You can't expect miracles from a print as old and as worn as this, but Criterion have done the best that they can, and they've come up trumps, in my opinion.
As usual, they supply details about their transfer in the accompanying booklet. Since the original negative for Stagecoach has long been considered lost - rumours abound that Gordon Douglas and his producers on the 1966 remake sought-out and destroyed as many prints of the original film as they could find so that their own disastrous adaptation couldn't be compared to it - Criterion evaluated some of the best surviving prints, both restored and original, before luckily finding a 1942 nitrate duplicate negative that provided the best and most detailed option for a primary source for this hi-def transfer. Even so, hundreds of hours have been spent manually removing the worst of the damage.
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect (via AVC MPEG-4) and if you compare this transfer to earlier ones, from across the regions, you will immediately find that the impression of damage within the image is actually far less. Edges are much better resolved, with only a fraction of the haloing that has haunted some editions. Contrast is stronger, with a subtle improvement in grey scales, slightly deeper and certainly more consistent blacks, and whites that don't bloom or sear half as much. Shots such as Dallas walking down the corridor and Ringo's walk through the town to confront the Plummer Gang look tremendous, all things considered. The landscapes in the daylight are prone to fading and are softened further by the highly contrasted appearance, but this is par for the course. Once again, if you compare them to SD sources, you will find the BD image unmistakably superior, with tighter mountain ranges, a slightly enhanced sense of depth and clouds that seem a touch more cleanly rendered.
Detail is also much better. There's very little than can be done with those distant landscape shots, I would suspect. They are better defined, as I have said, but the real reward from this 1080p transfer is found in the close-ups and the middle-ground, with extra information and clarity just in more abundance. Beads of sweat. Material on clothing. The detail on shot-glasses and on the weapons - look at when Hatfield discovers the single bullet left in his revolver - and the texture on the walls of Apache Wells or on the stagecoach, itself.
Damage is ever-present. And although Criterion have only left behind the scratches, pops, tears, smudges and dirt that would have resulted in digital smears should they have removed them, there are still lots of things that may distract you on initial viewing ... at least until the story, itself, has drawn you in. There is some more overt flickering during some shots in the river-crossing scene, and a huge black smudge, like a squashed bug on the lens during the big chase. Vertical lines dance and waver about often. But this is Stagecoach from 1939. It is not going to look any better than this. The pops and crackles are all genuine celluloid artefacts. The grain is real.
This looks like film, and you'll love it.
If there is only so much that Criterion can do with the image, then there is probably a lot less that can be achieved with the film's uncompressed PCM mono audio track without going all Anchor Bay with it and supplying utterly bogus wraparound sound effects.
The track was mastered from multiple elements, including original soundtrack negatives and prints. The result is consistent, if unmistakably archaic. Background hiss is ever-present, but the usual bad boy elements of snap, crackle and pop have been mostly removed by Criterion's use of Pro Tools HD. The company then inform us that they have attenuated the mix using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation.
The fruits of their labours aren't going to wow you, though, until you appreciate just how painstaking their work must have been. Dialogue is always very clear and un-submerged or swallowed-up. However, once voices are raised and exchanges become heated, as they are prone to do during all the tension and excitement, it can become a jumble of stodgy, higher-pitched barking. As I say, nothing is unintelligible, but moments such as these, can't help but sound squawky. The score actually comes over pretty well with warm, if severely limited range. Depth is, naturally, non-existent and fidelity is strained. Bugle-calls are nicely handled, though, even if the gunshots and the cacophony of racing horses and thundering wheels doesn't really come alive. However, this said, there are a couple of reasonable-sounding sizzle 'n' thud impacts of arrows whizzing into the side of the stagecoach.
I did notice one instance of a slight chirping-and-whistle on the soundtrack, and it wasn't the birds outside the pit-stop at Apache Wells, but this was nothing to get concerned about. Stagecoach, I am sure, sounds the best that Criterion, or anybody else for that matter, can possibly make it, whilst staying true to the source.
As usual, Criterion's intelligent collection of extra features go the distance and deliver finely thought-out supplemental value to the film. The accompanying 33-page booklet carries plenty of detail about the transfer, of course, and it also includes a fine essay on John Ford and Stagecoach by critic David Cairns, as well as the original short story by Ernest Haycox that he based his film upon.
The audio commentary comes from renowned Western historian and scholar, Jim Kitses, who provides a tremendous scene-by-scene analysis of the movie. In a rather loud voice - this guy must deliver lectures - he also supplies plenty of on-set trivia, personality anecdotes and insight into how John Ford operated and what the film has meant to the genre, and to American Cinema, in general. Massively fascinating, this is one of those yak-tracks that you will have to return to again to help absorb all that you are being taught.
Bucking Broadway is one of the earliest Westerns by John Ford. Made in 1917, this silent feature about the contrast between the frontier and the city, is presented with new intertitles, a new music score by Donald Sosis, and with tinted frames that actually boast superior sharpness, depth and clarity than Stagecoach. The film runs for 54 minutes.
A 1968 Interview with John Ford is an epic, but worthwhile slog. Quizzed patiently by the UK's television presenter and journalist, Philip Jenkinson, this shows the acclaimed filmmaker in a typically awkward mood. Much ground is covered in this 72-minute marathon, but you may find yourself getting a touch exasperated with Ford's often combative style of repartee.
Much more immediately engrossing and amusing is the 14-minute session with Director Peter Bogdanovich as he talks about his relationship with John Ford. Bogdanovitch is smart and humorously candid about how he approached his idol, Ford, and made a complete fool of himself on the set of Cheyenne Autumn. He discusses Stagecoach and Ford's supreme ability to corral so many people to do his bidding, whilst still being an irascible and difficult SOB. Excellent.
“Dreaming of Jeanie” comes next. This is critic Tag Gallagher's 21-minute video analysis of how John Ford put Stagecoach together via theme, mood and emotional resonance. Playing against extensive footage of the film to support his dissection, key elements are given comprehensive probing. What started out as a very high-brow and pretentious series of thoughts and opinions actually becomes a wonderful and very detailed and inspired celebration of what makes Stagecoach such a classic.
We then get to see 7 minutes of home movies that John Ford made whilst aboard his boat, the Aran, with friends and trusted associates like the Duke, character actor Ward Bond and cinematographer Gregg Toland (The Grapes Of Wrath/ Citizen Kane). Presented by Ford's grandson, Dan Ford.
True West is author Buzz Bissinger's tribute to Mr. Monument Valley, Harry Goulding, the man who really introduced John Ford to the celebrated location. Lasting for 10 minutes, this is a great little featurette about a true one-off. Moving to the area with his wife, Goulding bonded with the Navajo people and traded exclusively with them for many years, earning their trust and respect. He was pivotal in getting them actor's rates for their appearances in Westerns and it is down to his lobbying, and sleeping on his roll-mat in the studios in LA whilst to see John Ford, that haunting location has become so synonymous with the Wild West.
Then we get A Tribute to Legendary Stuntman Yakima Canutt delivered by celebrity stuntman Vic Armstrong in great little 10-minute featurette that takes a look at the most famous stunts that the ex-horse-wrangler/cowboy/rodeo star designed and perfected. The infamous horse-fall rig is discussed, and a lot of time is spent on that oft-imitated fall beneath the wagon. Cool piece, this, and I wish it could have gone for longer.
Criterion then go the extra mile by presenting us with the radio program “Screen Director's Playhouse” in which we are treated to the 1949 radio version of Stagecoach with John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and Ward Bond in the leading roles. Director George Marshall introduces John Ford who, then, introduces the play, itself.
Finally, we get the film's theatrical trailer to complete this wonderful collection of John Ford-mania.
A classic film saddled-up with a classic package from Criterion. Most of us have seen Stagecoach before, and even those who haven't probably know all about it. Or, at least, think they do. The film is one of those epochal moments in the history of Cinema, literally creating an entire genre out of the dust of the mythical West. Ford would go on to bigger and better films, of that there can be no argument, and he would take John Wayne along with him for most of that eventful ride, but Stagecoach remains one of the most brilliantly constructed cross-country thrillers that never fails to excite, amuse and move in equal measure. Wayne is on the cusp of super-stardom, Ford is proving that his is the winning style, and everyone else involved seem to be firing on all cylinders, too. Stagecoach is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the term. Nobody over-reaches, or poaches. Nobody falters. When the action finally comes is revelatory and vastly influential, stamping out the format for cowboys versus Injuns for decades to follow. Oh, and to answer some critics, Ford is right about the Apaches not just shooting the horses to stop the stagecoach. It is the horses they want - the killing and mutilation is just for a bit of fun!
And then we have the film's other star - Utah's own dreamland of Monument Valley.
All of this is magnificently presented by Criterion on an extras-packed disc that delivers the best transfer of this 1939 classic you are likely to have seen. Stagecoach is as seminal and as legendary as the people who made it famous. Seeing it now only reinforces its status as a masterpiece. I may actually prefer Ford's The Searchers, and enjoy the action of Fort Apache more, but there is no mistaking the grand and occasionally Gothic glory that the director's awesome return to the frontier, after thirteen years away from the saddle, delivers.
Now on Blu-ray, you owe it to yourself to catch the Ford/Wayne Stagecoach!
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