Stagecoach: Legendary Western, Legendary Star–John Wayne

Honoring the Duke, the most powerful screen star in American history

One 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.
The movie, considered to be the first mature (or adult) Western, changed 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, released in a banner year for the genre, 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 stale—sort of a character—in his future work.

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.

It was not easy to get financial backing, because distributors did not believe John Wayne could hold the picture on his shoulders—he was labeled a B actor then. Eventually an enterprising producer, Walter Wanger, agreed to make it. But even Wanger was cautious, which explains why Claire Trevor got star billing ahead of Wayne!

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.

It is also known as the movie that made a star out of John Wayne, after a decade of playing parts in B-movies of Poverty Row productions.

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

John Wayne’s fanatic screen hero first took shape in this Ford classic. Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, an honest, good-humored youngster, wrongly condemned for a crime he did not commit. He breaks out of jail to pursuit of the criminals (the Plummer brothers) who had murdered his father and brother and 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 a 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, nave and even awkward. Stagecoach, in which Wayne was at his most sexually appealing, set the pattern for Wayne’s screen sex persona for a decade. 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.

In the end, unaware of issues of propriety, he invites Dallas to join him 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?”

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?”

A lot of critics have singled out the attack that the Apaches mount on the coach as it enters into the valley. Yakima Canutt performed Wayne’s stunts, as he climbs from the interior onto the roof, aiming his rifle on the Apaches with rapid fire. When one of the Indians overtakes the stagecoach, Buck yells out to Ringo, who picks of the rider. Buck is shot in the arm, which leads to letting go of the leaders’ reins, dragging to the ground.

In the most impressive shot of the attack, Ringo gets into the driver’s seat and then into the horses in the rear. He then jumps forward, and forward again onto the lead pair, gathering the trailing reins and whipping the horses ferociously with the loose ends. The chase ends with the arrival of the cavalry. The coach proceeds to Lordsburg, where the pompopus an corrupt banker, Gatwood, is arrested for embezzlement.

Decades later, the chase and other action scenes are still thrilling. But I would like to point out the significance of the shoot-out scene that follows the lengthy chase (about 9 minutes of screen time).

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 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!” on hearing Ringo approach, throwing herself into his arms. The couple climb up onto a buckboard, with the blessing of Curly and Luke, who send them away to Ringo’s ranch over the border, which ends the picture: “Well, they’re safe from the blessing of civilization.”

The movie garnered Ford the Best Director kudo from the New York Film Critics Circle.

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, 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.