Westerns were some of the first movies ever made, and they never really seem to go out of style. Look no further than your multiplex for confirmation — Cowboys and Aliens is opening this weekend. And at the Detroit Film Theatre on Saturday, there is also the opportunity to see one of the most significant and influential of the genre on the big screen: Stagecoach.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Westerns, but it is rare that one is as influential as Stagecoach. This is one of those movies that seems cliché-ridden because it has been borrowed from so many times. The plot may sound familiar even if you haven’t seen it: In the 1870s, a group of people from all walks of life board a westbound stagecoach. Everyone is worried about Geronimo’s Apaches attacking, but for various reasons must make the trip anyway. They are escorted by a marshal and along the way pick up an outlaw, the Ringo Kid, who has escaped from prison to avenge the murder of his family.
The characters are familiar: the disgraced doctor (Thomas Mitchell), the outlaw (John Wayne), the woman of ill repute (Claire Trevor), the society lady (Louise Platt), the dim bulb (Andy Devine), the pompous bank manager (Berton Churchill), the marshal (George Bancroft), the gambler (John Carradine), and the fastidious city gent (Donald Meek). Its conventions have been adopted, not only in westerns, but in nearly every other genre as well. For instance, the idea of people from varied walks of life being thrown together in life-threatening circumstances has been recycled endlessly. I am reminded of the Airport movies and Blazing Saddles; other reviewers have mentioned Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, The Maltese Falcon, Hotel, and Joss Whedon’s unfortunately-short-lived TV series Firefly. And Orson Welles allegedly screened it 70 or more times before he made Citizen Kane.
But the same elements that we now take for granted would have seemed novel when the film was released in 1939, as did its social commentary, which hadn’t really been employed in a Western before. The stagecoach is rife with socio-economic tensions. The lady refuses to sit with the prostitute. The Civil War wasn’t that long ago; the gambler and the doctor were on opposite sides. Director John Ford’s sympathies clearly lie with the outcasts — the doctor, the prostitute, and the outlaw — and there is much here that questions whether “civilization” is really civilized.
And something about it stays fresh. The characters manage to transcend their stereotypes, mostly due to sophisticated storytelling and great acting. The drunken doctor and the city gent redeem themselves. The secret, possibly scandalous connection between the society lady and the gambler is only ever hinted at, with looks and gestures. The outlaw leads by example.
Wayne, as the outlaw, gives one of his best performances. Sometimes his later Western characterizations seem almost self-parodying, but this one is fresh and likable, and he has solid chemistry with Trevor. It’s interesting that reportedly producer Walter Wanger was reluctant to cast Wayne because The Big Trail, Wayne’s first starring role, also a western, was a big flop. Wanger may also have been reluctant to increase his risk because Westerns were less popular since the advent of sound, due to the difficulty of recording outdoors. Ford pushed for casting Wayne, and then, rumor has it, so stressed him out during the filming, that Wayne forgot he was acting with more lauded talent like Trevor and Mitchell. Whatever Ford did, it worked. Wayne held his own, and this film, the 80th of his career, made him a star.
This film was and is also remarkable for its setting. John Ford loved Monument Valley in Arizona; this is the first of many films he eventually shot there. Whether it was the stunning natural beauty of the area or its remoteness from studio interference that took his fancy is anyone’s guess. But it is certain that the setting and the film will both look their best on the big screen, as they were meant to be seen.