Claire Trevor and John Wayne in the classic Western Stagecoach (1939).
This article is part of The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe.
"What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine while falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach," The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
For me, director John Ford's landmark Western Stagecoach (1939) has always been perfection on celluloid. Some of the most treasured times of my childhood were spent watching this film, and I often return to it as an adult.
I first watched Stagecoach as a child, and it captivated me from the start (the local PBS station aired classic movies on Saturday night before my favorite TV show, Doctor Who). The simple plot about a diverse group of stagecoach passengers who are trying to make it through Arizona Territory without being detected by Apaches was easy to understand and exciting, especially for a Lone Ranger fan like myself.
PBS only had a few classic movies in its lineup, so I was fortunate enough to watch Stagecoach several times. It soon became my favorite movie mostly because I wanted to be BFFs with Doc Boone played by Thomas Mitchell (I didn't understand that what I thought was very funny behavior was caused by alcohol), and I secretly wanted to be Andy Devine mostly because I thought driving a stagecoach seemed like a really cool job. I was also fascinated by the film's glimpse into an adult world through the childbirth scene and the relationship between the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and Dallas (Claire Trevor).
I've watched Stagecoach dozens of times since then, and while I've given up my ambition of being a stagecoach driver, I still find the film a rewarding experience all these years later. There are several reasons for this including the masterful plot, which Ford unfolds with clockwork precision, and the roster of great character actors. I still enjoy my childhood favorites Devine and Mitchell (he deservedly won a best supporting actor Academy Award for Stagecoach), but there's also Berton Churchill as a pompous blowhard who keeps yelling "we need a businessman for President" 😏 and the wonderfully nervous Donald Meek, as a "medicine" salesman, who is often the object of Doc Boone's drunken attention.
Most of all, I return to Stagecoach because of Ford, who was surely one of the most distinctive artists in American history. The gruff director despised being called an artist or even worse an auteur, but the truth is he was both, and also a poet who wrote with the camera rather than words. The beautiful fluidity of Ford's camera movements are evident in all of his films but most especially in Stagecoach. Everyone remembers the famous dolly shot (GIF above) that effectively made Wayne a movie star, but there are several memorable sequences in Stagecoach, including the climatic chase scene and the Ringo Kid's final confrontation with the men who killed his father and brother. I've seen many masterpieces in museums, but none have moved me quite so deeply as the scene where Wayne walks to his fate while the light of the saloons he passes plays across his face.
Finally, I return to Stagecoach because it speaks to all of the other great films Ford made through the years. In fact, I think all of Ford's pictures after Stagecoach can be seen as one continuous work of art, except for a few films set in Great Britain and Ireland. He returns again and again to the myth of the American West and/or the righteous hero, re-imagining and reworking these themes in My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and perhaps most potently in his final film, 7 Women (1966). This picture is a gender-flipped Stagecoach about a group of female missionaries in China who are menaced by Mongolian warriors (my review is here). In this film, Anne Bancroft takes over the Wayne role, but instead of a sunrise and a happy ending as in Stagecoach, there is only tragedy and a fade into darkness as Ford closes the curtain on his illustrious career.
I'll leave you with this wonderful intro from beloved TCM host Robert Osborne.
Stagecoach is available on FilmStruck for those with the Criterion Channel subscription. It's also available on DVD and Blu-ray.