After seeing John Ford’s Stagecoach, I don’t think I could ever complain about modern day travel. Being stuck between two overweight businessmen on an airplane is a luxury compared to the wilds of the open west, even when the flight attendant passes you up for peanuts. In the days of stagecoach travel, Ford shows us that there are no roads, just the bumpy plains, and no rest stops between towns to pick up any provisions or supplies. The coach itself is cramped, anymore than three across each of the two seats is uncomfortable, and if a seventh passenger is picked up along the way he just has to sit on the floor. When the wind picks up, dirt and dust will just fly in. And if you have to cross Apache territories, just hope Geronimo isn’t leading them on a war path.
Just the idea of traveling on a Stagecoach is dramatic in itself, add in some interesting characters and you have yourself a hell of a movie. This particular coach’s travelers include a frequently drunk doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a fat-cat banker who has taken off with his client’s money (Berton Churchill), a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek) and a Southern gambler (John Carradine) who joins in at the last minute with an idea of protecting the two women. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ex-prostitute just run out of town and Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) is traveling to be with her cavalry officer husband. Loud-mouth Buck (Andy Devine) drives the stagecoach and keeps Marshall Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) by his side for protection in case of any attacks by the Apache Indians. Along the way, they find the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) who has just escaped from jail and on his way to Lordsburg to get revenge on the Plummer boys who killed his brother and father. Being a Marshall and knowing Ringo’s intentions, Wilcox has to arrest him and take him along their journey.
Throughout the journey, this rag-tag band of strangers must set their differences aside and work together. When an unexpected medical emergency arises, the doctor must sober up and remember his calling. After that, everyone knows the dangers of resting for a while, but don’t want to risk the health of their weakest passengers. As romance between Dallas and the Kid grows, so does the worry over what will happen to him in Lordsburg, whether he lives or not.
The greatest moment in this film is the scene where the Apaches chase and attack the stagecoach. I honestly wasn’t expecting a chase scene so exciting to occur in the middle of the desert. The dramatic music mixed with the constant beating of hooves and gunfire is perfect. Some of the camera angles are quite daring, especially showing the stagecoach drive right over the camera with Apaches on horseback following behind. Though some of the techniques to make some of the horses fall and appear shot were cruel, it was very effective from a visual standpoint. Every moment of that scene is pure gold, and gets us to hold our breath up to the very peak of the climax.
There are so many reasons to see Stagecoach. It was the film Orson Welles watched over and over again while filming Citizen Kane. I believe you’ll find many great details that cross over into Kane. Besides seeing how it inspired other great films, I think Stagecoach can be considered one of the first road-trip movies. Thinking about how it compares to more modern odysseys is some interesting food for thought, perhaps another post for another day.
“If there’s anything I don’t like, it’s driving a stagecoach through Apache country.”