Dismiss from your mind, momentarily at least, the John Ford we know, who could define himself with the three words “I make westerns.” Before Stagecoach (1939), Ford’s talking pictures played out in submarines, penitentiaries, and Scottish castles, in Mesopotamia, colonial India, and the Caribbean. Although manly adventure and small-town sentiment had their place, and although Ford would later in his career continue to dabble in subjects outside his soon-to-be signature genre, this was a more scattershot, eclectic filmmaker, who had not yet chosen a particular avenue to explore—even if his silent movies, including numerous short westerns and one genuine epic, 1924’s The Iron Horse, offer an early clue to his interests.
This was also a director who, while a highly paid industry player, had a checkered commercial history and hadn’t yet gained the full trust of his producers. So when, in 1937, he first suggested filming Ernest Haycox’s story “Stage to Lordsburg” to David O. Selznick, his boss dismissed the proposed project as an insignificant B picture and Ford as a flaky talent in need of firm handling. That’s why Ford left Selznick, to film the story, which he’d bought with his own money, eventually making a deal with Walter Wanger at United Artists. The result would be Stagecoach, Ford’s first western since the silent days, and his separation from the genre seemed to have energized him: while the industry as a whole had come to regard the humble oater with benign contempt, Ford now approached it with a new seriousness, as the great American myth. The film would forever fix the relationship between Ford and the Old West.
In Haycox’s short story, a wild but righteous man on a mission of revenge must take a stagecoach through Indian-infested territory to reach the town where his real enemies await. En route, he falls in love, which adds extra emotional force to the peril. In the script Ford commissioned from Dudley Nichols, the hero is also an outlaw who is under arrest, stacking the odds against him even higher. It’s a brilliant structure, following the spectacle of the Apache raid with the more personal drama of the gunfight in Lordsburg.
The film’s journey, during which a disparate group of more or less fleshed-out stereotypes face colossal danger, obeys the formula of the “group jeopardy film” or disaster movie. Ford and Nichols had just scored a hit in this genre with The Hurricane, featuring two of Stagecoach’s stars, playing prototypes of their Stagecoach roles; this time, Thomas Mitchell (body of a giant baby, face of a sodden chimp, yet oddly noble of aspect) is Doc Boone, an alcoholic sawbones, and John Carradine (ambulatory skeleton, only thinner) is Hatfield, an aloof and cold-blooded zealot. Joining these men are Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant southern belle (although cinematic propriety of the day prevented her showing any outward symptoms); chubby coachman Buck Rickabough (Andy Devine, his voice an oscillating rasp like from a rusted slide guitar); mild-mannered whiskey salesman Mr. Peacock (the aptly named Donald Meek); crooked banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a petty embodiment of hypocrisy and prejudice (bankers were as unpopular in 1939 as today); saloon girl Dallas (Claire Trevor), run out of town by a citizens’ committee of prudish wives; and a sheriff called Curley, on his way to capture an escaped prisoner called Ringo, known to be headed for Lordsburg to kill the men who slew his father and brother. Curley is played by former silent movie gangster George Bancroft, with his extraordinary helmet of hair, a man who never really learned to treat the microphone as a friend, preferring to bellow it into submission.
Stock types, but Nichols and Ford and the cast make them fresh by letting them bounce off one another in surprising ways. Character change elevates Stagecoach far above The Hurricane, where the cardboard figures blow in the wind but don’t bend. Nearly everybody in Stagecoach is either developed or transfigured during the adventure. Snooty Lucy transcends the prejudices of her upbringing via her growing respect for Dallas, and even the timid Mr. Peacock gains a little force. A family man, he is more able to assert himself after Lucy’s baby is born, even if nobody pays much attention. Curley, meanwhile, thanks to his exposure to that noble outlaw the Ringo Kid, abandons his rigid service to the law so a higher justice can be done.
Ford had used young propman Marion Morrison as an extra in Hangman’s House in 1928, and recommended him for the lead in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail the following year, but under his new name, John Wayne, the actor had since labored in B movies and serials, learning his craft, and to point his toes into the ground when he walked, converting a lumbering gait into that distinctive sashay-swagger. Ford had followed his protégé’s progress and considered him ready for a break. And Nichols’s script was a star maker, holding back Ringo’s entrance until the other travelers have been introduced and the journey begun. The fast dolly-in to close-up on Wayne, thirty-one but still an Adonis, if Adonis twirled a rifle, marks the end of his B-movie purgatory and the beginning of his stardom. (Wayne was paid $3,700, a substantial savings given that Devine and Mitchell got more than 10K apiece. The highest fee went to Trevor, the film’s biggest name.)
As Edward Buscombe has observed, the traditional western has sexism built in because the woman symbolizes an alternative to violence: she offers the hero a way out without killing, but to satisfy the need for action, this offer must be rejected, making the woman’s role a rather tiresome impediment to the main attraction. But Dallas does more than allow the specter of pacifism to be raised and rejected. Her presence in the coach triggers the film’s social critique, wherein all the characters can be defined by their attitude toward her. (It helps that Trevor was no ingenue—if Dallas seems a little too vulnerable, she nevertheless projects a believable air of world-weariness.) Ford suggested that Haycox’s story was inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de suif,” another tale of a carriage journey in wartime with a prostitute protagonist. But Haycox’s work contains no trace of Maupassant’s evisceration of bourgeois prejudice; it seems more likely that “Stage to Lordsburg” reminded Ford and Nichols of Maupassant, and they borrowed some of his bitterness. The stagecoach becomes a miniature civilization, isolated in a vast expanse of hostile wilderness.
Monument Valley had barely featured in movies before Stagecoach, for the excellent reason that it was two hundred miles from anywhere. And how and why Ford chose it remains something of a mystery. He probably welcomed the remoteness, since it made close supervision by the studio impractical. He would return with almost every western, regardless of where its story was laid (the years-long wandering of The Searchers and the desperate trek from Oklahoma to Montana in Cheyenne Autumn were both filmed almost entirely on that one Utah mesa), making the prehistoric moonscape stand for his entire West. Even within Stagecoach, he warps actual geography, switching buttes around like chess pieces to create an infinite loop of Road Runner backdrop.
With the setting taken care of, Ford strove to make the studio interiors equally convincing—low ceilings press down on the cast, floorboards resound with sonorous thuds. The solid ceilings also forced naturalism on cinematographer Bert Glennon, who had to blast light in through the doors and windows. But Glennon makes realism painterly, with the lambent glow as Wayne ignites his cheroot with a lantern, or the dawn blazing through a far doorway.
Ford’s low angles seem to have influenced Orson Welles on Citizen Kane: Welles reportedly ran Stagecoach forty times to learn film grammar. One thing he didn’t pick up from Ford was the 180 degree rule, since Ford ignores it during the Indian attack, showing coach and horses crossing the screen left to right, then right to left. But since the layout of the chase is so simple, we’re not fooled into believing they’ve switched direction, and the chaotic shot changes add to the frenzy of the pursuit.
Wayne’s stunt double from his B pictures, Yakima Canutt, staged a spectacular series of falls and leaps, doubling for both Ringo and various Indians. Jumping from his steed onto the team pulling the coach was hazardous enough, but Canutt alarmed Ford by falling from the front horses, dragging along the ground, then letting go and passing between all six horses and under the stage, which had to travel at top speed to avoid weaving from side to side and killing him. “All in all, it is a gag that you could easily rub yourself out with if you make the wrong move,” wrote Canutt.
Throughout the film, the Apaches are an anonymous threat, Geronimo a mere renegade with no motivation supplied. It’s the least nuanced portrayal of Indians in any of Ford’s classic westerns, though his relations with the Navajo extras were very warm—he even had a medicine man on retainer to arrange photogenic cloud formations for his camera.
As the running battle reaches a crescendo, we abruptly change pace for a thirty-second shot where Carradine’s character, down to his last bullet, aims his pistol at the head of Lucy Mallory, whose eyes are closed as she prays for deliverance. He obviously intends to grant it. This idea, the preservation from a “fate worse than death,” harks back to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, in which a pistol is raised as bludgeon to mercy-kill a young maiden and spare her defilement by black soldiers. The difference, of course, is that Ford’s movie doesn’t endorse the plan. Carradine’s hand spasms and drops the gun, as he’s slain offscreen, and then a bugle sounds, like Gabriel’s trumpet in answer to Lucy’s prayers—the Seventh Cavalry, in place of Griffith’s Klan.
It’s a remarkable moment. The religious overtones tie in with the film’s mythic side: the archetypal characters who carry with them the backstories of a thousand western yarns, the fantasy landscape evoking a time of legend, and a mysticism revealed in playing cards. Carradine earlier doomed himself by drawing the ace of spades; one of Wayne’s enemies (Tom Tyler) will hold aces and eights, “the dead man’s hand” that folklore says was drawn by Wild Bill Hickok right before he was gunned down. Ford’s technique is to erect a Wild West of the imagination, governed only by the laws of storytelling, and then go into it as an explorer, insisting on its reality by recording convincing details (like the stray colt running behind the stagecoach when it first appears)—an ethnographer of an unreal world.
The story of Stagecoach takes us from a town of self-righteous humbugs to Lordsburg, a protonoir hellhole of prostitution and incipient violence (all forms of urban living seem intolerable to Ford). Once our surviving characters reach their destination, the supporting cast get theatrical exit lines and Ringo’s revenge moves to center stage, with his impending prison sentence and his love for Dallas as complicating factors. These are so expertly balanced that a happy ending seems impossible, which is all part of Nichols’s screenwriting artistry.
His script invents some idiosyncratic but plausible frontier attitudes: for instance, in this final showdown, three against one is considered fair, but if one of the three wields a shotgun, that’s murder. In Haycox’s story, the gunfight is only overheard, which must have suggested the spectacular elision by which Ford builds to an emotional climax.
Stagecoach, which Selznick had written off as a potboiler, was immediately recognized as an important picture, by both critics and audiences. Ford had given the pulp pleasures of the western the weight of legend, with added character psychology and social commentary carried in human interactions and glances. The film was a triumph. And still Ford’s best years were ahead of him, when he would repeatedly exploit the new territory he had opened up to transmute popular entertainment into cinematic poetry.
David Cairns is a writer and filmmaker based in Edinburgh, and the author of the blog Shadowplay (www.dcairns.wordpress.com).
Thanks to B. Kite and Sudarshan Ramani.