Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: John Ford Directs

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Movie is Stagecoach (1939):

“Star Wars” opened the door for decent budgets for the science fiction and fantasy movie genre that followed. “Stagecoach” did the same for Westerns. Before it was made, Westerns were given low budgets and a B-movie rating and B-rated actors. The box office success of “Stagecoach” guaranteed better budgets and first-class actors (and directors) for films like “High Noon”, “Shane”, “Red River” and “Winchester 73”. If “Stagecoach” had bombed at the box office, there might there have been no big budgeted westerns.

The eight people riding the “Stagecoach” are stereotypical Western movie characters. Yet they don’t remain stereotypes. In director John Ford’s hands, each character has their individual moment in the sun. Their particular humanity shines and reveals a hint of their lifetime of stories.

Inside the coach, there’s six passengers. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is the alcoholic doctor, and Dallas (Claire Trevor), the salon girl, both run out of town by the “Law and Order League”. There’s Banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) running off with his ill-gotten loot; a pregnant southern belle, Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), on the way to meet her cavalry-officer husband; and a whiskey salesman, Samuel Peacock, (Donald Meek) afraid of his own shadow. John Carradine plays Hatfield, a southern gentleman of a gambler, who has a bit of Doc Holliday in him. Atop the coach, and in the driver seat, is Buck (Andy Devine), who is thecomic relief. Beside him sits lawman Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft).

Then the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) steps in front of that stage and joins the others as a ninth pilgrim. Turns out the real gentleman isn’t the gambler. It’s Ringo. He gives Dallas a drink from a canteen and a place at his table in the waystation. An escaped prisoner, he’s intent on killing the man who murdered his father and his brother. Thanks to Ford’s direction, John Wayne gives us the complex character of a decent man who’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. In the meantime, he’s falling in love with the girl with the heart of gold. Despite her cynicism, she’s falling in love with the big galloot as well.

“Stagecoach” is a tale of a pilgrimage that could have come out of “The Canterbury Tales”. Only it takes place not in Merry Olde England but in the American West. In Monument Valley to be exact.

Part of the reason westerns became so popular in the forties and the fifties were the settings. On the big screen, Hollywood treated audiences landscapes of America they had not imagined. And John Ford’s locations in Monument Valley began the start of Hollywood trend that location is as much a character as any of the actors. Roger Ebert put it well when he wrote of Monument Valley, “its prehistoric rock pillars framing the smallness of men.” Often leaving the audience impressed with the settings, the Western landscape became as much a star in these films as CGI is in movies today.

For both John Ford and “Duke” Wayne, “Stagecoach” brought a new phase in their careers. Ford took an out-of-favor genre, the Western, and stamped it with his own genius. From then on, he was considered one of the top American film directors. Until the end of his career, he used that success as an opportunity to explore the West as a symbol of American mythology. With “Stagecoach”, Ford showed that he was a master of composition, action, and casting.

Despite the producer’s resistance, he knew actors, and he knew John Wayne was perfect for the Ringo Kid. John Wayne emerged from the wilderness of B Westerns where he had languished for almost ten years. During those years he had learned his craft so well that he emerged from “Stagecoach” as a major bankable star.

The Duke’s performance in “Stagecoach” revealed what a master of reaction and body language he was. When Bert Glennon’s camera caught John Wayne in its lens, it was love at first sight. Even though star billing went to Claire Trevor, it was, and still is, obvious to the viewer that Ford’s star was Wayne the moment he stepped in front of that stagecoach and into the light.

Of the movie, Orson Welles would say, “John Ford was my teacher. My style has nothing to do with his, but ‘Stagecoach’ was my textbook. I ran it over forty times.”