Sunday 7 March 2021

Movie Review: Stagecoach (1939)

A western adventure, drama and romance, Stagecoach presents a compelling cross-section of American society in a rough and tumble story about nine travellers embarking on a dangerous trip.

With reports of Apache warrior Geronimo stalking the Arizona Territory, a stagecoach carrying mail and passengers prepares to travel from Tonto to Lordsburg. Buck (Andy Devine) is the driver, and Marshal Curley (George Bancroft) elects to ride shotgun, intending to catch up with fugitive Ringo Kid (John Wayne). The passengers include saloon girl Dallas (Claire Trevor) and perpetually drunk Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), who are both being driven out of town by the prim ladies of the Law and Order League. 

Also on the coach are the pregnant Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), intending to reunite with her Army husband; professional gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), who joins the trip out of a sense of duty to protect Lucy; and whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek). Not long into the journey the stagecoach picks up pompous but corrupt banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill), and then Ringo himself, with Curley semi-arresting the fugitive but allowing him to reach Lordsburg to right a family wrong. The travellers will learn plenty about each other and encounter many hazards before the journey ends.

The western that elevated the genre back to big-budget respectability and catapulted John Wayne into stardom, Stagecoach is a character-rich, incident-packed adventure. Directed by John Ford and written by Dudley Nichols, the film patiently introduces nine distinct characters representing the diversity of western society. They are then thrown together in a journey of survival and discovery, the breathtaking but rugged vistas of Monument Valley providing a perfect backdrop to peel away superficialities and expose the human essence within.

In a compact 96 minutes with never a dull moment, Ford explores themes of goodness obscured by rough edges; immorality hiding in rich clothes; divisions caused by thoughtless classism; defence of family honour; and heroism trumping fatalism to rise to the occasion, but only when necessary. Along the way love blossoms, sacrifices are made, perceptions are shattered and losses incurred.

Remarkably the outright action is limited to one prolonged sequence, Geronimo and his braves finally making their move and launching a sustained attack. The resulting chase is standard-setting western action film making at its finest, complete with audacious stunt work by Yakima Canutt and just-in-time arrival of the cavalry.

The unfortunately archaic portrayal of the Apaches as nothing but blood-thirsty savages is of its cinematic times, and a few dramatic moments are truncated to the edge of bewilderment. But the memorable highlights predominate: Ringo's introduction, standing tall in the way of the stagecoach; Ringo offering Dallas a seat at the table; Doc Boone sobering up when medical duty calls; and Dallas pushing past Lucy's haughtiness to prove the value of sisterhood. All are unforgettable vignettes, demonstrating the genre's potential to trigger provocative debates.

The ensemble cast members contribute to the film's legacy by investing in their characters, carving out individuals with notable efficiency and then rounding them into the men and women who defined an imperfect society. Wayne's Ringo emerges as the most charismatic and sympathetic character, while Thomas Mitchell as the whiskey-loving doctor and John Carradine's elegant southern gentleman gambler lend strong support.

Thundering down the trail with elegant intent, Stagecoach is a momentous ride.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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