dvd review: Stagecoach

(Criterion Collection)

A film as great, and significant, as John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) deserves a great presentation DVD, and it finally has one, thanks to the Criterion Collection. It’s tragic that the original negative of this landmark film no longer exists; we’ve been lucky to have decent copies in spite of that, but Criterion had access to a 35mm nitrate negative from the 1942 reissue, which they treated with care and respect for the integrity of the film as it originally appeared. In the booklet that accompanies the DVD, the disc’s producers apologize for flaws that remain. “The picture suffered from thousands of instances of blended-in scratches and debris, especially around reel changes and in action sequences. In cases where the damage was not fixable without leaving traces of our restoration work, we decided to leave the original damage. Through hundreds of hours of restoration work, we’ve manually removed the—

—worst of the damage, along with dirt, splices, warps, jitter, ad flicker…”) The result is quite good, and frankly, I’d prefer to see occasional lines and signs of wear than have it artificially doctored to look like a shiny piece of digital video. Bert Glennon’s cinematography is there in all its glory; it looks like a film made in 1939. Critic and Western authority Jim Kitses offers a full-length commentary, which this movie demands.

A separate disc is packed with bonus features, beginning with the rare, recently-discovered 1917 Ford feature Bucking Broadway, starring Harry Carey. This simple, lighthearted Carey vehicle is fun to watch, and looks astonishingly good. Donald Sosin provides a lively piano score.

One of the highlights of the disc is British film writer and TV host Philip Jenkinson’s lengthy interview with Ford, shot at his Hollywood home in 1968. Here is pure, unvarnished Ford: alternately terse and eloquent, witty and playful, spinning some stories that are utter hogwash and others that offer some insight into his thought process. He especially enjoys parrying with Jenkinson and his British crew. At certain junctures, it’s clear that Ford is testing the interviewer; if Jenkinson had blinked, Ford would have moved in for the kill. But he knows his films, doesn’t shy away from asking questions about contemporary issues, and is willing to put up with the Old Man’s gaff; by being patient, he gets some of what he’s after. One doesn’t learn very much about Ford’s career or filmmaking process from this conversation, but one does get a vivid picture of the man in his twilight years, a contrarian to the very end. (I love the fact that we get to see the raw footage of this encounter, including every morsel, even as cameras were being reset for a new 16mm magazine.)

In contrast, we get to see a younger, more relaxed Ford on his yacht, the Araner, in a brief but valuable segment featuring his color home movies. This material has been used many times before, but here it’s put into a useful context, through a conversation with the director’s grandson and biographer, Dan Ford. I also don’t remember earlier iterations of this material pointing out who actually shot the films: veteran cameraman George Schneiderman, in many cases, and even the great Gregg Toland, both of whom are pictured. (One shot curiously misidentifies someone as actor Ward Bond, who does appear elsewhere.)

Film theorist and historian Tag Gallagher presents a rather rudimentary video essay about Ford’s visual presentation in the film. I’m not sure I agree with all of his observations, but they’re certainly interesting and offer food for thought.

Journalist Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) talks about Harry Goulding, the man who made friends with the Navajo tribe and established a foothold in Monument Valley, then persuaded Ford to come there to film Stagecoach.

Veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong offers an informed and heartfelt tribute to Yakima Canutt, who performed and rigged so many memorable stunts in Stagecoach.

Look, Ma: a ceiling!

And Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Ford and many of his associates, and published a pioneering book about the director (including a lengthy interview) decades ago, weighs in with typically cogent observations about the significance of Stagecoach in his career. Among other things, he reminds us that Orson Welles screened the picture many times before embarking on his debut feature, Citizen Kane. Sure enough, the ceilings that Welles was celebrated for showing in that film turn up in Stagecoach, when the passengers stop at the way-station.

Digesting all of this material results in a heightened appreciation of Ford’s extraordinary film, which could be taken for granted by an ignorant viewer who was unaware that it was John Wayne’s stepping stone to major stardom (Bogdanovich points out how much his performance derives from reaction shots), established Monument Valley as an iconic film location, was Ford’s first Western in the sound era, and was heralded as the birth of the “adult” Western (an arguable claim). Its depiction of various “types,” including the good-hearted hooker, the outcast drunken doctor, and the pompous banker who presents himself as a pillar of society when in fact he’s a crook still have resonance because the roles are so well written (by Dudley Nichols), well cast, and well played. (Speaking of writing, Criterion provides yet another fresh experience by reprinting Ernest Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg” in the booklet that accompanies this DVD set. It’s fascinating to see what attracted Ford, and how much he and Nichols added to the bare bones of that well-written story. The booklet also includes an interesting essay by David Cairns.)

John Ford aboard his beloved yacht, the Araner.

Stagecoach is about different types of people seeing past their prejudices and coming to accept each other; that’s one reason it still plays so well, as a parable that happens to use a Western setting. Another reason is that it’s such a good-looking movie. Ford’s gift for composition is peerless; shot after shot in the movie could be frozen and displayed as examples of great photography, yet those images always serve the film and never seem to be showing themselves off.

If you’re a collector who’s tired of buying the same titles over and over again on DVD, don’t hesitate to upgrade your copy of Stagecoach. This Criterion package is a must-have.

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May 2024