'Stagecoach' at 80: Revisit The Breathtaking Vitality of John Ford's Iconic Western – Decider

May 8, 2019 - Comment

Stagecoach, the John Ford-directed western that elevated the genre and unveiled John Wayne as the quintessential American icon, turned 80 this year, and the Criterion Channel has you covered if you’ve yet to take in this American classic. By the time Wayne stepped into the role of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, he was already


Stagecoach, the John Ford-directed western that elevated the genre and unveiled John Wayne as the quintessential American icon, turned 80 this year, and the Criterion Channel has you covered if you’ve yet to take in this American classic.

By the time Wayne stepped into the role of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, he was already a big screen vet; as Scott Eyman notes in his biography of the star, he had been busting his hump on the margins of Hollywood for the better part of a decade. The one-time USC football player picked up work as an extra and starred in a bunch of cheap, poverty row serials; his first shot at stardom, The Big Trail (1930), was a flop, one so bad it’d take him nearly a decade to get another.

When he got that second shot he made the most of it, however, with John Ford pushing him over the top with one of the great moments in film history. It comes about 18 minutes in, after the stage(coach) has been set—a corrupt banker, a dandyish rogue, a drunk doctor, a golden-hearted whore, and a pregnant society gal are on the road—and the motley crew is headed off into Apache country. We hear a rifle crack offscreen and the camera cuts from the coach to a man, standing tall, twirling a Winchester in one hand and holding his saddle in the other. Ford pushes in on this titan, his presence in the foreground framed by vast buttes in the background, until his face takes up the frame.

STAGECOACH JOHN WAYNE PUSH

And then, Wayne does a little thing with his eyes and his mouth: the eyes go a bit wider, the mouth a bit less taut. Here’s a face you instinctually trust, an honest face. You might wonder why, in the next shot, the man riding shotgun levels it at the stranger. Surely our hero has finally arrived?

That innate decency—a sort of honest toughness—projected by Wayne as the Ringo Kid is what holds the film together, raises it up a notch. It shines through when he stands up for the prostitute, Dallas (Claire Trevor), whose line of work renders her unfit for polite society; you believe the Kid when he gives Marshall Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) his word that he won’t flee, that he can help fight off the Apache assault on the titular conveyance.

And that assault! Yes, it’s a bit quaint in our era of CGI and spandex; no, it’s not as epic as Fury Road‘s bonkers stunt work. But there’s something to be said for men on horses wielding rifles and bows, firing at a full gallop, dropping to the ground when they’ve been hit. It’s modestly terrifying to watch Wayne’s stuntman—Yakima Canutt, about whom Criterion includes a short featurette—jumping horse-to-horse to pick up the reins dropped by the coach’s injured driver. The reality of it all has a breathtaking vitality.

“A horse is the greatest vehicle for action there is,” Wayne told the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, according to Eyman. “Put a man on him, and you’ve got the makings of something magnificent—physical strength, speed where you can see and feel it, heroism. (…) There’s a simplicity of conflict you can’t beat.”

As exciting as all this is, the action takes up a surprisingly short amount of time in the picture: there’s the Apache attack and a shootout at the end that takes place almost entirely offscreen, and that’s it. Ford’s movie endures because of the characters, the fact that it feels like a society in miniature.

Stagecoach was the first of what they call the ‘adult’ westerns, or the ‘psychological’ westerns. It took certain cliched characters … and mixed it into this unusually subversive recipe,” director and historian Peter Bogdanovich notes in an extra on the Criterion Channel’s Stagecoach package. “It subverts polite and respectable society: the women that throw the hooker out, the women that reject the doctor, they’re wrong. The banker who is the most upright man in the stagecoach, supposedly, is a crook. It’s very apropos for our society today.”

Indeed, the social dynamics here are all quite fascinating, especially given Wayne and Ford’s reputation as among Hollywood’s most iconic conservatives. It’s a shame, then, that Stagecoach‘s 80th anniversary has gone largely overlooked; wags on social media seem far more interested in an interview Wayne gave to Playboy decades ago in which he said some reactionary things. That’s hardly surprising; people today are more concerned with finding something to be angry about than appreciating and examining art. But for those few rare connoisseurs that remain, do yourself a favor and check out Stagecoach.

Sonny Bunch is the executive editor of, and film critic for, the Washington Free Beacon. He’s also a cohost of The Sub-Beacon podcast and a contributor to the Washington Post.

Where to stream Stagecoach (1939)

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