This post is a part of our New Voices Section.
Written by Jusef Conesa.
Stagecoach marks the birth of one of the most successful partnerships Hollywood has ever seen. John Ford had won his first Academy Award for Best Director in 1936 for his crime-drama “The Informer” and three-years later he was ready to jump back into the genre that arguably helped him shape the best films of his catalog, westerns. Ford had his eyes set on a young ex-football player turned extra/stunt-double, John Wayne. Ford saw in him what nobody else saw; a star in the making. After making fourteen films together and Wayne becoming an icon within Hollywood it’s hard to say that Ford was wrong in viewing their partnership as something worth pursuing.
The story is pretty straight-forward; a group of strangers try to make it from one town to the next while trying to avoid being ambushed by the apache. But what I love about it is how every character has a real motivation to stay onboard that is slowly revealed throughout the runtime. Ringo Kid (John Wayne) stays to protect the passengers and wants to avenge his fallen brother and father at the hands of another outlaw waiting in the next town. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and Dallas (Claire Trevor) both have been exiled by the townspeople due to their drinking and prostitution, respectively. They stay in the stagecoach because they see a path of redemption with their fellow passengers. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is trying to reconnect with her military husband who promised to meet her in one of the stops on the way to the town and the stagecoach is always one step behind, forcing her to stay on for the entire ride.
Quick note: the score is wonderful and it is utilized to highlight the vistas our characters are traveling through.
Despite this being billed as a “John Wayne movie” all the actors fit perfectly in their roles and play-off one another making it a great ensemble piece, keeping the audience engaged and entertained even when confined to a stagecoach. Wayne demonstrates that he can be both a strong presence that can kill all the bad guys and a warm, inviting individual who sees the good in all, including the exiled prostitute he falls in love with and the drunk doctor that saved his brother. The chemistry and banter between Wayne and Trevor is the emotional anchor needed to close-out the movie after the group makes it to the town.
Ford demonstrates a great eye for action in the climax encounter between the apache and the group. There is an incredible stunt, where an apache falls under the horses and the stagecoach going at full speed, no CGI needed. The balance created between each of the character’s screen-time allows the audience to connect and care for their wellbeing throughout this perilous journey is Ford’s greatest accomplishment. This would garner him his second-Best Director nomination, losing to Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind). Stagecoach is a time capsule of cinematic history both marking the start of a fruitful partnership and the re-ignition of the western genre in Hollywood. It’s one hell of a fun ride and everyone should come on board.