As a kid I can remember my dad, Saturday afternoons, constantly (in my adolescent mind) watching old westerns. Or old John Wayne movies. Or old John Wayne westerns because the man seemed to ALWAYS be in ALL of them. Sigh. Boy did I hate them. I never understood the appeal, it was always the same thing: Good guy, Bad guy, horses, boring talkie-talkie, shoot out, ending. Plus they usually threw a girl in to boot. Yuck! Looking back at it now it was obviously a generational thing. As kids we never ran around playing Cowboys and Indians. I grew up on Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, and Explorers. I was a Spaceman! I wanted a rocket ship and a laser-blaster, not a horse and a six shooter.
It wasn’t until my early teens that I finally started to come around on the western, and even then begrudgingly. I was home sick from school one day and having exhausted nearly all the VHS tapes on the living room shelf I finally broke down and put in, god-forbid, a John Wayne movie. El Dorado. And much to my surprise I loved it! It is still my favorite western to this day. Classic Wayne, drunken Robert Mitchum, super-young James Caan, what’s not to love?
The 90’s were a boon to the genre with such great films as Unforgiven, Tombstone, Ride with the Devil and the Young Guns films (quiet you, I like them!) So by the time I had discovered “film”, not “movies,” and began studying them as art, the western had proved itself as a legitimate genre and Not Just for Dads Anymore. So years later, when my beloved Criterion Collection announced their release of John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach I was in total anticipation.
Stagecoach was a new kind of western. Above all else, it is a human drama which tells the story of a group of strangers as they travel through tumultuous Apache territory. It is this human story and the development of its characters that bolstered it from a B movie fare to the genre defining film it is today. In the beginning we are introduced to a handful of western caricatures: a saloon girl and a drunken doctor both being run out-of-town by the upright citizens brigade, a southern belle, a “gentleman” gambler, a crooked banker and a meek whiskey peddler, all under the watchful eyes the coachman and the town sheriff. Eventually they cross paths with the wanted outlaw, the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne in his first starring role.
When it becomes known that their stagecoach is in danger from a pack of marauding Apaches led by the notorious Geronimo our group of travelers must make their own decisions whether to continue or not. Having just been expelled two of them have no reason to go back; the belle just wants to make it to her military officer husband and the gambler feels it is his gentlemanly duty to protect her; the crooked banker has just done something crooked and wants nothing more than to make a clean getaway; our whiskey salesman meekly goes along until he is left with no other choice than to continue; the sheriff is bound by duty and never gives the poor coachman a choice in the matter, he’s in it whether he likes it or not. Ringo wants only to get to their destination in order to carry out his plan of revenge against the outlaw brothers who murdered his family.
Eventually (almost an hour and half now into the picture) the inevitable attack comes ravaging across the desert in a frenzy of horses, bullets and arrows. Our hero coolly and effortlessly manages to fend off the attackers for a period of time but as ammunition soon runs out the small band’s fortune quickly turns to the hopeless. No spoilers here tho. You’ll just have to tune in yourselves to find out who may or may not survive. I do want to mention the spectacular stunt work in this scene tho, much of it by legendary stunt man Yakima Canutt. By today’s standards they may seem trite or cliché, but this was 1939!! Some had never been performed before and there is a reason they have been copied over and over again (Indiana Jones, I’m looking in your direction) – they’re incredible! Dragged along the ground by a team of horses, dropping between them and full gallop and passing under the speeding coach… amazing.
During our travelers desperate drive we are treated to the incredible visual spectacle of Monument Valley. Even in stark black and white it is a wonder to behold. Stagecoach was one of the first films to take advantage of the barren moon-like locations (due to the fact it is two hundred miles from anywhere and nobody wanted to shoot there) and Ford would return later for nearly every one of his western films.
It is with my highest recommendations that I suggest giving Stagecoach a view. Whether you are a long time fan of the genre and have seen it before or if you are on the fence when it comes to westerns, do your self a favor and check it out. Even if it is just for some film history enlightenment Stagecoach has much to offer.