This weekend I re-watched John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach—
I grew up on Westerns, both TV shows and movies. This isn’t really surprising in a household proud of its Western roots (and with a father who thought John Wayne was the bee’s-knees). If we went to the drive-in (five kids and two adults in a Ford Falcon), odds were we were there to see a Western. My earliest imaginary friend was an invisible horse inspired by Roy Roger’s Trigger (yes, I was a lonely child).
As with most over-exposure, inevitably a reaction set in– in my teen years I turned more and more toward sci-fi and fantasy for my dream-fulfillment, and less to Westerns. I had seen too many Westerns– more than that, I had seen too many bad Westerns. Hollywood, in its history, has produced thousands upon thousands of Western films and TV episodes, many of them mediocre at best, some of them positively dreadful. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, it seemed as if every other show on TV was a Western. This massive over-production peaked just before a mood of severe historical revisionism set in in the late Sixties, in which the mythology of the West was questioned and overturned, resulting in films like Little Big Man and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. If you make a Western nowadays, you have to make it with very different premises than a film from the Thirties or Forties.
Having said that, I have long known that Western tropes and themes are deeply buried in my psyche– and that they strongly inform my writing, in whatever the genre. In particular, my fantasy writing has far more of a Western sensibility than sword and sorcery or high fantasy– there’s far, far more of Shane or Josey Wales in my character Mankin than there is of Aragorn.
In my possibly jaundiced view, there are a mere handful of really great Western movies– Shane, The Searchers, possibly the 1969 True Grit (but, unfortunately, not the 2010 version), and a few others. One of those others is Stagecoach.
(DANGER: huge and hairy spoilers lurk below)
The film is definitely a product of its time, and it rings all the typical changes you would expect from a Thirties Western– gunfights, hookers with hearts-of-gold, perfidious Native Americans looking to massacre white folk, the inevitable rescue of said white folk by the cavalry at the last moment, as well as a dose or two of racism. Within that framework, though, John Ford created a timeless film that constitutes nothing less than an advanced primer on how to tell a story.
Based on a short story, “Stage to Lordsburg”, the film has a motley crew of characters boarding an eastbound stagecoach in one dusty town in Arizona to go to another dusty town in New Mexico. There’s a prostitute being run out of town by the local morality league, a drunken sawbones in the same boat, the snooty, aristocratic young wife of a US Cavalry officer looking to join her husband, a pompous banker, a whiskey drummer, and a card-sharping gunslinger. Before the stage departs, the local marshal learns from the stage driver that Luke Plummer is in Lordsburg, the stage’s destination. The marshal has been hunting the Ringo Kid, a local man whose father and brother were murdered by Plummer and his brothers, and who was sent to prison on the Plummers’ perjured testimony. Ringo has escaped, though, and the marshal realizes that he will be headed to Lordsburg for revenge. The marshal joins the stagecoach as a guard, intending to arrest Ringo.
Just before the stage leaves, a cavalry officer informs the passengers that the Apaches under Geronimo are on the warpath, and that they will have a cavalry escort– but, as it turns out, only part of the way. On the first leg of the trip, the stage is stopped by Ringo (John Wayne), who is, indeed, trying to get to Lordsburg. The marshal places him under a sort of loose arrest, and the stage resumes its journey.
Most or all of the characters in the coach, in one way or another, have agendas, or secrets– the banker is actually absconding with a payroll, the officer’s wife is stubbornly insistent on joining her husband, despite the fact that she is about to give birth, the gunslinger joins the party out of a Southern sense of chivalry, intending to protect the officer’s wife (while giving off serious sexual vibes toward her), Dallas (the prostitute) wants to keep her employment history from Ringo, who has taken an immediate shine to her, and Ringo just wants to get to Lordsburg to take care of the Plummer boys. The mix of characters and agendas keeps the story rolling (no pun intended), with plenty of both conflict and humor in the coach, quite apart from the overarching danger that they may all be massacred by the Apaches. These people squabble and argue and display the full range of human courage and stupidity under stress. At different points they make the decision to keep going, despite the danger, always because of their own agendas.
At each stage of the journey, Ford ratchets up the hovering danger– the next expected cavalry escort is a no-show, the officer’s wife goes into labor and the doctor has to redeem himself by delivering the baby and saving the mother, war smoke-signals are seen, the next stage station is a burned out wreck with its operators massacred. The stage is floated across a deep river, whereupon everybody thinks they’re in the clear– until the whiskey salesman takes an arrow in the chest and one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed takes off, as the Apaches chase the stage. Not until the passengers are out of ammunition and all looks lost– the gunslinger is prevented from shooting the officer’s wife, to keep her from being captured, only when he himself is shot– does the cavalry show up and save the day.
In most films this is where we would get the end-credits, but there is still the unfinished business between Ringo and the Plummers, not to mention the unfinished business between Ringo and Dallas. As the stage pulls into Lordsburg, the word gets to the Plummers that Ringo is in town. At this point the film very nearly reverts to a silent picture– there is almost as much acting with faces and body language as with words, as the Plummers gather and contemplate facing Ringo (summary: they’re scared out of their boots). The silence and the faces remind me, personally, of Kurosawa. Ringo wins the gunfight, and he and Dallas escape (with the marshal’s connivance) to a better life.
One of the tremendous things about the film is how Ford created the smaller conflicts that snarl and tangle among the passengers as they try to escape the greater danger. If this were a film simply about a stagecoach being chased by Indians it would very quickly grow boring. Instead we quickly get invested in these people, even the ones who aren’t particularly likable. It is perhaps the mark of a genius that, despite being largely cliches we’ve seen before, none of the characters seem dull. Certainly the 1966 remake did not replicate the magic of this film, despite the presence of Ann-Margaret.
It absolutely does not hurt that the acting is all first-class, and the cinematography is nothing short of epic. Altogether the mix produces a piece of world-class cinema.
Here I want to note a detail regarding the background of the movie that says something about the artifice that story-telling sometimes requires. The climatic chase has been criticized for unrealism– spoil-sports have pointed out that all the Apaches had to do was shoot the lead horse of the coach’s team, and the coach would have come to a very sudden halt. When someone suggested that to John Ford, the director is famously reported to have said, “Then you wouldn’t have a story!” Sometimes suspension of disbelief must be stretched to cover such points– however, the great strength of the scene, as Ford shot it, is that you’re generally too busy hanging on to the edge of your seat to worry about details like why the lead horse isn’t dead yet.
Ever-increasing danger…characters you root for…action that conveys a sense of immediacy and realism, whether or not it actually is realistic… these are essential story-telling elements all too many movies ignore, or handle in a formulaic manner. When a filmmaker gets it right, though, you get pure gold.