Review: Stagecoach (1939)

5877_3-stagecoach

A stagecoach reminds me a lot of my old Dodge Omni, only faster and more dependable!

Written By: Ben Hecht & Dudley Nichols
Directed By: John Ford

The West has always presented itself as a treasure trove of storytelling ideas. Stagecoach brings yet another nugget out of that trove in the form of the stagecoach journey. To those of us in the comfortable modern age the idea of a trek through the West doesn’t seem all that daunting. But, when you remove all the amenities that we currently enjoy, add in roving groups of soldiers and Indians and a rickety mode of transportation dependent on animals that journey all of a sudden seems far more perilous. That’s without even getting into the timeless issue of your own travel partners. Taking all of that into account certainly changes the pull a movie like this can have over you.

Stagecoach invigorates the screen with beautiful vistas and plains form a time long gone by. It also brings us characters and archetypes long destroyed or transformed by the societal changes that have occurred over the years. Stagecoach doesn’t present anything new, but it delivers its overall package in splendid fashion and with a healthy dose of vitriol. For the most part Stagecoach also stays away from the stereotypes that so dominated Western cinema. Yes, men are men and women are women, while the savages are the savages. But, Stagecoach doesn’t try to present any of these issues in the standard black and white that was the calling card of the classic Western. Tolerance is looked at, petty jealousies wrapped up in fine linen are disrobed and exposed for all to see. Finally, the idea of the tough cowboy is very briefly dismantled. The final showdown that John Wayne has is only notable for the palpable sense of dread the Plummer brothers share going into the gun fight. They are scared, they are clumsy, they are using false bravado, all ideas that were tantamount to sacrilege in a Western. Stagecoach looks at many different ideas, and gives them all the time they need to leave their mark.

Stagecoach is also helped by quite the good ensemble cast. John Wayne is the star people will recognize, but he never overshadows anyone else in the picture. Wayne’s Ringo Kid is just another member of the stagecoach, with his own faults, weaknesses and strengths. It’s never clear whether Dallas or Mrs. Mallory will be the lead female of the story because both of their stories are allowed the necessary time to breathe and become important to us. From the sometimes annoying stagecoach driver to the always shrill Mr. Gatewood the entire cast of Stagecoach work with each other to deliver a near perfect ensemble performance. The final showdown with the Indians, and even in that moment Stagecoach avoids the usual Western trappings of good cowboys versus evil Indians, is brilliantly filmed. The action is intense and fast paced, full of suspense and fear, quite the accomplishment for its time.

Unfortunately the final confrontation with the Plummer brothers comes off as unnecessary, along with most everything once they leave the stagecoach for the last time. It wasn’t a bad segment, but it veered away from the stagecoach and the stories the stagecoach was allowing to be told. It was an attempt by director John Ford, and the screenwriters, to tack on a happy ending where good does triumph over evil when such an ending wasn’t needed. But, that is the only time when Stagecoach misfires, a pretty big misfire, but a manageable blast at that.

There are thousands upon thousands of Westerns out there, but you need to make time for Stagecoach. It is a unique Western, one that goes against the popular Western grain. It’s also John Wayne in an unusually subtle performance, minus a lot of the bravado that would come to define his career. Take a ride on this Stagecoach, you won’t regret it.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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