again,” Boone says to the bartender.
The Plummers skulk through town. One brother shoots at a black cat and misses by four feet. The brothers are eerily backlit as they search/wait for Ringo.
The showdown. Ringo approaches from the bottom of the screen, the Plummers from the top. All parties are as cool as a desert water trough.
The scene cuts to Ringo. He starts the shooting, but tricks everyone by falling to the ground with his shot. That was a neat trick, but we don’t see any more. Instead, the film cuts to Dallas, who calls Ringo’s name over and over, and then the assembled posse in the bar. Plummer, surprisingly, enters the bar. The crowd parts. Plummer walks to order a drink, a pacific smile on his face, and collapses.
Ringo returns, not to the bar, but to Dallas. They embrace. Enter cock block Marshal Curley again, wagon in tow, to haul Ringo off to jail. The law man offers Ringo a seat on the wagon and a moment to say goodbye. Suddenly, the marshal hurls a rock at a horse and off speeds the cart. The marshal offers to buy Doc Boone a drink. “Just one,” Boone says.
Ringo and Dallas ride off into what might be a sunset.
Buck, Boone, and Peacock provide ample entertainment for each other and for viewers.
Boone epitomizes the lovable drunk. He dubs Peacock “Reverend” from their meeting and never lets up. The doctor offers to hold his bag of whiskey samples. Peacock attempts to take them back, but is too chicken to do it. Boone slyly removes at least one bottle from the satchel during the ride.
Buck is full of good lines. He bemoans the size of his Mexican in-law family. “I bet I’m feeding half the state of Chiuahua.” And all he eats are “Frijoles,” ***;
You can’t beat Monument Valley.
John Ford used the valley many times throughout his career, but Stagecoach was his first, and your first is special. When the characters are aboard the coach, they ride through the valley.
You might recognize East Mitten and West Mitten buttes in several shots. No, the coach wasn’t traveling in a circle, that was just Ford using gorgeous scenery again and (probably) hoping that no one would notice. If they noticed, few cared.
The passengers on the stagecoach came from all walks of like, but they fell into two clear camps: assholes and not. Stagecoach definitely sides with the non-assholes, but they are the ones you least suspect. Gatewood, the banker=asshole. Hatfield, the gentleman=asshole. Mallory, the pregnant wife of a soldier=asshole.
These three people are considered the cream of society. Gatewood says, early on, “What’s good for the banks is good for the country.” Not only a banker, Gatewood is the bunch’s truest patriot. And he steals thousands. Hatfield fought for the rebel cause, but perhaps he enjoyed the fighting too much. His grin during the chase scene contrasts with the grim determinism of the coach’s other shooters. Mallory never once thanks Dallas for the latter’s aid in birthing her child and taking care of it. The closest she comes is, “If you ever need anything…”
The truest assholes in life, the movie says, are the ones certain they aren’t. Dallas is a whore, and the party’s nicest person. Ringo is a soon-to-be killer and escaped convict, and also the friendliest. Boone is an alcoholic and the funniest character. Buck is terrified and a dimwit, and he’s also the funniest (it was a tie). The most downtrodden folks can be the best, and the best folks can be the worst.
The film’s other major statement is, of course, about Native Americans.
The Apache finally appear on a bluff overlooking the coach’s progress toward Lordsburg. Leading them is an aging Geronimo, and the actor portraying him in that one moment is a dead ringer.
We only see the Apache attacking the white Americans. Such warfare was a given for Americans living then and perhaps when Stagecoach came out.
The Red Scare was easy escapism for white Americans living in the settled East and coastal West. Westerns allowed these budding suburbanites a cultural memory of when they were underdogs.
But the natives of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains were far from favorites. Geronimo and his ilk were Japanese flying Zeros above Pearl Harbor, weren’t Sherman’s men scorching Georgia, weren’t General Howe charging redcoats up Breed’s Hill.
The Apache were a stronger band of men fighting the influx of European descendants that began on North America in 1519 and never stopped. American settlers were the vanguard of a cultural subsumption, the 19th century’s version of West Bank apartment dwellers.
Stagecoach‘s core message is this: the West was dangerous for whites when Geronimo was out there. Fact. He loved raiding American and Mexican settlements. The people living there were in danger without (and with) military aid.
Despite all this, the Apache fought a losing war.
For me, living in the 21st century, far removed from the expansion era of the United States, I can’t watch westerns, especially “cowboys and Indians” westerns without a pinch of salt. Maybe not “pinch,” but packet after packet of salt.
Peacock tosses around the word “savage” a couple of times. But he is an avowed coward. Otherwise, the natives are regarded fairly well. The first one to appear is the stereotypical Stoic Brave. He’s a Cheyenne, and brings word to the US Army of Geronimo’s whereabouts and doings. Why? Not because of fealty to the democratic United States, but because the Cheyenne “hate Apaches worse than we do,” says a US soldier.
We don’t see any Apache until one shows up married to Chris, the cross-eyed Mexican holed up in ___. Cross-eyed Mexican–that can’t be good. ANYWAY, this Apache woman is stoic, too. However, in the next scene, she sings a beautiful Spanish song. You pass, movie, for that.
While the movie falls in line with countless others for depicting Native Americans as a belligerent Other, it avoids general cataloging and comes out ahead FOR ITS TIME.
- Producer Walter Wagner wanted Ford to replace Wayne with Gary Cooper and Trevor with Marlene Dietrich. In some cases, both parties can be right, and this was one of them. Dietrich was a legend already and Cooper eventually starred in another Hall of Fame western High Noon.
Summary (49/68): 72%
Terrific characterization makes Stagecoach the terrific movie it is. Each coach rider has a set agenda. Some want to go through to Lordsburg and some want to turn back, but all for differing reasons. Some don’t have a choice. These interpersonal dramas don’t dilute the film, they amplify it.
Stagecoach hovers around the top ten of many lists of best westerns ever made. Perhaps most importantly, it often outranks all westerns made before it. Groundbreaking, myth-making, and formative, Stagecoach rightly belongs in the Pantheon of great westerns, great action movies, and great films, period.