Friday, December 28, 2012

#865. Stagecoach (1939) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine

Tag line: "A Powerful Story of 9 Strange People!"

Trivia: Orson Welles privately watched this film about 40 times while he was making Citizen Kane

John Ford may not have invented the Western, but he did more to define it than most other filmmakers. Starting with Stagecoach in 1939, and continuing with movies like 1946’s My Darling Clementine, The Searchers in 1956, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, Ford took the genre in a number of daring new directions while, at the same time, focusing on greater issues such as bigotry, familial bonds, the encroachment of civilization, and the changing face of the country itself.

Several people in the small town of Tonto, Arizona board a stagecoach bound for Lordsburg, New Mexico. Among them are Dallas (Claire Trevor), who is being run out of town for her “immoral” behavior (we’re led to believe she’s a prostitute); the drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); Southern gambler Hatfield (John Carradine); Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker who seems in a great hurry to get out of Tonto. 

Before departing, the driver (Andy Devine) is warned that the Apaches, led by Geronimo, are on the warpath, and that everyone, including the passengers, should keep an eye out for trouble. Fortunately, a bit further up the trail, the coach also picks up The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), a fugitive from justice who is mighty handy with a gun. Out in the middle of nowhere, this rag-tag group must find a way to work together if they’re to have any chance of surviving the long journey.

Inevitably, the Apaches do attack, leading to a number of exciting scenes that are set in Utah’s picturesque Monument Valley, a location Ford would return to in many later films. But the Apaches aren’t the only ones stirring up trouble in this movie. By introducing such a wide variety of characters, all representing different cross-sections of society, Stagecoach also afforded its director the opportunity to explore the topic of social prejudice. From the outset, Dallas and Doc Boone are treated as outcasts, scorned by such “upper-class” passengers as Gatewood and Mrs. Mallory. And despite the fact his shooting skills saved them during the initial battle, even The Ringo Kid is looked down on by some of the others. Yet as we’ll soon learn, a few of the so-called “respectable” characters in Stagecoach are anything but that.

Stagecoach is a thrilling adventure, and like many of Ford’s westerns, it brings more to the table as well, showing us how a group made up of very different people might react when tossed into a dangerous situation. Furthermore, by separating his characters along social lines, Ford ensures that, even when there isn’t a battle going on, there’s plenty of bickering and in-fighting to keep his audience riveted.

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