The Western is one of the most American of all genres, right up there with the modern superhero. We’ve gone through a few so far in the AFI Countdown, but this time around we’re looking at Stagecoach, a film that clocks in at a little over an hour and a half. It wasn’t the first Western by a long shot, but it was something else. It was the first, perhaps, when critics and audiences saw the Western could be taken seriously as a big budget genre.
The plot to Stagecoach on the surface is rather simple: a stagecoach full of random passengers is traveling through hostile Indian territory as Geronimo is leading the Apache against the American government. It just isn’t safe for anyone to be traveling through such things, but the different passengers of the stagecoach all have their reasons for going where they’re going. It’s nine people trying to cross the desert before they end up getting killed by the Apache. Who is going?
- Dallas, a prostitute driven out of the town she was living in at the start of the film by a women’s morality brigade
- Doc Boone, an alcoholic doctor and Union veteran of the Civil War, leaving town for the same reason as Dallas
- Mr. Peacock, a meek whiskey salesman looking to get home to his family whom Boone has taken a shine to
- Mrs. Murphy, a pregnant woman looking to catch up to her cavalry officer husband
- Hatfield (John Carradine), a gentleman gambler who served under Mrs. Murphy’s father in the Confederate Army
- Mr. Gatewood, a banker who just embezzled a large sum of money from his bank and is looking to escape
- Marshall Curly, a local lawman looking to catch the Ringo Kid (John Wayne)
- Buck (Andy Devine), the cowardly, comic relief stage driver
- Henry, AKA the Ringo Kid, AKA Ringo, a notorious outlaw, former associate of Curly, friend to Buck, and looking for revenge against another outlaw who gunned down his father and brother.
So, after a short period when the stage had a cavalry escort, they arrive at the first station and learn Mrs. Murphy’s husband isn’t there and may be injured. As the army is under orders to be somewhere else, from there the stage is on its own. Will they go on or wait until its safe? Most of the passengers, save Buck and Peacock, are all in favor of pushing on, and the further they push on, the less of a choice they have about stopping and turning back.
Now, given this is a Western, it may seem like there should be a lot of action and shootouts, especially given the plot description above. In realty…nope. All the shooting stays off-screen until the last third of the film, and even Ringo’s final shoot-out with the man who killed his father and brother happens off-screen. True, when the Apache do attack, it is incredibly impressive as a piece of action, especially considering this was 1939 and all the stunts had to be done by live stuntmen and horses. It’s a great action piece as Curly, Hatfield, Boone, and Ringo all take places and shoot at the Apache, with Ringo at one point having to climb over the horses after Buck is wounded to secure a lead horse while the animals are at full gallop.
But as good as the action sequences are, they don’t cover two-thirds of the film. Instead, director John Ford used the majority of the movie to let the characters become real people. There’s some potential humor for the modern audience here. Censorship standards from the 30s didn’t allows the script to say Dallas was a prostitute (it was implied heavily) and that Mrs. Murphy was pregnant. Instead, the audience is constantly told Mrs. Murphy is sick, with even the characters believing it until Boone has to take her off to a private room in another station to give birth to a baby girl. Meanwhile, Ringo falls in love with Dallas, offering to marry her and take her off to his Mexican ranch. She’s hesitant as she is sure Ringo will lose interest if he ever finds out what sort of woman she is (he doesn’t). Likewise, Boone has moments of sobriety to show he’s a lot more competent than he appears to be, Hatfield shows courtesy to Mrs. Murphy as she learns more about the man who came along at the last minute simply to watch over the young mother-to-be, and Gatewood…
Gatewood is a character that made me pause a bit. John Ford was, until late in life, a fairly left-leaning individual, and this was 1939, where much of America was grateful for the New Deal and the economic aid it offered a large number of people. Many Americans of that generation became lifelong Democrcts because of FDR, and though Gatewood does make it to the end of the line alive and in one piece–the only one to die en route is Hatfield, with Peacock and Buck suffering injuries–he isn’t shy about offering political ideas, ones that probably sounded different in 1939 than they do in 2018. What does Gatewood advocate? He’s against deficit spending (something the New Deal did a lot of), demanding a balanced budget. Oh, and he very loudly insists we need a businessman for president.
Gatewood is the only passenger on the stagecoach who could be considered a villain. He’s greedy, self-centered, and cowardly. That he is arrested as soon as the stage gets to its final destination owing to the telegraph lines wiring ahead about his theft is only appropriate. In another movie, Gatewood would be the one the Apache really give a gruesome death to. Here, Hatfield alone dies, just as he was ready to use the last bullet on the stage to make sure Mrs. Murphy didn’t get captured by the Apache. Draw your own conclusions.
Stagecoach marks the first of 14 films that Wayne and Ford would make together, and we’ve already covered The Searchers in this countdown. This movie was also Wayne’s big break. He’d been featured in a number of cheap Westerns, and his own earlier starring role in a big budget Western was a huge flop. As it is, the macho tough guy that would be Wayne’s signature style is on full display here, a man who may be an outlaw, but the audience can see he isn’t that bad a man. Sure, he may be too old to be a “kid,” but he dominates the screen whether it’s spotting the Apache from afar and alerting Curly or romancing Dallas. The iconic shot of him, standing in the road with a Winchester rifle and a saddle as the stage comes up, tells the audience all you need to know about this new star. This was the John Wayne audiences would get to know and follow for decades to come.
Oddly enough, this appears to be the last time we’ll be seeing John Wayne in the countdown. But John Ford? Oh, that’s another story.
NEXT UP: We’re skipping forward to 1982 for the crossdressing comedy of Tootsie.