The year 1939 was one of the greatest in film history. In addition to such enduring classics as Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, it also saw the appearance of the first modern western, John Ford's Stagecoach. The film is a masterpiece, featuring a flawlessly structured storyline and some of the most visually stunning images ever.
Stagecoach was the first, and some would say best, collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne. It was the film that turned Wayne into a superstar, as well as being the first the director would make in Monument Valley. The imposing, nearly Biblical rock formations that distinguish the Northern Arizona landscape of the Valley have become famous in their own right as the archetypal representation of the look of the Old West.
Stagecoach tells the story of nine very different strangers who take a perilous trip through hostile Apache territory. While the picture contains a fair amount of action, especially during the running battle with the Apaches, the focus is primarily psychological.
The diverse group of passengers includes the easygoing driver (Andy Devine), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a doomed gambler (John Carradine), a crooked banker (Berton Church), and the Doc's new best friend, a mild-mannered whiskey salesman (Donald Meek). There are also two women aboard. Louise Pratt plays a very prim and very pregnant lady whole husband is in the Cavalry. The biggest name (at the time) and nominal star of the film is Claire Trevor, who plays the typical "hooker with a heart of gold."
They are led by a sheriff (George Bancroft) who is escorting escaped convict Ringo Kid (John Wayne) to prison in Lordsburg. Ringo's interest in going to Lordsburg is vengeance — he plans to confront the three men who killed his father and brother there.
At every stop the coach makes, ominous warnings about Geronimo and the Apaches are voiced. The promised military escort never arrives, and the group are forced to fend for themselves.
They also begin to grow and change as their circumstances get more and more dangerous. The first big test comes when young Lucy Mallory goes into labor. Doc Boone must sober up quickly to help her deliver the baby, while Dallas, who she had previously shunned, is called upon to act as nurse. Meanwhile, Dallas and Ringo have fallen for each other, a romance that seems to be doomed based on what lies in store for him in Lordsburg.
Criterion has done an outstanding job of presenting Stagecoach here. Although the original negative has been considered lost for years, they were able to track down an excellent print. This has been meticulously cleaned up for transfer to DVD.
Additionally, there is a wealth of material contained on the supplemental DVD. The first is Ford's silent western from 1917, Bucking Broadway. The original 54-minute film has been restored and looks terrific.
There is also a 72-minute interview with John Ford, conducted in 1968. British television personality Philip Henkinson conducts the interview, and Ford seems to take great delight in provoking him. Ford presents himself as a cantankerous old coot, which was his public image, but he seems to be enjoying himself. His last line to Jenkinson is memorable: "I hope this doesn't set the BBC back 100 years."
Peter Bogdanovich (who was born in 1939) presents a very insightful discussion of his thoughts on Ford and Stagecoach. "Home Movies" is narrated by Dan Ford, grandson of John, and features footage of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Gregg Toland relaxing with the director.
The career of legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt is discussed, and it is revealed that he is the only stuntman in film history to receive an Academy Award. "True West" is a short feature about 1920s trading post operator Harry Goulding, who first brought Monument Valley to Ford's attention.
"I Dream Of Jeannie" is a primer on Ford's visual style. It contains a pretty revealing quote from producer Daryl F. Zanuck: "Ford was the best director in motion picture history because his placement of the camera made even the best dialogue unnecessary."
Finally, the DVD contains a Screen Director's Playhouse adaptation of Stagecoach, done in 1949 for a radio broadcast. Both Wayne and Trevor reprise their roles. This is downloadable as an MP3 file for computer, in addition to being playable on DVD.
Even the accompanying booklet Criterion has produced merits mention. In addition to a fine essay discussing the impact Stagecoach has had over the years, it also reproduces the original short story used as the basis. The story is titled "Stage To Lordsburg," and was written by Ernest Haycox.
Unlike some films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Stagecoach was recognized as groundbreaking and important upon its release. I can think of no higher compliment than the one that came from Orson Welles. He reportedly screened it 39 times for his cast and crew in preparation for his own work of genius, Citizen Kane (1941).