THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Thursday, March 14, 2013




“There are some things a man just can’t walk away from.” – Ringo (John Wayne)

DIRECTOR: John Ford;  PRODUCERS (uncredited): John Ford and Walter Wanger; WRITERS: Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht (uncredited) from story by Ernest Haycox; CAMERA: Bert Glennon

CAST: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, Chief Big Tree, Yakima Canutt, Bill Cody, Jr., Franklyn Farnum, Francis Ford, Si Jenks, Duke Lee, Chris Pin-Martin, J.P. McGowan, Vesper Pegg, Jack Pennick, Joe Rickson
Two icons: John Wayne and Monument Valley
STAGECOACH is an important film for several reasons:

·       It was John Ford’s first Western since 1926 and thus his first sound Western.

·       It is his most famous Western and arguably, the most famous Western ever filmed.

·       It was the first Ford film shot in Monument Valley.  There would be six more. 

·       Its critical and financial success helped rekindle an interest in big-budget Westerns.

·       It freed John Wayne from B-Westerns and made him a “leading man” in A-features.

“If there’s anything I don’t like it’s driving a stagecoach through Apache country.” – Buck (Andy Devine)

In its attacks on the twin evils of hypocrisy and intolerance, the film is characterized by a mature viewpoint quite different from the typical pre-1939 Western.  Not since the silent days of William S. Hart could a cowboy expect to take the law into his own hands and emerge as sympathetic as does the Ringo Kid (Wayne) in this film.

“Well, I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.” – Ringo (John Wayne)

Contemporary critics sometimes dismiss the film as being full of clichés and stereotypical characterizations.  However, it may only seem that is the case because it has been endlessly imitated by other Westerns and non-Westerns (journeys on ships, planes, trains, etc.), and in fact it broke new ground by dashing all the existing clichés, for nobody on the stage from Tonto to Lordsburg is what they appear to be.

The nine stagecoach passengers (L-R): Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Louise Platt, Thomas Mitchell, Berton Churchill, Donald Meek, George Bancroft

One of the highlights of the film is the skillful stunt work by legendary stunt man and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, as demonstrated during the scenes involving a prolonged chase of the stage by the Apaches (portrayed by Navajos).

Yakima Canutt doubling John Wayne as he had so many times in their B-Western films

The peerless and fearless Yakima Canutt performing his most famous stunt in which a galloping team and the stagecoach pass over him.

John Wayne held at bay by two bad men: George (later 'Gabby') Hayes and Yakima Canutt.  The scene is from one of the many Lone Star/Monogram B-Westerns that the three appeared in together.
William S. Hart (the former silent Western star) pointed out that the chase was unrealistic, that the Indians would have shot one of the horses and ended the chase before it began!  “Yes,” replied Ford, “but then the movie would have had a sad ending and we still had several pages of script to film.”

STAGECOACH was John Wayne’s 80th film.  As noted earlier, the role made him a leading man in A-features, but he had to wait almost another decade until RED RIVER (UA, 1948) to become a star in big-budget productions.  By that time, he was in his early forties.  His story is hardly the description of an overnight success.

However, it almost didn’t happen.  Producer Wanger, wanting a big name to head the starless cast, wanted Gary Cooper in the Ringo role, but Ford held out for B-Western cowboy Wayne, who had been a personal acquaintance for over a decade.

Along those same lines, Tim Holt, who portrays a young cavalry lieutenant, would soon be a B-Western star at RKO.  Tom Tyler, though often taking character roles in major Westerns and non-Westerns, was a current B-Western star.  He was quite good as villainous Luke Plummer.

Tom Tyler as a worried Luke Plummer
Claire Trevor, as the prostitute Dallas, received top billing in the cast and was paid far more than Wayne.  In fact, Wayne received less compensation than any of his co-stars.  Trevor and Wayne were subsequently teamed in two lesser productions:  ALLEGHENY UPRISING (RKO, 1939) and DARK COMMAND (Republic, 1940).

Dallas and Ringo
Louise Platt, as the more refined Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer, returned to the stage where she had done most of her acting, and later became an active performer on television in the 50’s.  This was by far her most prominent movie role.

Although the film is noted for its Monument Valley locations, much of it was shot at various locations in California, including the Lucerne Dry Lake area where most of the stagecoach chase was filmed.  One reason for this was the remoteness of Monument Valley.  The fact that there were no paved roads accessing the Valley explains why the area had not been used much as a movie location.

Lucerne Dry Lake, California
The competition for Oscars for the year 1939 has to be the most competitive in film history since the year produced more classic films than any other year.  The folks who do the nominating and voting do not always take westerns seriously, but STAGECOACH was nevertheless nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. 

Thomas Mitchell was named Best Supporting Actor for his role as an alcoholic and alienated, but ultimately heroic, Doc Boone.  The film also won for Best Musical Score. 

Bert Glennon was nominated, but did not win for Best Black-and-White Photography, losing to Gregg Toland for WURTHERING HEIGHTS (AIP).  Nevertheless, Glennon’s work on the film has garnered much praise – and justifiably so.

John Ford did not win the Best Director Oscar; it went instead to Victor Fleming for GONE WITH THE WIND (MGM), which was also named Best Picture.  However, Ford did win the New York Critic’s Best Director Award.

The stagecoach trailed by a cavalry detachment.  In the background are two of Mounument Valley's most famous landmarks: the "Mittens."

The stagecoach passes through Beale's Cut near Newhall, California.  This location was also used by Ford in two of his most famous silent Westerns: STRAIGHT SHOOTING (Universal,1917, starring Harry Carey), which is thought to be the director's first feature film, and THE IRON HORSE (Fox,1924, starring George O'Brien).


“His players have taken easily to their chores….They’ve all done nobly by a noble horse opera, but none so nobly as the director.  This stagecoach is powered by a Ford.” – Frank S. Nugent in The New York Times

“One of the great American films, and a landmark in the maturing of the Western….” – Leonard Maltin

“All of the performances are impeccable….An assured, mature masterpiece from one of America’s most rugged, indigenous filmmakers….A fine, exciting, dramatic film, one of the best.” – Steven H. Scheuer

“Obviously it was not the screen’s first adult Western, its first poetic Western, or its first literary Western, but it was the first one in a long while to combine those elements so effectively.” – William K. Everson in A Pictorial History of the Western Film

“In many ways STAGECOACH is the most significant sound Western ever….the film that rescued Wayne from the doldrums of the B-Western and so began what surely must rank as the most creative relationship between an actor and director in the history of the cinema, and it was the film that gave such an impetus to the genre that it must be called the first modern Western….A magnificent film.” – Phil Hardy in The Western

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