Stagecoach is often described as the movie that made two careers and that’s certainly an accurate way to look at it. John Ford discovered his avenue with this 1939 western and John Wayne found his way after running as a stuntman, an extra and a B-player. The emergence of both men in this adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” in categorical.
But Stagecoach functions as more than historical artifact or matter of trivia. It’s still a living, breathing movie and it crackles with Dudley Nichols’ screenplay and Bert Glennon’s cinematography. Ford found his muse in Monument Valley and Glennon’s encapsulation of the southwestern panorama is expansive and infinite, with danger and smoke just over those unfriendly hills.
Stagecoach assembles a group of strangers to board the stage from Tonto to Lordsburg. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is being run out of town by a bunch of scornful women, while Doc (Thomas Mitchell) has also drawn the ire of the moral authority. High society Lucy (Louise Platt) is all dubious looks on her way to see her injured husband, while the gambler (John Carradine) sees the woman as a cherub.
There’s also a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek) and Marshal Curly (George Bancroft), who drives the way with Buck (Andy Devine) on their way through some Apache trouble. Apparently Geronimo is out and about, which spells trouble for the carriage. Luckily, the Ringo Kid (Wayne) winds up along for the ride and is set to be incarcerated by Curly.
While the characters of Stagecoach are stereotypical, Nichols’ script gives them interesting ways to interact. They are divided by class distinction, plus there are ethical forces at play. Like many films that throw an incongruent group in peril, the construct of open-air pressure is designed to draw the characters together.
But they also evolve. Dallas and Doc are joined together by their excommunication at the hands of Tonto and they’re headed elsewhere for a fresh start. When Ringo arrives, he knows nothing of the social order of things beyond what he can sniff out. He treats Dallas like an equal, which agitates Lucy and generates more than a few ghoulish glares from other grandiloquent passengers.
When Carradine’s character produces a silver cup with which to give Lucy some water, he refuses to lend the same honour to Dallas. Despite having won it in a card game, the silver cup represents the line between two worlds. One must have worth to utilize the artifacts of the moneyed and the moral.
When the fur starts to fly, the artifacts of the moneyed are useless and bullets count. Ringo, the wanted murderer, can play hero and the social order is upturned. He proves charitable, both in his dealings with Dallas and in his methods for contending with the violence in the outside world. And Wayne is effortless, an instant star.
Trevor has top billing and she, too, is every bit a star. Her character provides Ringo’s way out of darkness and he wants nothing more than to start his life over with her. But she’s also more kinetic than the standard female western archetype as embodied by Lucy and that speaks to Stagecoach’s tenacity as a worldly picture.
Ford and Glennon capture the action inside the stagecoach with an intensive feel and they expand the approach when the Apaches attack. The chase sequence is exhilarating and a lot is owed to how the camera moves and how often the stuntmen defy good sense. There are many stunts involving leaps between horses that are absolutely heart-pounding.
Stagecoach is a masterwork of little moments and big moments. From the way Wayne lights his cheroot with a lantern to the way Glennon’s lensing and Ford’s cutting adds instinct to the action, this is a vital and exciting western. It’s also a small film in a lot of ways, a movie about how the social order is rendered hollow when the sky cracks open.