Western, not rated, 96 minutes, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Some 80 years after it was first released, John Ford’s 1939 Western Stagecoach still has the power to grab and keep your attention, despite the now-familiar tropes of the genre. The characters — a gentle gunman, a crooked businessman, a drunken doctor, a big-hearted prostitute, a comic stage driver, and a Southern gambler with a noble streak — look like they just stepped out of the cinematic equivalent of a police lineup of usual suspects. The Native American characters are not only one-dimensional but mostly serve as easy-to-shoot targets who are foiled by the expected sounds of a cavalry bugler signaling that help is on the way. There’s little doubt that the stagecoach, with its human cargo of social outcasts, will make it to its final destination. The only question is, Which of the nine characters on board will survive?
Why, then, does the movie hold up today? Maybe because up until the double-barreled double-climax, it’s a quiet, claustrophobic film. For the most part, nobody does much of anything but reveal who they are as they move through the isolated expanse of New Mexico (though in reality California and Arizona filled in for the Land of Enchantment) under the threat of an Apache attack. The characters are riding to or from something — a date with revenge, a chance at redemption, a connection with a loved one — and while they get on each other’s nerves, they come to realize they need one another. The West is too unforgiving a place for them not to forgive one another.
Maybe, by 1939, just 10 years into the sound era of cinema and some 35 years after the birth of the American Western, audiences had seen it all before. But something about the way Ford handled the material made them forget all that and see the movie through fresh eyes. Much of the action is confined to the interior of the stagecoach, where the true spirit of the passengers emerges and the audience learns — probably with great delight — that the moral anchors of the story are the people no town would want as citizens. There’s the Ringo Kid (played by John Wayne in a performance that transformed him from a B-series cowboy to an A-list star); the prostitute, Dallas (Claire Trevor); the alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell, who won an Oscar for his turn and who, in real life, had sworn off drinking several years before); and the gambler, Hatfield ( John Carradine). As flawed and dangerous as they may be, they reveal a softness and compassion for those weaker than they are, such as the pregnant Army wife Lucy (Louise Platt). And they all look tall in the saddle compared to the larcenous banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) who, in a moment of prescience, tells the assembly, “What this country needs is a businessman for president!” It looks like he got his wish.
The silence between the lines of dialogue tells us all we need to know about how these characters feel about one another. Scott Eyman, author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014), rightly notes that Ford “could communicate plot and dramatic tension visually, without undue emphasis from the players. Ford knew that if the script and direction are finely tuned, an actor rarely has to act that much — the audience will project their own emotions into the space left by the filmmakers.”
The film was based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, which screenwriter Dudley Nichols adapted for Ford. It was shot over the course of 33 days late in 1938 and found its way into cinemas by the following February, bringing Wayne, who had toiled in low-budget films for a decade, newfound stardom. Critics liked the picture. “The towns, the coach, and even the people seem real. … This is a rare quality, not often seen and not easy to describe in words since it comes to you as a feeling of rightness,” wrote the New York Post. Cue magazine’s reviewers said, “Excitement comes from the skillful characterizations of each member of the group.” Director-writer-producer-actor Orson Welles, whose own classic, Citizen Kane, was still two years away, later said he learned everything he needed to learn about movie-making from the film. “Stagecoach was my movie textbook,” he said. “I ran it over 40 times.”
In Santa Fe, Violet Crown is screening Stagecoach in all of its black-and-white glory on Sunday, June 16. “It’s our Father’s Day gift,” said Peter Grendle, general manager of Violet Crown. “You haven’t seen a Western until you’ve seen Stagecoach.” — Robert Nott
Stagecoach plays at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, June 16, at Violet Crown, 1606 Alcaldesa St. Tickets are $10.50. For more information, call 505-216-5678 or go to santafe.violetcrown.com.