Stagecoach (1939) is a classic Western from film auteur John Ford. This film - his first sound Western - was a return to his most-acclaimed film genre after a thirteen year absence following Fox's Three Bad Men (1926) (and The Iron Horse (1924)). In the meantime, he had produced the superb, Oscar-winning drama about Irish republicanism, RKO's The Informer (1935).
This film debuted John Ford's favorite setting - the majestic Monument Valley of the Southwest - the first of seven films he made in the famed western valley, followed by My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
Ford's reputation was elevated considerably by this film - it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Black and White Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, and Best Film Editing, and won two awards for Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Score (for its compilation of 17 American folk tunes of the 1880s). This Ford Western paved the way for all his other memorable Westerns, including My Darling Clementine (1946), his "Cavalry" trilogy, The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). An inferior, Technicolor remake was attempted by Gordon Douglas in the 60s, Stagecoach (1966) with Bing Crosby, Ann-Margret, Robert Cummings, Stefanie Powers, and Red Buttons.
This revolutionary, influential film - a story of redemption - is considered a landmark quintessential film that elevated westerns from cheaply-made, low-grade, Saturday matinee "B" films to a serious adult genre - one with greater sophistication, richer Western archetypes and themes, in-depth and complex characterizations, and greater profitability and popularity as well. (By 1939, the Western genre had fallen out of favor, but Stagecoach helped reinvent the genre, providing for its rebirth. It must be remembered however, that 1939 also saw the release of other blockbuster Westerns including Union Pacific, Dodge City, The Oklahoma Kid, Ford's own Technicolor Drums Along the Mohawk, Destry Rides Again and Jesse James.)
The film's sophisticated screenplay by Dudley Nichols (who won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Ford's The Informer (1935) and was a frequent collaborator with Ford), about the perilous adventures of a group aboard a stagecoach across Indian country between two frontier settlements during a sudden Apache uprising, was based on Ernest Haycox's Collier's Magazine short story "The Stage to Lordsburg," (appearing in April, 1937). But it also bears a slight resemblance and was inspired by Guy de Maupassant's Boule de Suif (literally 'Tub of Lard'), the story of a prostitute (Boule de Suif) traveling in a carriage through Prussian-occupied, war-torn France during the Franco-Prussian War with refugees who are prominent members of the French bourgeoisie. Director Ford also wove into the story colorful Western characters from Bret Harte's The Outcasts of Poker Flat.
As in other films of the 1930s including Grand Hotel (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), and Lost Horizon (1937), colorful, vividly-portrayed, widely-varied characters of clashing social classes/values are thrown together by fate and closely confined for a period of time as a group:
- a prostitute (or dance hall gal) forced to leave town
- a embezzling banker
- a Confederate gambler
- a whiskey salesman
- an alcoholic, disgraced frontier doctor (surgeon)
- a pregnant young bride, the wife of an Army officer en route to his post
- a stage driver
- a Marshal riding shotgun
- a rugged, escaped outlaw (Ringo Kid) - John Wayne in a breakthrough role, who is picked up on the road shortly after the coach's departure
They act out in their relationships their representative social types. In Stagecoach, nine passengers during a stagecoach journey are placed together in a position of danger, one in which their true characters are tested and revealed. Major social issues and themes (sexual and social prejudice, alcoholism, childbirth, greed, shame, redemption and revenge) are closely mixed together into an exciting adventure story.
The structure of the film is very formal, divided neatly into eight episodes (four scenes of action alternating with four scenes of character interaction).
- The short prologue regarding the cavalry and the telegraph wires
- The 12-minute expository sequence in the town of Tonto, including the introduction of most of the characters and the establishment of their class distinctions
- The first leg of the trip on the stagecoach to Lordsburg
- The Dry Fork way station where the coach stops for food - includes the memorable dinner table scene
- The second leg of the trip toward Apache Wells in the snow
- The Apache Wells (Mexican) outpost, where Lucy's baby is born
- The final leg of the trip to Lordsburg, including the exciting Indian attack and the cavalry rescue
- The town of Lordsburg, where Ringo Kid faces the Plummers in a shoot-out
The credit titles are presented with a woodblock style typeface. Following the credits but before the main story, a short prologue presents the perilous atmosphere. Two couriers (one a Cheyenne Indian) gallop on horseback to a military/cavalry outpost, going past where a flag is being raised. Faintly in the background, "I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" is heard on the soundtrack. They report to a captain and lieutenant (Tim Holt) that Apaches "have burnt every ranch building in sight" and "are being stirred up by Geronimo." The captain is assured that the passive-faced Indian scout (Chief Big Tree) isn't lying: "Naw, he's a Cheyenne. They hate Apaches worse than we do."
A telegraph message is transmitted from nearby Lordsburg, but then the line goes dead - the wires have been cut. The only word in the message that is received is "Geronimo." There is evidence of Indian trouble near Lordsburg - Apache warriors are on the warpath against white pioneers near the Arizona border with Mexico.
The main locale is the Southwest of the 1880s in the little town of Tonto, Arizona, where the characters are carefully introduced. (Eventually, there will be six stagecoach passengers accompanied by three others - the driver, the shotgun assistant, and an escaped prisoner who joins the group on the trail.)
The town is introduced to the lively tune of "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." [The tune becomes the theme music played when the stagecoach crosses the desert on its two day trip to Lordsburg in New Mexico.] The dusty Overland Stage Lines stagecoach pulls up on the other side of the street from the Tonto Hotel. Passengers are helped off the coach by the bulky, skittish stage driver Buck Rickabaugh (Andy Devine) during a rest stop. One of the passengers who will continue on toward Lordsburg is Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant lady on her way west (from the South) to meet her husband - a Cavalry lieutenant. The genteel Lucy gasps about one of the men, named Hatfield (John Carradine), that she notices outside the hotel - he's a white-hatted, shady, former Confederate officer turned cardsharp gambler: "Who is that gentleman?" The raffish, imperial-looking Hatfield appears as if he recognizes her. Town friends, the Whitneys, describe Hatfield: "Hardly a gentleman Mrs. Mallory. I should think not. He's a notorious gambler."
Buck inquires about his regular "shotgun guard" in the Sheriff's office, learning that he is "out with a posse...trying to catch the Ringo Kid" who probably "busted out" of the penitentiary and is "aimin' to get even with them Plummer boys" whose testimony sent him there. [To be introduced later in the film, Ringo Kid was jailed for defending his family - father and brother - against the Plummers. He escaped with intentions to avenge their deaths by killing the no-good Plummers.] Interested in pursuing both Ringo and Luke Plummer in Lordsburg, Tonto's Marshal, burly Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) volunteers to "ride shotgun" with Buck and prevent an expected confrontation with the Ringo Kid.
In the town's Miners' & Cattlemens' Bank (with capital of $50,000 and assets of $250,000 proudly displayed on the front door window), pompous, self-important banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) accepts the $50,000 Wells Fargo payroll delivery from the coach lines, declaring: "What's good for the banks is good for the country." A closeup of Gatewood's snarling face is seen with the shadow of a cross behind him like a curse.
Down the street, a saloon dance-hall girl (prostitute/whore dressed in bright tones) named Dallas (Claire Trevor) is resentful for being shunned and ostracized as a scarlet woman from town, hustled along by the virtuous, plump, moralistic, matronly women of the Ladies Law and Order League and a sheriff's deputy. [Their walk is accompanied by the marching version of director Ford's favorite hymn, 'Shall We Gather at the River?'] In front of the priggish ladies, a drunken, tipsy Dr. Josiah Boone M. D. (Thomas Mitchell) is also evicted by his English-accented, stern-faced landlady (a member of the Ladies League) for not paying his rent. As he is put out on the street, the educated doctor quotes (mis-quotes) from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus:
Is this the face that wrecked a thousand ships
And burnt the towerless tops of Ilium? (He gestures with a farewell kiss) Farewell.
Dallas complains to the bibulous and disreputable Doc about their shared predicament of being victims of a disease called "social prejudice." They are escorted/railroaded out of town by decent, self-righteous citizens:
Dallas: Haven't I any right to live? What have I done?
Boone: We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child. These dear ladies of the Law and Order League are scouring out the dregs of the town. Come on. Be a proud, glorified dreg like me.
Boone offers his arm to his banished companion Dallas, invoking thoughts of the French Revolution: "Take my arm, Madame la Comtesse. The tumbril awaits. To the guillotine!" They walk arm in arm to the local saloon where Dr. Boone enters and asks Jerry (Jack Pennick) the bartender for one last drink:
Boone: Jerry, I'll admit as one man to another that economically, I haven't been of much value to you. Suppose you could put one on credit?
Jerry: If talk was money Doc, you'd be the best customer I've got.
When Doc explains that he is leaving town permanently, the bartender acquiesces and provides him with a free drink: "Just this one." The only other person in the bar is another passenger from the coach, Mr. Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a timid, solemn whiskey drummer (salesman). [Peacock is continually mistaken for a clergyman, and called by incorrect names throughout the film - Hancock and Haycock.] The three characters - the bartender, Doc, and Peacock - form a triangle, with Peacock at its apex in the background.
The intoxicated doctor moves over to the salesman after learning his profession, falsely pretending friendship by putting his arm on his shoulder. He is keenly interested in the ample supply of whiskey samples from the man's small case. In the bank, Gatewood speaks to his shrewish, domineering wife (Brenda Fowler) who demands five dollars to pay the butcher - she informs him of her invitation for lunch with the ladies of the Law and Order League. Presumably, this is the last straw - Mr. Gatewood places the Wells Fargo payroll in a leather bag and prepares to take flight with the embezzled funds.
In this film - actually a morality play, each of the characters are representative, archetypal character types, divided initially between respectable and disrespectable social outcasts. However by film's end, the disreputable members of society prove to be the most noble, virtuous, and selfless.
Respectable Disrespectable Banker Gatewood Prostitute Dallas Confederate Hatfield Outlaw Ringo Kid Pregnant Mrs. Lucy Mallory Alcoholic drunk Doc Boone
Buck calls for all passengers to board the stagecoach for "Dry Fork, Apache Wells, Lee's Ferry and Lordsburg." The first four passengers include Dallas, Peacock, Boone, and Lucy Mallory. Before Lucy boards, her snobbish friends caution her about traveling with "that creature" Dallas and the malpracticing doctor: "Doc Boone? Why he couldn't doctor a horse?" Playing cards in a nearby gambling hall, Hatfield notices the odd grouping of passengers traveling with Lucy: "Like an angel in a jungle. A very wild jungle." The overland coach is to be escorted by a cavalry detachment of troops and the passengers are warned by handsome Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) of the impending trouble caused by Geronimo's Apache warriors. Nevertheless, all of the passengers decide to travel from Tonto to Lordsburg through dangerous and hostile Apache Indian land:
Curley: Well, me and Buck are taking this coach through, passengers or not. Now whoever wants to get out can get out. (Peacock starts to exit but is restrained and urged by Doc Boone to remain - mostly for his whiskey samples.)
Boone (to Peacock): Courage, courage Reverend. Ladies first.
Curley: How 'bout you Dallas?
Dallas: What are ya tryin' to do? Scare somebody! They got me in here. Now let 'em try to put me out. There are worse things than Apaches. (Dallas looks at the stern-faced ladies from the League.)
Curley (to Lucy): If you'll take my advice ma'am, you won't take this trip.
Lucy: My husband is with his troops in Dry Fork. If he's in danger, I want to be with him.
Peacock (nervously to Boone): You see brother, I have a wife and five children...
Boone: Then you're a man. By all the powers that be Reverend, you're a man.
Curley: All right folks.
Hatfield: Marshal. Make room for one more. (Removing his hat) I'm offering my protection to this lady (referring to Lucy Mallory). I can shoot fairly straight if there's need for it.
Curley (gruffly): That's been proved too many times Hatfield. All right, get in. We're late.
A Southern gambler with superficial Eastern sensibilities, Hatfield's main purpose is to strictly guard Mrs. Mallory's virtue. Soon after, when they are close to the outskirts of town, a sixth passenger - banker Mr. Gatewood flags down the coach and boards, carrying a small bag in which he absconds the funds. As he boards, he makes a questionable statement:
Buck: Goin' to Lordsburg?
Gatewood: That's right. Just got a telegram. I stopped to pack this bag.
Through the majestic rock formations of Monument Valley, the stagecoach is followed by the Cavalry troops riding guard, while Curley and Buck converse in a two-shot on the driver's seat (as they often do in the film). Dense and poor, Buck comically complains about his domestic situation with his distinctively squeaky voice:
I just took this job ten years ago so I can make enough money to marry my Mexican girl Julietta. I've been workin' hard at it ever since...My wife's got more relatives than anyone you ever did see. I bet I'm feedin' half the state of Chihuahua...And what do I get to eat when I get home in Lordsburg. Nothing but frijoles beans. That's all. Nothin' but beans, beans, beans.
Inside the coach, Doc Boone takes advantage of more of Peacock's samples. Boone also explains to Gatewood why they are being escorted by troops:
Boone: We're all gonna be scalped, Gatewood. Massacred in one fell swoop. That's why the soldiers are with us.
Gatewood: (To Lucy) He's joking, of course.
Peacock: Oh no he's not. Oh dear no. I wish he were.
Boone: It's that old Apache butcher Geronimo. Geronimo - nice name for a butcher. He's jumped the reservation - on the warpath.
Gatewood (distressed): Geronimo? Well why weren't the passengers notified? Why wasn't I told?
Boone: We were told, Gatewood. Weren't you told when you got that message from Lordsburg?
Gatewood (covering up): Oh yes, yes, yes. Of course. I forgot.
Both Doc Boone and Curley are suspicious and mystified by Gatewood's assertion that he had received a telegraph message from Lordsburg, knowing that the lines have been cut: "I can't figure out how he got that message...He said he got a message. The telegraph line ain't workin'."