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.

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