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Stagecoach Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Stagecoach Review

    “There are some things a man just can't run away from.”

    The Blu-ray march of Criterion surges ever onwards and, in a world of dangerously dodgy prints, mucked-up transfers and lacklustre packages, they continue to spotlight classic, important and influential films with the love and respect that they deserve.

    Here, we can take a look at their excellent release of one of the seminal Westerns, a film that cemented the horse-opera as a genre in its own right, set up the standards by which subsequent offerings would be measured and, of course, commenced the double legends of director John Ford and superstar John Wayne ... the cherished Stagecoach from 1939.

    Based upon the short story from Ernest Haycox, Stage to Lordsburg, Ford takes Dudley Nichols' adapted screenplay and rides roughshod over the conventions of all the Oaters that had gone before. After a thirteen year hiatus from the genre (1926's Three Bad Men being his last Western before this), the filmmaker returns to the saddle with total conviction and a dead-shot vision of how the Old West will look, sound and feel in the New Medium. He doesn't want it to languish in the filler stable that had been its province for so long, the drop-down addition to the main feature that was forgotten about as soon as the end credits appeared. He wants the Western top-billed and aiming straight for the mainstream. It is a gamble, that's for sure. But his return to the idealised mythical frontier of yore is so confident, so brazen and assured that everything - all the new tricks that he wanted to unveil and the new standards that he wanted to set - falls into place with almost supernatural, pre-ordained ease. Stagecoach was a rip-roaring success upon its debut in the magical year of 1939 - the year that saw Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz wow the world with a double thunderclap of dazzling Technicolor - and has been hailed as a masterpiece ever since. The fact that it has been remade twice (in 1966 with Alex Cord, Ann-Margaret and Bing Crosby, and then again in 1986, with Mr. And Mrs. Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson!) with incredibly poor results proves that it is a pure one-off whose ambition, style and sheer class simply could not be matched, imitated or trundled out by any old Tom, Dick or Harry. What Ford had found was the recipe for lightning in a bottle. He took the stereotypes that fans of the genre were already familiar with from books, serials, silent pictures and talkies, many of which had starred Wayne, himself, as well as the man who would help provide Stagecoach with its revolutionary action sequences and stunts, the celebrated Yakima Canutt, and turned them on their heads.

    Nine disparate souls undertake a dangerous cross-country trek in a stagecoach bound for the distant town of Lordsburg. To get there they will have to go through territory infested with renegade Apaches under the command of the dreaded Geronimo. But whilst the looming prospect of being scalped in the midday sun is one thing to consider, the passengers' own conflicts and microcosmic discriminations toward one another, are the tools that could undermine the venture and doom them all. Pre-dating the whole range of disaster movie clichés of “group jeopardy”, Ford's inordinately wily and witty character-play is a moralistic delight that actively subverts the normal attitudes and bigotries and switches etiquettes so that we can't help falling for society's trio of now-famous outcasts.

    Hounded out of town and veritably forced on to the stagecoach by a committee of puritanical harridans, we have booze-sodden Doc Boone (the fantastic Thomas Mitchell), saloon-whore Dallas (the haunted Claire Trevor) and, essentially, the outlaw-with-a-conscience and a set of values higher than all the rest of them put together, the Ringo Kid (Wayne on star-making form), a jail-breaker who consents to come aboard and place himself under arrest just so that he can make the trip to Lordsburg to get even with the men who murdered his father and his brother. Immediately, all three have vulnerability and determination etched deeply into their psyche. And, just as swiftly, we feel safe in their hands, even if they, themselves, are as afraid of what the desert may have in store for them as the rest of the crew.

    The film is one the pivotal examples of the ensemble cast carrying the film, rather than the ostensible stars of the piece. Here, in what would go on to become an ever-more contrived set-up in other directors' hands, we have a group of actors who genuinely share the story, each character allowed his or her moment to shine, and each opinion credible, necessary and downright entertaining. John Carradine's mysterious gambling man, Hatfield, seems irresistibly drawn to Louise Platt's snobbish Army wife, Lucy Mallory. It is clear that they both have secrets, and their ensuing bond is marvellously enigmatic, even if the attachment ultimately makes quite moving sense. The pompous banker (something that was as unanimously despised back in the thirties and forties as it is now) Gatewood (the stuffy, overbearing Berton Churchill) has a secret, too, as his impetuous determination to keep on the move as well as his diversionary distrust of Ringo, make abundantly clear. The aptly named Donald Meek is excellent as the twitchy, nerve-shot whiskey salesman, Mr. Peacock, enslaved to the ravenous thirst of the ever-addled Doc. And then there is the dependable duo of the stage's driver Buck (played with verbally-tumbling comedic verve by Andy Devine) and Curly (George Bancroft), the sympathetic sheriff who has opted to ride-shotgun for this trip so that he can escort Ringo to a date with destiny in Lordsburg.

    The set-up is great. The cast eclectic. The location breathtaking. But it is how Ford marshals all this that makes Stagecoach the classic that it is.

    Marvel at how breezily and masterfully Ford introduces the plot of the film in a succinct few opening moments. This is eloquent storytelling in such a streamlined and economic manner that you literally do not realise that in ten straight minutes you've met all the characters (Wayne's Ringo hasn't appeared yet, but you know all about him, just the same), sussed out the introductory dynamics and understand the importance of the journey for all. No waffle. No padding. No useless exposition. Just a series of wonderfully evocative vignettes that paint the picture with unparalleled ease. Petty snapshots of frontier life and attitudes they may be, but this is a wonderfully provocative opening that lays its cards on the table with quiet expertise. Meeting Ringo is just as assured. We hear a gunshot as the stagecoach, its initial cavalry escort having dropped some way behind, comes up over a ridge and there ... greeted by a terrific dolly-shot is the Duke, young and somewhat fresh-faced, Winchester spun and cocked with one hand and then slung over his shoulder. Iconic. American. Immortal. It is the face and the stance and image that would fortify a nation as it gauged the swelling conflagration in the world around it at that time. The very celluloid blood that would pump life back into a disenfranchised population. Ford wasn't interested in creating heroes ... just characters who could credibly step out of an incredible landscape - yet that is exactly what he did when he shanghaied a former props-man with a girl's name and a easily-dismissable face from a couple of dozen pot-boiling Westerns. The genre would never be the same, and Hollywood would find a much-needed poster-boy.

    “Savages!”

    “That's my wife, Yakima. My squaw.”

    “Yes ... b-but ... she's ...she's ... savage!

    “Yes, she's a little bit savage, I think.”

    Stagecoach was made at a time when the smart filmmakers knew that their characters told the story and that their best strategy was to sit back and let them get on with it. Take care of the photography and the art direction and let them do their job. Ford was a hard taskmaster, but he was someone who made sure that everyone knew exactly what was required of them before the cameras started rolling. One or two takes - that was all that he needed. Which makes many of his scenes all the more miraculous, and not just the big crucial action sequence. The ensemble quality of the picture means that he has a variety of viewpoints to work with and a range of possibilities that could have become unwieldy under the control of a clumsier captain at the helm. That Wayne is not the main focus for much of the story is inspired. His lines are weary and natural, his expression a mingling of the innocent and the hangdog. He fits in with the rest of the party without much trouble, completely eschewing the “rise-to-the-bait” attitude that many other leading men would have demanded of their role. Ford doesn't want him to showboat any more than comes naturally. And it is a trick that absolutely guarantees stardom for the Duke.

    “If talk was money, Doc, you'd be the best customer I got.”

    Howard Hawks fostered strong-willed and quick-witted female characters. John Ford wasn't so enamoured with the fairer sex. They were there, and that was that. But Claire Trevor and Louise Platt are both superb with radical characters that Ford, somewhat atypically, gives a lot of room to. The spite that Lucy has for Dallas is more than just disgust at how she earns a living, it is the shame that she feels for having to come into this godforsaken land. Hiding behind her devotion to her Cavalry Officer husband (whom we never get to see) we can see her pride buckling under the strain of each passing mile, the weight of an intimate secret making this lonely country all the more dangerous and volatile. Dallas, too, has reasons to rethink her life. Trevor finds the heart of the whore and avoids the usual clichés by being withdrawn and morose, almost timid in the shadow of the wall of animosity and hypocrisy that the claustrophobic cell of the stagecoach produces. That she will climb to her own courageous heights and jam the spokes of prejudice is, perhaps, a given. But Trevor's handling of the character is never less than three-dimensional and utterly empathetic.

    The other folks packed into the stage are just as adroitly managed.

    John Carradine shoots Lucy Mallory one of those Bela Lugosi-style “mesma-stares” when he first claps eyes upon her, as though he has just come face to face with his own fate. This is something that is even more sinister given his cadaverous appearance, that visage chiselled-in even more than Christian Bale's in The Machinist. Carradine would, of course, go on to actually play Dracula in Universal's rather lamentable House Of Frankenstein in 1944, and then again for the Matinee Theatre. Here, his arrogant, and allegedly dangerous, gambling man is set up as something rather devious and somewhat Machiavellian, but the course of events will prove that he acts with a code of honour that is not entirely self-centred. Although residing on the sidelines for much of the time, his very presence is tragically commanding, and Carradine's redemption-seeking scoundrel becomes the instigator of one of the film's most harrowing and poignant moments - something that Ford clearly respects and treats with incredible grace. Thomas Mitchell is the buffoonish comedy ogre who will both save the day and earn our deepest affection. A sort of Charles Laughton/Oliver Hardy hybrid, Mitchell's drunken apothecary becomes the sage-like purveyor of simple truths and the sort of nobility that only a man who is happily staring in to the face of self-destruction can deliver. When his big moment comes, rising up out of a stupor to perform some delicate medical procedure, we totally buy into the new-found dignity he attains and, moreover, the self-awareness he discovers that will see him through. By contrast, Buck and Curley are talkative hangers-on. Even Mr. Peacock and the shady Gatewood go through some twists and turns that provide them with an arc. But our trusty sheriff and the croaky-voiced driver at his side are the only two who are decidedly clear-cut ... and remain so all the way through the ordeal. But this isn't doing their characters down in any way. Far from it. We need these two to stand like rocks throughout the drama. And the fact that they are both fallible and full of banter colours them all the more. Buck is the more stereotypical, of course, but Andy Devine is so charismatic that you can easily forgive the obviousness of his rotund, scaredy-cat driver.

    “You can find another wife.”

    “Sure I can find another wife. But she take my rifle and my horse. Oh, I'll never sell her. I love her so much. I beat her with a whip and she never get tired.”

    “Your wife?”

    “No, my horse. I can find another wife easy, yes, but not a horse like that!”

    Low angles and deep shadows proliferate. And never more so than in the Tex-Mex station of Apache Wells, deep in the heart of hostile territory. Low ceilings compact the atmosphere and enhance the claustrophobia, almost maintaining the stuffy discomfort of the cramped stagecoach. The place may be constructed of adobe walls and stucco, but Ford films it like some Southern Gothic mansion from an RKO horror movie from the next decade. Just look at the gorgeous shot of Dallas walking down the dark corridor into a shaft of moonlight from the open door at the end, as Ringo stands watch in the near-left corner of the frame. It is dreamy, it is studied, it is a visually sublime expression of Dallas' burgeoning transition from one life to another, and of Ringo's precarious position hovering somewhere between the two. He goes after her, of course, but it is telling that he is thwarted in his more intimate mission, once as he makes his way down the corridor, himself, and then again outside when Curly happens upon the two as they muse beneath the stars. Wonderfully, it is Dallas who urges Ringo to escape, when it is she who has more reason to flee the circumstances that hound her. This visualised expression of strong emotional undercurrents is brought into sharp relief again, in Lordsburg, when Dallas awaits the outcome of the showdown between Ringo and the Plummer Boys. Here, we see her before another Southern Gothic reference - an assortment of evocative tumble-downs that, nestled together amid the sweaty shadows beyond a rickety wooden bridge, come to resemble the steamy noir-esque châteaus of yet more RKO mist-enriched bayous. Orson Welles is reputed to have screened Stagecoach no less than forty times for his production crew before they undertook to make Citizen Kane, simply so that they could learn the visual artistry on display in Ford's film and then regurgitate something similar for his shoot. Kane takes the atmospheric angles, lighting and art direction to another level, of course, but it is important to remember that Welles had lifted such entrancing ideas from John Ford.

    “Three weeks ago I took a bullet out of a man who was shot by a gentleman. The bullet was in his back!”

    But the most captivating thing that Ford achieves doesn't even need any particular skill with a camera at all. You only have to point the thing at the prehistoric splendour of Utah's Monument Valley to create a startling backdrop that is inherently majestic, savage and poetic at the same time. Once he'd been introduced to this striking and isolated region of Navajo country, Ford was unable to resist returning to it time and time again. He liked the fact that meddling studio suits and producers couldn't reach him there and that its very ruggedness would force his cast and crew to bond in the great outdoors, thereby seasoning and weathering them to his own exacting standards. He uses the same valleys and buttes but from different angles and perspectives, the alien-looking environment coming to form one vast loop of parched primal paradise. He even recruited the local Navajo people to play Geronimo and his band of marauders, lending the film, as he would in subsequent productions, and air of authenticity that most oaters, with white men painted red, couldn't help but lack.

    “I'm not only a philosopher, sir, I'm a fatalist. Somewhere, sometime, there may be the right bullet or the wrong bottle waiting for Josiah Boone. Why worry when or where?”

    If I am going to be critical about how Ford delivers his saga, it must be tempered with the understanding of the styles and trends that he was attempting to twist and to re-form. We look back at the classic action-Westerns expecting them to be full of rough 'n' tumble, chases, fist-fights and six-shooting showdowns, and Stagecoach, for all of its ballyhoo, is not like that. It is as much a psychological drama as it is pulp frontier-fodder. Ford structures his film in a truly unconventional way. We don't meet the hero until a good twenty minutes in, and even then, he is atypically stranded in the desert with only a dead horse for company. The highly anticipated Apache troubles don't actually commence until we reached the last twenty-five minutes and, even then, they are over and done with in short, but spectacular, order, leaving the final confrontation to play out in unseen, but nail-biting majesty in the seemingly "safer" environs of a township. It is precisely as though Ford has taken the rule-book that governed the Western's B-picture origins and thrown it into the air to take pot-shots at. The film is full of travelogue and dialogue, comedic exchanges and pent-up bigotries. It is about relationships and the unfathomable reckoning that each and every character must make. Surviving the journey or not, Ford is saying, is irrelevant to how you have lived during it. More so than the overwhelming majority of Westerns made by other people, Ford's make the important claim that your deeds will live on regardless of the outcome.

    But when newcomers come to catch this Stagecoach, they invariably expect more actual action than Ford delivers. Whenever I settle back to watch the film, I, too, still experience a slight disappointment that the big chase does not go on for longer. As riveting as it is, we have had over an hour of build-up to this. We've seen the burned-out remains of homesteads destroyed by the Apaches - seen Hatfield drape his coat over the body of murdered woman - and watched Curly strut about with a couple of shotguns in constant readiness, and the grim spectre of ferocious death at the hands of these bloodthirsty Injuns has been ever-present. So when the Natives make their move, appearing on the trademark ridge-line and then charging across the endless salt flats in breakneck pursuit of our surrogate and dysfunctional “family”, we can't help but feel ever so slightly let-down that more bodies haven't tumbled and a gallant last stand hasn't been made.

    Ahh, but the trick has been on us, all along, hasn't it? The Apaches are only a set-dressing, a guest appearance in the flesh. Their power has been witnessed by the effect their unseen threat has upon the beleaguered characters. In other words, after all that sustained anticipation, how could the attack live up to our expectations?

    And then when you analyse, once again, what Ford has done, you discover that this brief episode of pell-mell pursuit and renegade-rage has broken theatrical records and set precedents for stunt-work and action choreography that have been revered and copied ever since. Thrown into this ten-minute flurry of speeding horses, whistling arrows, cracking gunshots and desperate heroism are the same demented dynamics and all-out bravado that would elevate Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Mad Max 2 to the realms of set-piece magnificence. Real-life cowboy, silent film star (his voice, ironically enough, would not translate well in the talkies) and stuntman-extraordinaire, Yakima Canutt, was the cavalier mastermind responsible for showing audiences back then the sort of action they could scarcely have imagined feasible for human beings to undertake. As Indian renegades he, and his devil-may-care team, hurtle over the tops of horses that have had their legs, controversially, yanked from under them. The tactic was eventually outlawed and many films that feature it have been censored in the UK - to wit, Ulzana's Raid and even Conan The Barbarian. He is also the brave (very apt, that) who leaps from his own stallion onto the lead horse in the stagecoach team. But what Canutt did next was the thing that has been at the pinnacle of the stunt-game ever since. When the Duke drops that same brave with a couple of roof-top shots, Canutt falls down between the charging horses' hooves and then slides beneath the thundering wagon to die, in a heap, after coming out the other side and being left in the dust. And he does it all in one shot. Doubling for Wayne, he then jumps from the stagecoach to the team and then works his way on up to the lead horse to help steer them after the reins have fallen from a wounded Buck's hands. All of this takes place in-camera and without snap-edits. Audiences more used to seeing the close-up establishing shots that are done to convince us that the actor is doing the stunt and to increase the dramatic nature of the set-piece, are prone to not pick up on quite what is being achieved here. The same year, Canutt, as Rhett Butler, would ride through a burning Atlanta in Gone With The Wind, and the former world champion rodeo-rider would go on to devise and perform the stunts for the chariot race from Ben-Hur and the cable-car hi-jinx from Where Eagles Dare. He would receive a special Oscar for his services to the industry in 1967, and remains the only stunt-person ever to have done so.

    “We got four men who can handle firearms - five with you, Ringo. Doc can shoot if sober.”

    Along the way to the “real” climactic confrontation - the Apaches, really, are just a ruse - we've had sprightly Cavalry boys led by the cherubic, Leo DiCaprio-look-alike Tim Holt, a chatterbox Mexican bartender called Chris (Chris-Pin Martin) and his Apache wife, Yakima (Elvira Rios), who does a mean Lili Marlene impersonation before reinforcing the genre's stereotypical distrust of her race by running out and siding with Geronimo the second danger rears its ugly head, and out-and-out villainy in the form of Luke Plummer (Western regular Tom Tyler). There's been laughs, peril, sadness and triumph and you've witnessed the real birth of the American Western with John Ford, John Wayne and Monument Valley as the midwives on the trail.

    When the Doc says, ultimately, that Ringo and Dallas have been “saved from the blessings of civilisation,” we can take that to mean that Ford, himself, has finally realised where his spiritual home lies. The filmmaker may have been fond of citing Westerns as just movies that came along with his name of them, but he was fooling nobody. As much as Sergio Leone was destined to subvert the genre with his Spaghetti brand, John Ford was born to hone the home-grown American variety. Only Howard Hawks was on a par with him, but there were many subtle differences in style. Hawks loved his characters and their machismo more than the landscape. Ford, despite his occasional protestations to the contrary, loved his characters as much as the landscape. But he loved the myth of the Old West most of all.

    And that is Stagecoach, folks. Legendary. Iconic. Mythical.