As is often the case with early genre foundations, to see John Ford’s epochal western Stagecoach today means looking back past the countless subsequent films that would go on to build on it. These include Anthony Mann’s elemental odysseys, Budd Boetticher’s prairie chamber pieces, Sergio Leone’s luxuriating arias, Sam Peckinpah’s squib fiestas, and Clint Eastwood’s sagebrush apocalypses. They also include Ford’s own darkening portrayals, which, in such late works as The Searchers and 7 Women, not only exposed the contradictory anxieties within the Old West myths the filmmaker carved in celluloid, but also questioned the very existence of these myths. “Print the legend,” the newspaper reporter says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for the legend is dead, if it ever lived.
Back in 1939, however, the legend was alive and well, especially as embodied by Ford muse John Wayne, who, introduced in a star-engraving dolly shot, is posed against Monument Valley’s rock formations like a god in wrangler denim, a mirage. Essential as he is to both the actor’s noble-rugged persona and Ford’s vision of men suspended between the home and the desert, Wayne’s Ringo Kid is just one of the folks crammed inside the titular vehicle during its journey across perilous untamed territory. Among the passengers are exiled prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), self-described “proud, glorified dreg” Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), prim military wife Lucy (Louise Platt), Confederate gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), crooked banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill), and squeamish whisky salesman Peacock (Donald Meek). Except for Gatewood, whose plutocratic antics surely endeared him to no contemporary viewer (the Depression was as much of an open wound to audiences as the Civil War was to the people on screen), Dudley Nichols’s screenplay is shaped to provide each character with opportunities to reveal different sides of their archetypal personalities.
The first sound western by the director who would become the genre’s consummate poet laureate, Stagecoach is nevertheless less a blank-slate beginning than a crystallizing crossroads. The genre staples on display—the cowboy’s instinctive courtliness, the saloon Magdalene-cum-Madonna, the Southerner’s doomed gallantry—were already familiar to the screen from the sagas of William S. Hart and Tom Mix, to say nothing of Ford’s own earlier westerns starring Harry Carey. Yet there’s a purity to the way Ford films them, lovingly detailing a populist camaraderie emerging as the characters travel through a young nation fluxing between the danger and freedom of the wilderness and the order and prejudice of civilization. If this is the Old West of our dreams, it’s one that exists in an outsider’s limbo, away from society’s rules, alternating between the breathtaking breadth of the American landscape and the Germanically shadowy lighting of Ford’s claustrophobic interiors. From Apache warriors to narrow-minded biddies to the social barriers separating the characters, Ford never fails to perceive the fragility of his utopia.
A vivid, horizon-scanning cultural pilgrimage, Stagecoach also lingers as folklore theater (with recurring songs like “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” and “I Dream of Jeanie” adding to the mood), allegory for a world right before the war, and Catholic redemption play. Many a Native American attack and shotgun showdown have flowed from it, yet decades of appropriations, remakes, and parodies can’t rob the film of its vitality, humanism, and visual grandeur. Like the great moment when Ford’s camera stays on Lucy’s face as the scene passes from Griffithian melodrama (Hatfield’s gun barrel dipping into the frame to “save” her Aryan honor) to near-Brechtian analysis (Lucy virtually announcing the Cavalry’s arrival to the audience), the film continues to feel both classical and startlingly modern.
The image may show its age at times, but Ford's first trip to the plateaus of Monument Valley hasn't look this dynamic in decades. The occasional hiss and faded patch in the mono sound is forgivable.
The jewel of Criterion's exceptionally generous array of extras may be Bucking Broadway, a rambunctious 1917 silent that showcases the young Ford's fondness for jokes and pictorial poetry, as well as star Harry Carey's taciturn charm. Just as enjoyable is journalist Philip Jenkinson's 1968 interview with the tetchy director, who hilariously plays up his persona as an uncooperative old lion. (My favorite bit: Asked about braving enemy fire to photograph a military attack in his WWII documentary The Battle of Midway, Ford pauses before growling, "I did WHAAAT?") Jim Kitses's audio commentary is encyclopedic, but could have used a gallon or two of caffeine. Peter Bogdanovich recounts his friendship with Ford and Stagecoach's place within his oeuvre, while the director's grandson Dan Ford narrates his home movies. Two integral elements of the film, Monument Valley and stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt, get an engaging featurette each. Tag Gallagher, perhaps the most passionate Ford historian, offers a lovely video essay on Stagecoach's visual expressiveness, bringing particular attention to how much of it plays in silent glances exchanged between characters. Finally, the film's plot is available in two other formats: The 1949 Screen Director's Playhouse radio dramatization, with Ford, John Wayne, and Claire Trevor, and in Ernest Haycox's original short story "Stage to Lordsburg," printed in full on a booklet that also includes an essay by critic David Cairns.
All aboard for John Ford's enduring Old West ride.