Reader, I’ll confess: I nearly skipped Stagecoach.
I knew its pedigree: the first major collaboration between John Wayne and director John Ford, a duo that would go on to make most of America’s great westerns. It was the first Western John Ford shot in Monument Valley, a rugged strip of land on the Arizona-Utah border. Ford would return to Monument Valley again and again throughout his career.
And though John Wayne had shown up in dozens of movies before, Stagecoach is the film that elevated him from bit player to A-list star. It’s hard to believe, but The Duke doesn’t even get top billing in the film–that honor goes to Claire Trevor, an actress mostly forgotten who plays Wayne’s love interest in the film.
They don’t make many westerns anymore, and I’d never seen one from the Golden Age. I honestly thought a silly movie about cowboys and indians riding around shooting each other would bore me.
I was wrong.
Stagecoach earns its reputation as a great film in a great year, even to a skeptic like me.
With apologies to my preconceived notions of Ford and Wayne, Stagecoach had way more heart than I’d expected.
It’s not just a story of cowboys and indians shooting each other–though the final chase scene is magnificent–but a story of people.
It’s surprisingly fresh.
The plot is simple–a group of strangers sets out in 1880 on a dangerous stagecoach trip, braving the threat of an Apache attack to reach their destination. Each has their own reasons for taking the risk to make it to New Mexico.
There’s a scene in Titanic when Rose’s mother asks, “Will the lifeboats be seated by class?”
It’s a revealing line about the deep class divides that persist even when the trappings of society are stripped away in the name of survival.
John Ford is driving at the same point in Stagecoach–that even in the land where we say we believe “all men are created equal”, we often act more like George Orwell’d pigs in Animal Farm, where “some are more equal than others.”
In Ford’s coach we have the respectable members of society: Pregnant lady Lucy Mallory, gambling aristocrat Hatfield, banker Ellsworth Gatewood, and whiskey runner Sam Peacock.
Then, we have the undesirables: Town drunk Doc Boone, prostitute Dallas (Trevor), coach drivers Buck and Curly, and fugitive Ringo Kid (Wayne).
The first half of the film is filled with the undesirables suffering assorted humiliations at the hands of the respected. Doc Boone and Dallas are run out of town. Lucy Mallory’s friends lament that she has to share the stagecoach with such dregs of humanity. Dallas does not receive the gentlemanly deference shown to Lucy. And though Lucy tries to hide her disdain, she does not want to sit at the same table with Doc Boone, Ringo, and Dallas.
But halfway through the film–after the stagecoach ride has taken much longer than expected–Lucy goes into labor. The coach is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dangers and a hundred miles away from help.
Without the drunken doctor and the prostitute she so disdains, Lucy and her baby would’ve died.
The doctor and Dallas show no ill will–they accept their lower role in society, and do what needs to be done to save Lucy. In fact all the undesirables show far more mercy, courage, and class than those who are supposedly their betters.
There’s a great chase scene–this is a western, of course–that I found thrilling. You can feel the dust in your throat, imagine the stink of sweat in that claustrophobic coach. I jumped when an arrow hit one of the passengers right in the heart to kick off the epic battle.
(Also, Hatfield saves his last bullet so he can shoot Lucy to prevent her capture–and torture–by the savage Apaches. Forget wine and roses, I want a man who saves the last bullet for me.)
And of course Ringo romances Dallas. He saves the stagecoach, avenges his brother’s death, gets the girl, and eludes capture by the authorities.
It was exactly the ending I wanted. And the most pleasant of surprises.
Just another legend that time hasn’t found a way to dim.
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