Stagecoach from themoviewizard.com
I’ve heard the argument made many times that 1939 is the greatest year in cinema history. This is often based on the strength of two classic movies coming out that year: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. I think that Oz is a wonderful and enchanting movie, but I think it speaks to the deep well of great movies that I wouldn’t consider it for this year’s entry (personally, I don’t like Gone With the Wind, so I guess you should watch it if you want, but I don’t care for it). I really thought about this one a lot, and any of the movies that I mention in the section below (“Why this was a hard decision”) are well worth seeing, but in the end I really wanted to take this chance to highlight one of my favorite westerns of all time, Stagecoach.
Stagecoach is more than just the star-making vehicle for John Wayne. It is more than just the first in many collaborations between the star and director John Ford. It is more that just the first of Ford’s movies to be filled on location in the famous Monument Valley. To me, it is a flash point for the beginning of the modern western. Many of the conventions that we associate with the genre are present and might seem tired and worn, but they were very fresh at the time. I have seen westerns from the silent era and they feel so much older than Stagecoach, even though it was only made a decade after the conversion to sound.
The plot is fairly simple. There is a group of very different people forced together by circumstance into the tight confines of a stagecoach. The stagecoach must travel through dangerous territory, as Geronimo’s band of Apache are in the area. Each character has a reason that they NEED to be on the stagecoach and must face this potential danger. The story features a wide variety of characters placed in dangerous situations and being forced to rely on people they do not necessarily like. Everyone from a prostitute and a drunken doctor, both run out of town by the keepers of local civic virtue, to a pregnant army wife trying to meet up with her husband and a gambler of questionable character who feels that he needs to protect her. Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, escaped from prison and sworn to ride to Lordsburg to kill the men who shot his brother and father. Seeing Wayne so young is jarring, but his combination of youth and swagger really work. Wayne was so young he wasn’t even the top-billed star of the film. Claire Trevor, playing the woman run out of town, was a bigger star than him at the time. After a decade of making low budget movies (with plenty of westerns among them) John Wayne really broke through as a full-fledged movie star with this film. He is the focal point of all his movies after this, but seeing him as part of an ensemble (and a talented one at that) really works.
Much of the action in the movie takes place in restricted areas (a few rooms in a house, the stagecoach) and the characters are able to develop in ways that draw in the viewer and create a sense of empathy for highly flawed people. The performances are great across the board, especially Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone and John Carradine as Hatfield, the gambler.
Beyond the acting, the pacing is perfect, the dialogue is spot on, and Ford’s direction and editing allow the story to flow with vigor when necessary and to slow down when necessary. Ford’s ability to work with editing, pacing, and music, is never more on display than during a chase scene near the end of the movie. The stagecoach rides furiously through the dessert while all the men on board fire what little ammo they have at approaching Apaches. The entire scene is genuinely exciting and tense, especially with the way Ford closes it out. Hatfield realizes that there is no chance they will survive. He solemnly decides to shoot Lucy, the young lady he has sworn to protect, rather than allow her to be taken prisoner. She has no idea he has a gun to the back of her head and, at the last moment, he is mortally wounded. The group inside the stagecoach are saved and she does not know how close she came to death. The entire scene is beautifully (and wordlessly) acted and is an emotional and exciting conclusion of this central scene.
Stagecoach may seem very similar to other westerns you have seen, but the truth is that other westerns are similar to it. I would recommend it for anyone, whether you like the genre or not. It is a distillation of everything that is great about western movies and features a perfect storm or location, script, direction, and acting.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1939 worth seeing):
The third Frankenstein movie, Son of Frankenstein, features a great cast, including Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionell Atwill, and Basil Rathbone. I think that it’s a criminally overlooked movie and that it completes one of the great trilogies in cinema.
James Cagney appeared in two great social dramas in 1939, Each Dawn I Die, co-starring George Raft and The Roaring Twenties, co-starring Priscilla Lane and Humphrey Bogart. Both are worth checking out. The former features Cagney as a crusading journalist framed and sent to prison and the latter features him as a WWI vet and bootlegger. It was directed by the great Raoul Walsh.
The Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir, is a true classic and deserves all of the praise it has received. It is a biting satire about the indulgences of the idle rich and is a wonderfully crafted and acted film.
Greta Garbo appeared in her second to last movie and first full comedy, Ninotchka, which is a fun and interesting watch. She plays an icy Soviet agent who is sent to Paris on a mission. She slowly thaws and falls for a suave European man and the decadent ways of capitalist society. The movie was banned in the Soviet Union.
Dodge City is one of the earliest technicolor westerns and is a great vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, one of the greatest directors in movie history, and was one of eight movies that the two stars made together.
Did you know? (1939 Trivial knowledge)
“I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.” The Ringo Kid.