Early Hollywood western movies were basically simple in plot and characterisation. Practically all of them featured the four then standard scenes for westerns – a bar, a hold-up, a chase and a shoot-out.
These so called “horse operas” remained popular with family audiences throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s. But by the end of the decade the genre was firmly in the doldrums and out of favour with both cinemagoers and the major Hollywood studios. “B” status westerns however, were still regularly churned out by the Poverty Row studios, Republic and Monogram, primarily as serials or the bottom half of double-bill programs; all of them utterly forgettable. But a motion picture released in 1939 revitalised the genre and redefined the many myths of the west. John Ford’s Stagecoach presented a sweeping and powerful drama of the American frontier that would change the way audiences and critics viewed western movies.
Ford had purchased the rights to “Stage to Lordsburg”, a short story by Ernest Haycox, that had been published in Collier’s magazine. For a year he hawked it around the major Hollywood studios in the hope of one of them financing the project. Due to the uncertain market for the genre all of them turned it down stating, “Jack, it’s just a western”. Ford had directed many silent westerns during his early career, but had not made one for well over a decade. Nonetheless, he continued to believe that a motion picture based on Haycox’s tale could be a solid commercial hit. Finally in July 1938 his perseverance paid off when he managed to sell it to independent producer, Walter Wanger, who had a financing and distribution deal with United Artists.
John Ford’s Stagecoach presented a sweeping and powerful drama of the American frontier…
Ford and his frequent screenwriter collaborator, Dudley Nichols, now went to work on the screenplay adding complementary characters, situations and themes to the original story. Their final film script borrowed more than a little from Guy de Maupassant’s celebrated short story Boule de Suif in which a prostitute shares a carriage with a number of snobbish bourgeoisie fleeing the Franco-Prussian War. The now re-titled Stagecoach related the story of nine disparate characters who take a stage from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico across empty terrain infested with Geronimo’s raiding Apache Indians.
The composition of the group, a cross section of frontier and Eastern people all with contrasting personalities, stresses the class differences between the characters. On board riding shotgun is a gallant and incorruptible marshal and his comic side-kick driver. The passengers include a whore with a compassionate heart and a philosophising, alcoholic doctor (who have both been run out of town by the Ladies Law and Order league); a virtuously self righteous pregnant wife of a cavalry officer; a larcenous banker; a whiskey drummer and an aristocratic Southern gambler. Along the trail they happen upon Ringo Kid, a fugitive from justice, who hitches a ride with them to Lordsburg to avenge the death of his father and brother at the hands of Luke Plummer who he knows will be there waiting for him. During the hazardous journey they must all learn to work together to survive. Not surprisingly, the least socially reputable members of the group perform the most heroically. The whore and drunken doctor deliver the baby and Ringo ensures the safety of the coach when attacked by the Apache. The film ends with a climactic gunfight between Ringo and the Plummer gang on the empty streets of Lordsburg.
Viewed today these now familiar types and tropes might seem a little clichéd. But by combining a richly detailed narrative with dramatic action, Ford delivered for cinema audiences the first “adult western”. Furthermore, it has become a virtual anthology of scenes and techniques that has inspired and guided generations of filmmakers. Orson Welles reportedly viewed Stagecoach over forty times whilst making Citizen Kane.
Stagecoach is also identified as the film that launched John Wayne’s rise to stardom and screen immortality. For Wayne, his role as the Ringo Kid was the culmination of eight years slaving away in the B-western graveyard appearing in over 50 forgettable “cowboy movies”. Now he found himself working with distinguished veteran actors such as Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, George Bancroft and a frequently tyrannical movie director. Ford’s hostile treatment of Wayne on the film set has passed into legend. He rode him mercilessly with such vitriolic comments as “Can’t you walk for Chrissake, instead of skipping like some goddamn fairy. Hell, I should have hired Gary Cooper for the part instead of a big oaf”. The character, Ringo, is a resolute man when confronted with danger but he is awkward, inarticulate and uncomfortable in social settings. Ford’s continual belittling and bullying of Wayne in front of the rest of the cast and film crew was deliberate. By doing so he managed to draw out the best performance from the novice actor by making him feel exactly as his character is depicted in the movie. Some time during the making of Stagecoach John Wayne became a bona fide film actor.
Part of the movie’s location introduced audiences to the spectacular mesas and buttes of Monument Valley, an isolated area of the Navajo Indian reservation on the border of Utah and Arizona. Ford employed the Navajo population as movie extras and labourers during the location filming of Stagecoach. He would continue to do so for all of the critically-acclaimed and popular films he would go on to shoot there. Over the next twenty-five years the magnificent vistas would serve Ford as his dream landscape of the American past. Monument Valley became synonymous with the old west and forever identified with moviegoers as John Ford country.
Stagecoach was released in February 1939 and reviewers were unanimous in their praise, describing it as a true American classic. It also proved a substantial commercial hit, grossing more than a million dollars in its first year. In addition it garnered seven Academy Award nominations including Best Director and Best Film. But that year it was up against Gone With The Wind which practically swept the awards board, nevertheless, it still managed to win two Oscars. Thomas Mitchell won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the drunken Doc Boone and composer Richard Hageman for best music score.
John Ford’s Stagecoach gave the western a respectability it had never had before and moreover, its impact on adult cinema audiences led to the western becoming a permanently popular film genre for the next three decades.