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DVD Review: Stagecoach (1939) – The Criterion Collection

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Written by Fantasma el Rey

The Criterion Collection has added another masterpiece to their list in John Ford’s 1939 classic, Stagecoach. The title alone sounds like an epic in storytelling, a huge saga in the annals of the American West. And it is kind of that way. A story about people, all with a past, some good, some bad, and all really only hinted at. The location of the story plays just as big a role and is also in its own way shrouded in mystery. All this is put together well by a master filmmaker holding the reins of an unforgettable story. Along for the ride is an all-star cast, including one whose star will begin to truly shine here as a team will be forged that will last two lifetimes.

Stagecoach is the tale of travelers thrown together in tight quarters, forced to deal with each other for long hours on a trip that would become the stagecoach ride from Hell as they fight for theirs lives against harsh weather and Apache Indians. As our core players are assembled we notice that most are outcasts of some sort, looked down on by society and victims of “that foul disease known as social prejudice.” We have a fallen Southern gent turned gambler (John Carradine), a crooked banker (Burton Churchill), a drunkard doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a “lady of the night” (Claire Trevor), and an outlaw cowboy called the Ringo Kid (none other than John Wayne) recently busted out of jail and seeking revenge. Also present are the finer folks of society, the military officer’s wife (Louise Platt), the whisky salesman (the aptly named Donald Meek), our stage driver (western staple Andy Devine), and the lawman (George Bancroft) riding shotgun to keep an eye on the kid. As well as many others who had been in western films and would continue to for years to come including Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, Chris-Pin Martin and legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt.

A big cast might seem hard to follow or care about but Ford gives us just enough of each character to lure us into caring while never confusing us in their part of the journey. We want to know more about each and can’t wait to learn their fate after the stagecoach ride. The suspense and tension build as the stagecoach nears its destination of Lordsburg and the Apaches of Geronimo attack. We also have the tale of our cowboy’s feud with those who wronged him and had him locked away. Not only does Ford give us a thrilling Indian battle but a good ol’ shootout to boot.

Sounds clichéd and overplayed, doesn’t it? Ford knew that and spins his tale with action, humor, and drama in a way that makes it all fresh and new while setting the mark for all westerns that followed. This isn’t a Sunday-matinee B-western; Ford takes the clichés of the genre and makes them interesting. He used the camera, his actors, and the setting of Monument Valley to tell this old tale in a unique way with the directorial choices he made. He boldly announces the cavalry with blaring trumpets. The shoot-out is quick and mostly takes place off-camera. We are given the outcome of both plain as day yet each in a different way.

Ford would make two big connections while filming Stagecoach. One was Monument Valley to which he returned many times, and the other was his wonderful, lifelong friendship with star John Wayne. Ford announces the actor to the big time with the well-known, introductory shot of a zooming, slightly out of focus close-up. Those two men along with the awesome desert setting would make many more great westerns together.

The people at Criterion have done a fantastic job once again with this two-disc set. Disc one is a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer of the film and a good audio commentary by western authority Jim Kitses. Disc two holds all the great extras. Bucking Broadway is an early silent western by Ford, which is a simple story of a cowboy gone to the big city to get his girl back. There is a good interview with Ford from 1968 that’s over an hour long as well as five great featurettes ranging in run time from ten to twenty minutes. There’s a segment with Peter Bogdanovich who knew Ford and Wayne well, clips of Ford’s home movies with commentary by his grandson Dan Ford, and a video essay by Tag Gallagher on Ford’s visual style in Stagecoach. All are very interesting and shed a world of light and knowledge this classic.

Two more extras include a look at the man who brought Monument Valley to Ford’s attention and a look at stuntman/coordinator Yakima Canutt, who was a master at his craft and innovator in how many stunts were performed, rigged up, and pulled off. The DVD also comes with a great booklet that contains a short breakdown of the Criterion set and the original story “Stage To Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox that inspired the film.

As always, Criterion has done a masterful job in presenting another film that should be preserved, studied, and loved by all for generation to come. The Criterion Collection is a bit pricey at anywhere from 30-40 bucks but it's all worth it for the time and love they put into keeping these film classics alive in the best possible condition.

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