Stagecoach (1939)

Director:  John Ford
John WayneClaire Trevor, Andy Devine

Plot:  A simple stagecoach trip is complicated by the fact that Geronimo is on the warpath in the area.

Genre:  Adventure / Western
Awards:  Won 2 Oscars - Best Supporting Actor, Original Score.  Nom. for 5 Oscars - Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction.
Runtime:  96min
Rating:  PG

International Sales:  Tamasa Distribution

“If there's anything I don't like, it's driving a stagecoach through Apache country.”

Stagecoach was one of the few early pictures that became a major influence to the successful establishment of the Western, catapulting the genre to mainstream popularity in a field dominated by mostly corny romantic comedies and grandeur musicals at that time.

It also paired up two of American cinema’s greatest icons - director John Ford and actor John Wayne - both of whom continued to productively collaborate on some of genre’s best offerings including The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). 

The film starts out rather tepidly with murky development of its characters (not so on repeated viewings); it is hard to tell where the film is headed for.  Once past the quarter mark, it gathers steam and the characters become well-accommodated to the story’s needs.

The casting is spot-on and the effort to individualize each character with a different persona pays dividend because apart from the action, Stagecoach also explores social prejudice and the indifferent attitudes toward dissimilar classes of people. 

Ford’s genius is that he does not bring in John Wayne until about half an hour into the movie.  This allows his supporting characters time to acquaint with themselves before the star actor shows up and is forced to hitch a ride in the stagecoach.

The bulk of Stagecoach works like a road movie, as they travel from one small town to another through at times extreme weather conditions.  The final destination is set at Lordsburgh.  Along the ride, love blossoms, conflicts arise, and even a baby is born. 

Some of film’s most beautiful scenes involve the rugged motion of the stagecoach as it is pulled by tireless horses across uneven terrain.  Its mere frailty against a hostile landscape is marvellously photographed in black-and-white, even seemingly taking a life of its own.

There is a final gunfight showdown at Lordsburgh that pits Wayne against old foes whom murdered his family.  This is so often a staple sequence of the Western that Sergio Leone tried and succeeded perfecting it in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). 

Stagecoach is proud to contain one of the most stunning action sequences ever captured on film - the Apache attack.  Featuring death-defying stuntwork, and superlative camerawork and editing, it is incredible in its execution and is probably the reason Ford earned his second Oscar nomination for Best Director.  It has also inspired a similar sequence in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). 

Stagecoach is an early masterpiece by Ford whose body of work is well-respected by his peers, even influencing greats like Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa.  This is, without question, a great film by a great director.


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