Monday, July 11, 2011

Stagecoach (1939)

 A Fantastic Film Of Many Firsts For John Ford

- Director John Ford's legacy as a colossus of the western genre began with 1939's Stagecoach, an important film not just for Ford but for the entire western genre and, of course, the film's star: John Wayne. The story follows a rag-tag group consisting of the outcast, the outlawed, and the opulent individual (in other words, a comprehensive portrait of the American west) together inside one trusty stagecoach. All, initially, have different purposes aboard the stagecoach until they must band together in the face of an approaching Apache force.

Ford wanted to cast a relatively unknown figure in Hollywood at the time, John Wayne, as the film's major hero role of The Ringo Kid. However, most studios were not thrilled with the idea because Wayne had a reputation as an unreliable box-office headliner – which was why he was lost inside the B-picture doldrums for much of the decade. Ford stuck to his guns however and eventually got his way: Wayne would be the star of Stagecoach. It comes as no surprise that Wayne became a superstar almost overnight; iconic from the first frame, Wayne gives a wonderful performance in the film as The Ringo Kid. Wayne is great in the film but the entire supporting cast of reliable character actors also perform their roles admirably – most notable is Thomas Mitchell who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the charmingly inebriated Doc Boone – and the first-billed Claire Trevor steals the entire show with a very forceful but touching portrayal of the rejected and dejected but strong and resourceful "other lady" Dallas.

Stagecoach was not the first western that John Ford ever directed (there were many preceding silent western films already a part of his résumé) but it was Ford's first talkie western, the first of many Ford films to star John Wayne, and it was the first of many films that Ford shot in the iconic Monument Valley. At the time of the release of Stagecoach, most western films were either B-pictures or kids films. However, Ford made a special effort to focus on the many vivid characters throughout the film and created a western film for adults that would shake the genre to its very core forever. Stagecoach immediately stood out amongst the rest of genre as a rich character-centered western-set drama with romantic overtones, social commentary, and the occasional stunning action piece - rather than simply being an enjoyable but forgettable Cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-up actioner. While a big film in many ways, the grace and subtly of Stagecoach are some of its greatest strengths. Ford achieves more in a scene without dialogue that most directors could not with a wall of words - it only takes a shot of one of the actor's face to express something powerful.

In addition to being a western full of character and feeling, Stagecoach really looks good. The use of Monument Valley works just as mightily as it would for the other John Ford westerns that would later employ its vast scenery - only perhaps to a darker extent. The grand towering buttes convey an expansive and mythic American West setting that is really quite haunting, more so than most of Ford other Monument Valley-set films which capture a sense of majesty over grimness. Ford's lighting and framing of every scene is nothing short of brilliant and the fluid movement of the camera is especially visually arresting. Some if the best scenes in the film, including the famous shootout/horse-race, are so eye-catching and memorable because of the way that characters and other objects move on, off, or within the screen.

With the success of Stagecoach, John Wayne became a superstar and the western genre was redefined. Western films began to rise above "B-movie" status, becoming a respectable genre about characters and atmosphere rather than just gun fights and horses. For modern audiences, Stagecoach remains a timeless classic – a visual pleasure; a thrilling adventure; and an all-around great story of acceptance, cooperation, valor, and love. John Ford and John Wayne would reunite time and again for more westerns – many times at Monument Valley – but few of them were as good as their first western collaboration: Stagecoach.

CBC Rating: 9/10

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