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.