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Stagecoach (review)

Fundamental Western

There are huge, embarrassing gaps in my film education that I’m not ashamed to admit to, because even a professional film critic cannot possibly have seen every film ever made. Not even all the really great ones. And then I get to share the delight I experience as I finally — finally! — get to see movies I’ve been hearing about forever as I discover them for the first time.

And it is indeed an enormous pleasure to see a film such as John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach — I know! I’d never seen it! isn’t that awful! — via the Criterion Collection’s two-disc set, new in Region 1 [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada]. As is always true with Criterion packages, this isn’t just a lovely new presentation of the movie itself: digitally remastered from a 1942 nitrate duplicate negative (the original negative is, it seems, lost forever) and with a soundtrack that, while it’s still monaural, has been cleaned up of the sorts of hisses and cracks that mar old films. It’s also a small film-school education, through the copious supplementary materials, on how the film broke new ground, why it remains so important today, and just what a smarty-pants Ford was, anyway.
Still, it takes a particular trick of the intellect, while watching Stagecoach fresh today, to remind oneself that part of the reason this film is so legendary is because it “crystallized and refreshed the language of the genre,” says film historian and Western scholar Jim Kitses in his new commentary track. The conventions that we take for granted today, and the seriousness with which they are treated — before this, Westerns were throwaway B movies — would have surprised 1939 audiences. It’s kinda like how some people complain that Shakespeare is all clichés — yeah, well, it was his genius that inspired people to copy him. Just as the Bard told stories in a way so good that everyone wanted to steal from him, so did Ford.

And yet… there remains a crispness and a sparkle in this tale of folk thrown together on a stagecoach traveling across dangerous Apache country, in how Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols used the close quarters of the stage (and the frontier town the travelers departed from, and waystations along the way) to subvert cultural expectations: the outlaw (John Wayne) is a good guy while the banker (Berton Churchill) is a crook; the drunk doctor (Thomas Mitchell) and the prostitute (Claire Trevor) run out of town by scolding church ladies are sympathetic while the prudes are villainous. It’s the Western as a social drama, and if 1939 hadn’t seen anything like it before, there’s much to surprise us today, too, in its openmindedness and humanity. Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma wouldn’t exist without this film, sure, but nor would, I think, the earnest and sober superhero movies we take so seriously today.

The extras are essential for placing Stagecoach in its proper perspective, and are entirely fascinating. There’s Kitses’ running commentary accompanying the movie on Disc One and the inclusion, in the printed booklet, of the 1937 Ernest Haycox short story the film is based upon, first published in Collier’s Weekly. Then there’s Disc Two, featuring Bucking Broadway, a 1917 silent by Ford, one of his first films, about a cowboy who loses his girl to a city slicker; it’s beautifully shot and feels very modern, more like what we’d called cinematic today than silent-era films usually seem. And there’s a startling 1968 British TV interview with Ford, on which for 70 minutes he says things such as “I’m not interested in [movies]… it’s a way of making a living” and either pretends not to understand questions about his influences, his politics, and other things that have “nothing to do” with his movies, or else he really had never considered these things (that seems unlikely). There’s new video of Peter Bogdanovich talking about the film and how Ford made Wayne a star; a video essay about Ford’s visual style; home movies introduced and discussed by Ford’s grandson and biographer, Dan Ford; stuntmaster Vic Armstrong on the amazing work here of Yakima Canutt, whom he calls “the father of all stuntmen”; a 1949 radio adaptation starring Wayne and Claire Trevor reprising their roles; and more.


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • LaSargenta

    Yup. Ford was great. I’ll bet he was just messing with that interviewer. Couldn’t be that unaware of his work’s effects!

    Now, to see something good on the other end (also subversive) of the western, check out Ride the High Country. Yes, it is Peckinpah, but it takes the Ford western and makes it tragic, even using Randolph Scott and Joel McCrae.

  • Hank Graham

    If you liked that, check out Ford’s “Fort Apache.”

    Basically, it’s the story of Custer with the serial numbers filed off, but it hits the truth of the tale better than any other film about Custer ever did.

  • JoshDM

    There are huge, embarrassing gaps in my film education that I’m not ashamed to admit to, because even a professional film critic cannot possibly have seen every film ever made.

    Kentucky Fried Movie

  • FunWithHeadlines

    Wow, a TCM classic reviewed by FlickFilosopher, what fun!

    Film reviewers see most of the current movies, whereas I see maybe 2 or 3 a month. But I’ll take anyone on when it comes to classic movies. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and those who do not know classic movies are doomed to think current movies are inventing things that were invented decades ago.

  • http://reformamendment.blogspot.com/ PaulW

    Stagecoach is a great action movie but not necessarily Ford’s best Western. Fort Apache is better but still has a few flaws to it. The Searchers too melodramatic, as is Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. My Darling Clementine is great but historically inaccurate.

    Maybe I’m nitpicking too much. ;)

  • Muzz

    If you watch the great Western touchstones from Stagecoach on down to Leone and throw in a little Roy Rodgers for context, watching Back to the Future 3 is suddenly ten times more awesome as a bonus.

  • Kathy_A

    I’ve been spending a lot of the past year getting caught up on B&W classics I hadn’t seen before (Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Third Man, etc.), including Stagecoach. Now, I watched late-in-life John Wayne films in the theater during their first runs (I was dragged to them by my dad, the John Wayne fanatic), but never really thought of him as anything other than a film icon. However, watching Stagecoach is a revelation–one immediately sees why this film made Wayne a star.

    Beyond that, the film itself is terrifically entertaining. I especially love the performances of Thomas Mitchell and Claire Trevor–Mitchell almost steals the film from under Wayne’s nose, and Trevor matches Wayne in acting skill and charisma.

  • Isobel

    Speaking of old black and white movies. . . About 16 years ago I turned on the TV on a Friday afternoon and starting watching a completely gripping black and white film, but unfortunately couldn’t watch the end because I had to go to work. It was brilliant and I’ve always wanted to watch the end of it but I’ve not known what it was called. It was about a woman who (I think) was actually the victim of a crime, but was suspected of comitting it. She had no memory of the event and a psychologist was working with her to help her remember (it sounds a bit like Dead Again, I know, but it is an actual old B&W, not a film with B&W flashbacks in a modern setting).

    Ring any bells for anyone?

  • http://reformamendment.blogspot.com/ PaulW

    @Isobel, can you remember the actors?

  • Isobel

    Nope! This is why I’ve never been able to find it. I think I missed the very beginning as well, which doesn’t help. The woman had dark hair, I think – but that doesn’t narrow it down much!

  • Lark Hawk

    Hmm… could it be Suddenly Last Summer with Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn? Your description is pretty vague. Try googling amnesia movies.