Stagecoach (1939): John Ford’s Great Oscar-Winning Western, Catapulting John Wayne to Movie Stardom

Stagecoach_posterOne of the best Westerns ever made, John Ford’s Stagecoach is also one of the few Westerns to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

The movie, considered to be the first “mature” (or adult) Western, managed to change the image of the genre, previously held in low regard and often referred to as “horse opera.”

It was John Ford’s first Western in 12 years, made in a banner year for the genre–and for Hollywood in general–a year which also saw the release of Union Pacific, Destry Rides Again, Jesse James, and Dodge City.

Stagecoach was also Ford’s first Western to be shot in the magisterial landscape of Monument Valley, which would become a staple—sort of a character—in his future work.

Wayne Tribute: Long Voyage Home

Mogul David O. Selznick was interested in producing the picture, but he suggested Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich for the leads, which Ford rejected.  Instead, Ford proceeded by forming his own company, Argosy Pictures and choosing his own cast

It was not easy to get financial backing for the film, because distributors did not believe John Wayne could hold the picture on his shoulders—he was labeled a B-actor then.  Eventually, however, an enterprising producer, Walter Wanger, agreed to make it.  But even Wanger was cautious, which explains why Claire Trevor, who played a supporting role but was a recognizable name, got star billing ahead of Wayne (and the others).

The movie benefits from script by Dudley Nichols, based on a story by Ernest Haycox. Ford later said that he and Nichols were inspired by–and based some of the characters on–the French writer Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif.”

Stagecoach later became known as the movie that made a star out of John Wayne, after a decade of playing routine parts in B-movies of Poverty Row productions.

The film features a splendid cast, headed by Thomas Mitchell as the alcoholic Doc Boone, John Carradine as the mysterious Southern gentleman Hatfield, and Donald Meek as the whiskey salesman Peacock.

Wayne’s fanatic screen hero first took shape in this Ford classic. Wayne, then 32, plays the Ringo Kid, an honest, good-humored youngster, wrongly condemned for a crime he did not commit. He breaks out of jail in pursuit of the criminals (the Plummer brothers), who had murdered his father and brother and the put him behind bars.

Ringo stops the coach with a shot that terrifies its passengers. However, he immediately establishes himself as a decent, likable guy, especially after surrendering to the benevolent sheriff–until the stagecoach coach gets to Lordsburg.  Ringo’s intention is to return to jail to serve his term, an act that further reaffirms his credibility; though he intends to do it only after his vendetta mission is accomplished.

Ringo’s commitment to the mission is sacred; no one can deter him from fulfilling it once his mind is set about it. When Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute he meets on the coach, suggests that he escape rather than avenge his brother, he states unequivocally, ”There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”

As far as women are concerned, however, the Ringo Kid is shy, naïve, even awkward. Stagecoach, featuring Wayne at his most physically appealing, set the pattern for Wayne’s screen sex persona for a decade, in which he usually played courteous men, gentle with and respectful of women.

A prostitute with a heart of gold, Dallas had been expelled from town by the more respectable but hypocritical ladies.  However, Ringo accepts Dallas for what she is. “I know all I need to know,” he says and means what he says. Ringo also demands that the others on the stagecoach treat Dallas as a lady, with the appropriate politeness and courtesy. When a vote is taken as to whether the journey should continue, Ringo reminds them that Dallas had been overlooked. Later on, Ringo forces Hatfield offer her water, just as he had offered to the ladylike Mrs. Mallory.

Unaware of issues of class and propriety, Ringo invites Dallas to join him and the others, and is amazed when Mrs. Mallory moves away and they are left to eat alone. “Look like I’ve got the plague, don’t it?” he says.

Ringo’s proposition to Dallas is hesitant and awkward, as befits his nature. He says, “I have a ranch across the border. A man could live there…and a woman…Will you go?”

The chase and other action scenes in Stagecoach are still thrilling to behold.  But I would like to point out the significance of the shoot out after the chase.

In a brief scene, Ford shows Ringo diving to the ground and firing his rifle towards the camera and the Plummer boys behind it. It is an impressive, long-angle shot, made all the more impactful by the fact that Ford cuts quickly to Dallas, who is left behind in the shabby quarter of the village. Through Dallas’ reaction, we hear the four of the five shots that ring out.

Ford then plays a trick on the audience, worthy of a Hitchcock’s gimmick. He shows one of the Plummers, Luke (Tom Tyler) returning to the saloon, with an odd look on his face, before falling down dead. The camera then tracks back to Dallas, as she looks around and screams “Kid!”  Upon hearing Ringo approach, she throws herself into his arms.

The couple then climb up onto a buckboard, with the blessing of Curly and Luke, who send them away to Ringo’s ranch over the border.

In the film’s famous last line, Doc says, cynically, “Well, they’re now safe from the blessing of civilization,” once again emphasizing the gap between the mores of the wilderness and the values (and hypocrisy) of modern civilization.

The movie garnered John Ford the Best Director kudo from the New York Film Critics Circle in a year in which many other good movies were made.

Chase Scene:

Stagecoach features of the longest (about 9 minutes), most thrilling chases ever choreographed and shot.  It consists of 84 shots, one third of which are traveling shots.  The stationary coach appears  to be in motion against a rapidly shifting background, which is projected behind it.  The traveling shots are grouped at key moments, such as when the Indians appear for the first time, or  the driver drops the reins, and at the end, when the cowboys come to the rescue.

Commercial Appeal: Though greeted with critical acclaim, Stagecoach was only a moderate success upon its initial release. Made on a budget of over $531,000 million, it earned over $1.1 million at the box-office.

The film achieved greater notoriety and exposure when it was reevaluated by a new generation of filmmakers and critics, such as Peter Bogdanovich and Andrew Sarris, respectively.

As was the norm at the time, the film received two premieres at different times and cities: February 2, 1939 in Los Angeles, and March 3 in New York.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Walter Wanger
Director: John Ford
Supporting Actor: Thomas Mitchell
Score: Richard Hageman, Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken
Cinematography (b/w): Bert Glennon
Interior Decoration: Alexander Toluboff
Film Editing: Otto Lovering and Dorothy Spencer

Oscar Awards: 2

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context

Sweeping most of the Oscars in 1939, Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind vied for the top award with nine other films: Dark Victory; Goodbye Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; Stagecoach; The Wizard of Oz; and Wuthering Heights.

Recycling and Remakes:

The inferior 1966 remake of Stagecoach starred Ann-Margret, Red Buttons, Mike Connors, Alex Cord, Bing Crosby, Robert Cummings, Van Heflin, Slim Pickens, and Stefanie Powers.

A TV version, featuring Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, was made in 1986..


Claire Trevor as Dallas

John Wayne as Henry[“The Ringo Kid”

Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone

Andy Devine as Buck

John Carradine as Hatfield

George Bancroft as Marshal Curly Wilcox

Louise Platt as Lucy Mallory

Donald Meek as Samuel Peacock

Berton Churchill as Henry Gatewood

Tim Holt as Lieutenant Blanchard

Tom Tyler as Luke Plummer

Chris-Pin Martin as Chris, innkeeper

Elvira Ríos as Yakima, Chris’ wife

Brenda Fowler as Mrs. Gatewood

Nora Cecil as Boone’s housekeeper

Francis Ford as Billy Pickett, innkeeper

Marga Ann Deighton as Mrs. Pickett

Vester Pegg as Ike Plummer

Joe Rickson as Hank Plummer

Jack Pennick as Jerry, barkeeper in Tonto

Duke R. Lee as the Sheriff of Lordsburg

Chief White Horse as Geronimo

Chief John Big Tree as Indian Scout