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Stagecoach (1939)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Western Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

Release Date: March 2nd, 1939 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: John Ford Actors: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, Donald Meek, Tim Holt

A

ndy Devine’s recognizable, high-pitched, cracking voice acquaints viewers to several of the stagecoach passengers, as well as providing a steady source of comic relief. He’s the driver, Buck, who makes a stop in Arizona to pick up a shotgun rider before he proceeds to Apache Wells and through to Lordsburg. That candidate is Curley (George Bancroft) the town sheriff. The Overland Stage Line transports six passengers, each with a unique persona to clash amongst the others. Doctor Josiah Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is a drunk, and Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a woman with a questionable career, ousted from the town by the respectable older ladies of the town’s Law and Order League. The prim and proper Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) plans to meet her husband, an army captain, at the end of the journey, and the notorious gambler with a reputation with a gun, Hatfield (John Carradine), offers to accompany the lady for protection (he plays up being a “gentlemen” but the sense that his character is mistrustful never dwindles). Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a timid, nervous, whiskey drummer, travelling to join his wife and five kids, and Ellsworth Gatewood (Berton Churchill), is the loud-mouthed, suspicious man picked up on the way out of town.

As Geronimo, the leader of the Apaches, is on the warpath, the trip becomes a “go at your own risk” scenario. A squadron of cavalry escorts the public conveyance part of the way, but the decision to continue the rest of the journey must be up to a vote of the riders. Well-known, generally respected outlaw Henry “The Ringo Kid” (John Wayne), introduced by a lengthy zoom to his chiseled face, hitches a ride on the stage after they get out onto the open road; he’s technically under arrest (considering he just broke out of prison), but comforting to have around due to his skilled gunmanship. He’s clearly in charge vocally, creating an intimidating presence even too much for the cagey Hatfield or ornery Gatewood.

The basic plot becomes more complex with side stories of Ringo’s vendetta against the Plummer brothers (“There’s some things a man can’t run away from”), Mallory’s unexpected baby, Ringo and Dallas’ speedy romance, and the young outlaw’s frequent, undetermined opportunities to escape. It’s a great premise, gathering together nine very different personas (it seems at times as if there wouldn’t be room for seven people inside the coach) and putting them through a stressful situation to watch how they cope, panic, or turn on one another. Their philosophies are examined individually, along with their approval, disapproval, and levels of respect for the predicaments and fellow passengers, which becomes especially interesting when they’re forced to work together to fend off the Indians.

Based on the short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” by Ernest Haycox, this classic black-and-white epic, fueled by a thundering trumpet theme, is a grand character study that transcends its typical B-movie origins. It’s an adventure film with hearty doses of drama, romance, high-speed pursuits, villainous gunmen, stalwart antiheroes, showdowns, and camaraderie – all the necessary elements (and more) to make a Western stand out. The characters are interesting, the politics and social class discord intriguing, and the action-oriented cinematography above standard. Director John Ford experiments with shadows and silhouettes, scenic shots of Monument Valley, and hair-raising stunts by the famous Yakima Canutt (including one in which he falls under the stage and its six horses), in a highly memorable production that helped Wayne become a true A-list star.

– Mike Massie

 



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