Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach – 1939

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Claire Trevor, John Carradine, and Thomas Mitchell

I’ve talked quite a bit about how I came to the western genre with a negative pre-disposition, and about how that impression was generally wrong.  Well, it turns out, when I was thinking of bad or poor quality westerns, I was thinking of westerns like Stagecoach, John Ford’s epic old west road movie featuring the Duke himself, John Wayne. 

It isn’t that I disliked Stagecoach, far from it.  It was a completely passable, formulaic western.  The problem may be that I am coming to it a little over 70 years after it was made.  I’m sure that in its day, it was fresh, exciting, and brand new.  However, from my position here in 2010, it seemed like a story that could have easily been a TV serial, and probably was in any number of forms, but the one thing it doesn’t feel like is new.

The characters, though conventionally acted, seemed paper-thin and sparse, lacking any real conflict or emotion.  John Wayne’s character, the Ringo Kid, is supposedly freshly broken out of jail and on his way to even the score with the thugs who done him wrong.  But instead of being driven and angry, he seemed rather cheerful, and nonplussed about everything that happens throughout the entire film.  The character arc of Thomas Mitchell as the drunkard doctor, is limited to becoming slightly less of a drunk so that he can barely help the rest of the passengers in the coach when there’s trouble.  Immediately after the crisis, he bellies back up to the bar and has, you guessed it, more to drink.

The gruff sheriff, the smarmy gambler, and the prostitute with a heart of gold are all equally superficial and un-changing.  None of the characters seem to learn anything or grow even the slightest bit.  In fact  ***SPOILERS*** the closest anyone comes to growing or changing is when the gambler dies, and then he only changes because he’s dead, and isn’t in the story anymore ***END SPOILERS***. 

Another beef I had with the film, was all the hullabaloo that was made about it being the first of John Ford’s westerns to be filmed in Monument Valley.  I’m surprised it was such a selling point to the film that it was shot there, especially seeing as how it is so very rarely seen on-screen.  The trivia on IMDb sheds a little light on the reasons for filming it there, and they are mostly so Ford could keep the studio out of his hair, which makes a certain amount of sense.  Ford’s desire for solitude, however, doesn’t make the film beautiful to look at.

It is to be expected that films that set the bar initially, today, will seem a bit dated and a tad un-impressive based simply on the fact that so much has come after it.  Unfortunately for Stagecoach, most all of its flash and innovation has long since worn off, and been replaced by other films that were able to make more of a lasting impression on me through strong characterization (Ox-Bow Incident), fantastic visuals (Once Upon A Time In The West), and iconic performances (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Proposal).  Stagecoach left me more than a little disappointed.

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7 thoughts on “Stagecoach (1939)

  1. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List « 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die!

  2. I can understand your impressions and I agree that “Stagecoach” doesn’t age as well as others in the John Ford gallery (namely “the Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) and could easily be dropped to make room for other, more impressive films. The very fact that it is over 70 years old is a testament that if it wasn’t a real impressive risk taking venture like “The Ox-Bow Incident”, it was really just one of a multitude of “OATERs” being pumped out of Hollywood, U.S.A with cattle rustlers, horse theives and barroom brawls, (don’t get me started on the ol’ singin’ cowboy). It did, however introduce John Wayne in a character that was a bit more complex than his earlier studio work and the film as a whole was more about the characters than the scenery. I really think that “Stagecoach’s” inclusion is more of a sentimental favorite than based on production or artistic value. Although it can be said after this movie, “The Duke” would never be the same.

  3. I’ve never understood the appeal of John Wayne. Your review is giving me more reason to avoid this one. I do have to say that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and The Proposition are great films though.

    • You know, I’ve never been a fan either. Not that I’ve seen that much from Wayne, but I’ve always thought he was a bit overrated. He’s as iconic as Marylin Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis, but without the mystery to back it up.

  4. As you point out all the films that have copied it make it now look formulaic but it is actually quite original. As for the characters, the movie is only set over a couple of days, their story arc should be small, a lifelong alcoholic isn’t going to give up drinking so easily. The small amount of acceptance that Lucy shows Dallas is huge in the context of the movie. Ringo’s character has to be a relatively good person in order to survive the movie in the days of the Hays Code. I think you pretty much answer your own questions on Monument Valley. It is also worth remembering the movies place in the history of westerns, it really kick started a genre that was about as popular at the time as it is now. I really think you get more out of Leone and Peckinpah if you know what went before them.

    Take a look at what I said about Stagecoach last year: http://fandangogroovers.wordpress.com/2009/08/01/the-birth-of-a-legend/

    • I apologize for the tardiness of my reply, but I wanted to consider what you said, and give it a proper response.

      Please bear in mind that I fully realize that I am coming to this film with a vast knowledge of what came after it. What has since been done to death, and now seems stale.

      Firstly, the doctor. You are right, a lifelong alcoholic certainly wouldn’t be easily able to give up drinking easily. The movie built up the fact that he was a drunk, and spent the time establishing the disappointment and disgust those around the doctor had for him, that it seemed to congradulate him a little quickly when he “did the right thing” to help in the birthing process. The characters that were critical of him for drinking at the start of the film, seemed proud of him that he lightened it up a touch, and just fine with the fact that he went right back to it.

      You are absolutely right about the resolution of the Lucy and Dallas relationship. I had forgotten about that when writing my review.

      As for Ringo, I still feel he is taking everything a bit lightly. He breaks out of prison and voluntarily walks into not one but two sure-fire death situations (riding through Apache territory, and the revenge plot at the other end). In addition, he falls in love, helps to deliver a baby, and mediates between the bickering passengers in this troubled group.

      I guess my real issue seems to be with John Wayne’s acting in the film. I didn’t realize, however, that this was his first real major role, and since he seems to have garnered plenty of acclaim for his later films, such as The Searchers, True Grit, and Red River, I look forward to seeing if I’m wrong about him at this point.

      Stagecoach IS an important film in the grand scope of film history in general, and the history of the western film in particular. Not only is it the case that I have certainly lost nothing for having seen Stagecoach, it is completely true that I am better for having seen it. I suppose I was just expecting to gain a bit more than I did.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting, and for sharing your views on this clearly popular film!

  5. Pingback: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) | 1001 Movies...Before I Die!

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