In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Stagecoach might not be as visually rich and emotionally complex as the work Ford and Wayne would do together later in movies like The Searchers, but their first collaboration might just be their most purely entertaining.”
“Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.”
The Western genre has evolved and changed enormously over its century or so of existence. And even though it has had plenty of peaks and troughs in popularity with audiences, it’s probably still the most immediately recognisable genre in film. A desert vista, a man on a horse, a poncho or hat… You see any combination of these, and within seconds, you can pretty safely assume that you’re watching a western. And even with the massive changes and evolution over the years, I feel like it’s a valid statement that no one did more to define the genre than director John Ford, along his frequent leading man, John Wayne. I’ve seen more than few Ford / Wayne team ups over the years, but now I’ve seen where it all started, Stagecoach.
The titular stagecoach arrives in a small Arizona town where it picks up its load of passengers. There’s disgraced prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) who’s being run out of town by some uptight squares. There’s drunk doctor Boone (Thomas Mitchell) who’s being run out of town by some different uptight squares. And there’s Lucie (Louise Platt), a pregnant wife catching to stagecoach to be with her soldier husband at his cavalry outpost before the baby is born.When coach driver Buck (Andy Devine) goes to the local Marshall’s office to pick up his shotgun riding security guard for the trip, he learns that his regular guard is off pursuing recent jail breakout, the Ringo Kid (Wayne), who has escaped in search of revenge. When Buck reveals that the targets of that revenge are rumored to be in a town along the stagecoach’s route, Marshall Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) decides to ride shotgun himself.
As the stage coach sets off, it’s load also includes a crooked banker (Burton Churchill as Ellsworth Gatewood) with a bag full of $50,000 in embezzled cash, a timid whiskey salesman (Donald Meek as Samuel Peacock), immediately set upon by the perpetually thirsty Doc Boone, and a gunslinging ne’er-do-well (John Carradine as Hatfield) who feels it’s his duty to protect the pregnant Lucie. All of this, plus reports of marauding Indians lead by Geronimo, on the road they intend to take.
That’s one of the longer synopses I have ever written, and as much as I tried to cut it down, I feel like I still only got to the bare bones of this movie and what sets it all in motion. But for that long synopsis, Stagecoach is a brilliantly simple and straightforward. The reason for that long synopsis, and the proof of the movie’s greatness, is the large ensemble cast. By the time the stagecoach is full and the story is well and truly underway, there are nine main characters. And Stagecoach manages to flesh them all out, and tell all of their individual stories, all in 90 minutes.
A prostitute, a young hot head, hell bent on revenge, a drunk doctor… These aren’t the kinds of characters I expect to be heroes in a John Ford movie. John Wayne is often the stubborn, old fashioned conservative, struggling to keep up with an ever changing world, but the Ringo Kid is a young John Wayne, who hasn’t quite found his place at all yet. Stagecoach might not be as visually rich and emotionally complex as the work Ford and Wayne would do together later in movies like The Searchers, but their first collaboration might just be their most purely entertaining.