Stagecoach ★★★★½

After watching John Wayne's The Searchers—which I believe deserves its absolute masterpiece status—and after watching For A Few Dollars More (another amazing Western), I decided to embark upon another classical American Western—John Ford's acclaimed and influential film Stagecoach.

The film centers around prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), pregnant Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), Confederate gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), and others as they head on a journey in a stagecoach. In the way they meet the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who joins them. However, Geronimo is on the trail, complicating the journey even further. Even so, the people learn about each other throughout this long journey, and the undesirables (Dallas, Doc Boone, and Ringo) seem to be even more heroic than expected. And a love between Dallas and the Ringo Kid blooms throughout the journey.

Personally, I thought this film was great—it was very well-made, brilliantly shot and framed, and exciting. However, I personally didn't love it as much as I did The Searchers. It felt somewhat simple in its execution and ideas. I know that this film was innovative in its Western archetypes and its moral treatment of the undesirables and all that. I am glad for that. And I am glad that this film lifted the Western from the limitations of the B-movie realm, as Stagecoach is anything but a B-movie. It is very A-grade, and it excellently deals with the dividing social classes, as the analysis by Tim Dirks shows.

The screenplay by Dudley Nichols is very compact and sophisticated. It's not as complex and epic as The Searchers, but it serves the film very nicely. It kept us caring for the characters' fate and it kept the film at a nice pace.

John Ford also does a marvelous job directing the film, using close-ups and all those other directorial goodies to the best of his ability. The structure indeed is very old-fashioned and formal, but the many different long shots help the film develop and breathe. They also add a sense of grandeur and wideness in the Wild West, all of it used to service the plot and character.

John Wayne is also very great as the Ringo Kid. He brings the aura of kindness and heroism to a character no one would expect to be heroic. It's a stark contrast to his more anti-heroic character in The Searchers, but Wayne is brilliant in his role—proof that Wayne himself is pretty versatile and can do a marvelous job if given the right material. Claire Trevor is also brilliant as the kindly but rejected prostitute Dallas, and the chemistry she shares with Wayne's Ringo Kid is well-crafted and relatable. All the other performances are brilliant as well, capturing the characters very well and doing them justice.

The action scene where the Indians chase the stagecoach is one of the most exciting chase sequences ever put on film. This is definitely one of the highest moments of the film—it builds excitement, drama, and isn't there just because the film needed some big action sequence. It actually serves the purpose of the story and allows us to relate to our characters even more (after they did such a good job in the earlier moments).

Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus (one of my favorite critics) says in his positive review of the film:

Stagecoach is not the greatest Western of all time, but has been called the first great Western, and played a key role in the status of the Western as the quintessential American genre. It gave the classic Western one of its greatest directors, Ford, and its most iconic star, John Wayne, until then an obscure B-movie actor — a team that would go on to make some of the genre’s classics, including The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stagecoach also established another crucial recurring "character" in Ford’s films: the stunning Monument Valley landscape, with its massive mesas and needle-like spires.

Instead of rote good-guy / bad-guy conflict, Stagecoach emphasized characterization, social commentary, and moral drama. And the extended Indian attack scene toward the end, heightened by Yakima Canutt’s famous stuntwork, established a new high-watermark for action moviemaking, echoing in later films for decades (most famously in Indiana Jones’s escapades on the exterior of a Nazi truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The story throws together nine characters representing a cross-section of social classes and types, compelled to share a coach through hostile Indian territory. Several are in some way disreputable: Dallas (Claire Trevor), a lady of ill repute; Hatfield, a professional gambler (John Carradine); Dr. Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunkard; the Ringo Kid (Wayne), an outlaw; and so on. But with the last outposts of civilization left behind, social roles and status lose meaning, and the outcasts are seen in a more sympathetic and nobler light than their ostensibly more respectable but judgmental and hypocritical companions.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking any of this; such figures as the hooker with a heart of gold and the lovable rummy were already clichés long before Stagecoach (indeed, similar types can be seen in Destry Rides Again).

Nor is there much moral rigor to the film’s reversals, though the film is commonly called a "redemption story." For example, Dallas is ashamed of her past, but also defiant in the face of social opprobrium, and while she would be glad to leave her past behind, the wrongness (as opposed to the shamefulness and undesirability) of her past occupation isn’t really confronted. Perhaps in 1939 this could go without saying; but there’s also a revenge subplot that’s depicted as uncritically and heroically as any in the genre.

Still, there is subtlety and nuance in the way Stagecoach develops its characters and their story-arcs. It may respect the dissolute gambler Hatfield to a point for his vestigial courtliness and sense of honor, but it pointedly contrasts Hatfield’s high-handed disdain for the individual of the lowest social standing, Dallas, with the cheerful deference that the Ringo Kid offers Dallas as freely as he would any woman. Later, Hatfield makes a sickening decision at a critical moment that, however well intentioned, permanently alters our perception of the character.

Now, having lavished praise on Stagecoach, why didn't I give it a total of 5 stars? Well, that's personally because (a) I prefer The Searchers, (b) it's very traditional; while this is not a bad thing, it can be bland at times, and (c) as I haven't become a seasoned cinephile/film buff yet, I didn't appreciate all these innovations of Stagecoach as immediately as some may do. However, I probably will come to appreciate it more once I watch it again and read up on this film (I don't own Criterion's Blu-ray, but I probably should get it).

Having said that, Stagecoach is still a brilliant and excellent Western in the classical American tradition. It elevated the Western to many heights, it's a compact and superb A-grade picture, and it's an all-around brilliant film and a near-masterpiece.

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