All aboard the Stagecoach!

I missed y’all last week, due to a technical difficulty.  And thanks to that glitch, I missed posting about John Ford’s Stagecoach in advance of last Sunday’s screening on TCM.  Which is a shame, but at the same time Stagecoach is one of those classic movies so towering in its importance that it practically dwarfs all efforts to really appreciate it–here is the film that made John Wayne a star, that proved that Westerns could move from the B-movie ghetto to being major Hollywood fare, and that then established the character types and narrative tropes that would fuel all those subsequent Westerns inspired by it.  That’s a lot to pull off in just 96 minutes.  More to the point, it’s a set of accomplishments defined primarily by what comes later, by what we know about Stagecoach‘s precedent-setting legacy.

In other words, forget that I missed putting it in context when it aired on TV last week–what would it have been like to experience it back in 1939?  That’s almost beyond our reach altogether.  But c’mon, let’s give it a try, shall we?

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The legend goes that Orson Welles considered Stagecoach a perfect example of classical filmmaking, and studied it closely while preparing Citizen Kane.  Which is interesting to keep in mind while watching Ford’s ruthlessly efficient opening reel, which hastily sketches out the film’s premise in what feels to modern eyes like an avant-garde post-modern self parody.

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There are five scenes in the opening reel, in which we meet our ten major characters.

First we see the army rallying to confront the Apache General Geronimo (#1), whose own troops are gathering nearby.  The army post is getting an anxious telegraph warning about Geronimo when suddenly the wire goes dead–and an ominous music sting seals the scene.

Uh oh, Geronimo!  (Dah duh duh!) {authors note: thats supposed to be a music sting, to underscore the ominous revelation.  In fact Ford only uses a music sting once in this sequence of scenes, but theres a closeup that seems like he meant to put a music sting over it and just forgot.  In any event, Im taking the authorial liberty of acting like theres a music sting at the end of each of these scenes}

Next we meet Lucy Mallory (#2, played by Louise Platt).  She’s the wife of one of the cavalry officers on her way to reunite with him–and although this isn’t revealed until much later, she is also pregnant and imminently due (the puffy skirts of the time apparently helped conceal her baby bump).  She has attracted the attention of a rakish gambler named Hatfield (#3, played by John Carradine), who is said to be a dangerous sort.  We will later learn that he shot a man in the back, and has many possessions taken by fair means or foul from their original rightful owners–but even before we learn these details the film clearly signals that he is a threatening, even devilish, figure.

Uh oh, a sharpshooting card shark!  (Dah duh duh)

 Stagecoach (1939)

In the following scene, we learn that a convict named Johnny Ringo (#4, played by John Wayne, although not shown on screen yet) has broken out of jail and is gunning for someone named Luke Plummer.  Lawman “Curley” (#5, played by George Bancroft) figures he knows where to find and arrest Ringo, and commandeers the stagecoach driven by Buck (#6, Andy Devine) in his hunt for Ringo.

Uh oh, escaped convict!  (Dah duh duh)

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This is immediately followed by the introduction of banker Mr. Gatewood (#7, Berton Churchill), who steals the $50,000 payroll of the local mining company and hops the stagecoach to effect his getaway.

Uh oh, a desperate thief on the run!  (Dah duh duh)

But wait, there’s more.  Here’s Dallas (#8, Claire Trevor), the prostitute with a heart of gold being drummed out of town by some clucking harridans. The audience is quickly encouraged to side with her, but she’s going to be a locus of tension and conflict wherever she goes thanks to the swirling maelstroms of self-satisfied moralizing and intolerance that she can’t help but whip up, simply because she exists.

Uh oh, cruel social prejudice!  (Dah duh duh)

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And then there’s her friend, the drunken Doc Boone (#9, Thomas Mitchell), disgraced for his vices and just as unwelcome as Dallas.  Dallas is leaving on the stagecoach because she’s being forced to leave, somewhere, anywhere, but Doc Boone chooses to go because he’s got his eyes on the sample case of liquor distributor Mr. Peacock (#10, Donald Meek).

(Theres no obvious uh oh moment here.  Unless you worry whether Doc Boone will get his mitts on all that sample liquor or not.)

Now that we’ve dissected this opening reel, let’s examine more closely how it’s been put together, because there’s a lot here to unpack.

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The first thing to note is that we have an abundance of premises–more than sufficient to supply this film.  In fact, if you only ever see one Western, you should probably make it Stagecoach, since you’ll then have seen the source of nearly every Western made in its wake.  Stagecoach is a concentration of other ideas, it’s the Campbell’s condensed Western soup of a movie. Any one of these ideas is enough to make a whole movie, and yet we’ve got at least 6 clearly defined individual ideas, each of which not only could fuel other movies, but did:

Lucy Mallory’s arrival in town in attempt to reunite with a husband, whose survival is in doubt–well, that’s how Once Upon a Time in the West begins.

A lawman trying to transport a dangerous convict, as the two gradually develop respect and even friendship–go see 3:10 to Yuma.

The fallen drunk who redeems himself in a tight corner–check out Rio Bravo or El Dorado for more of the same.

Many Westerns involve thieves on the run or stashes of stolen booty, but I’m inclined to compare the Gatewood subplot to something like Station West, about a detective investigating gold thefts from a mining town.

The prostitute with a heart of gold who becomes a love interest despite her sordid past is an obvious staple, but Denise Darcel’s character in Westward the Women is a clear descendant of Claire Trevor’s Dallas.

And then of course, there’s the main theme–cowboys ‘n’ injuns–except that’s not so simple.  Of course there are plenty of examples of Westerns with this setup, and I’m spoiled for choice to choose a reference (I’ll go with The Searchers).  The biggest question, though, is to what extent the cowboys-n-injuns theme is really going on in Stagecoach–because as central a figure as Geronimo is, he isn’t really a character in the movie after all.

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I counted him as character #1 out of 10 to make a point–the movie poster specifically identifies 9 major characters, not 10.  Geronimo isn’t a speaking role, nor even a credited supporting role.  He’s the main Big Bad of the story, but he’s a largely abstract menace.

Throughout the film the characters are trying to avoid encountering him–and so when those efforts finally fail and Geronimo arrives in the story, it is a massive climactic and catastrophic thing.  The movie spends most of its running time building up to this event–and then spends most of its remaining running time wallowing in it.

Up until that point, Geronimo is primarily defined by his absence–the negative space he ought to be occupying. Here’s another chance to call out a later Western inspired by StagecoachHigh Noon pulls a similar trick, with the villainous Frank Miller incarnated as an empty chair.  The audience is reminded that he is missing, and feared–and we are left to imagine the nightmare that will ensue when he finally shows up.

Stagecoach does the same thing but on a grander scale–Geronimo isn’t some mere empty chair, but a series of ruined landscapes.  Every stop the stagecoach makes is a deserted waste, recently the site of a furious battle with Geronimo.   And so with each stop, the stagecoach creeps closer to him, narrowing in on the very man it is trying to avoid.

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And therein lies a tricky storytelling dilemma, and the reason for that crowded opening reel.  The passengers on the stagecoach are not professional soldiers looking for a fight, so they should be trying to stay away from Geronimo–and the dramatic irony in having them deliberately inch closer and closer to him creates the film’s palpable suspense.  To pull this off, Ford needs a plausible explanation for why the passengers manifestly do something so counter-productive.  To that end, he’s given most (not all, but most) of the characters strong incentives to plough on regardless.

And this is the key detail I want to emphasize, because for all the things you can praise Stagecoach for, praising it for character development is to my mind misguided.  It’s completely right and fair to acknowledge that Ford has packed the cast with immensely talented performers, whom he has equipped with efficiently designed and highly visual bits of business that masterfully establish their defining character traits.  And if that’s what you mean by character development, then yeah, this movie’s got it going on.

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But if you’re looking for complex realistic humans, or wildly implausible but interesting fantasies, then keep on moving.  What we have here are iconic archetypes, and their defining character traits are exclusively determined in the context of how they respond to a crisis.

For example, let’s consider John Wayne–this is his starmaking turn and I’m 1400 words in without having really talked about him.  Ford went out on a limb to give Wayne the lead role, against the studio’s objections, and then made sure every single shot of Wayne was as starmaking and iconic as possible–none more than his introductory shot:

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But what of his character?  An escaped convict on his way to a foolish shootout?  In almost any other movie, Ringo would be the bad guy–but here he’s the hero.

And the villain?  Well, Geronimo, ultimately, but one consequence of delaying Geronimo’s entry into the story is that the film needs a placeholder bad guy, a role into which Gatewood the thieving banker steps.  Yet it’s difficult to conceive of a coherent philosophy by which Ringo’s crime is the lesser compared to Gatewood’s.  The clearest distinction between them is that Ringo keeps a level head in a crisis and makes things better, while Gatewood argues and blames and makes things worse.

The film’s concept of “good” isn’t so much about morality or legality as it is about practicality–who do you want in your corner when all hell breaks loose.

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We’ve been talking about the legacy of Stagecoach in other films, and up above I listed some later Westerns that seemed to riff on different aspects of Stagecoach, but it’s too limiting to think about this film’s legacy as being confined to the world of Westerns.  There is an entire genre of films in which characters are sketched out in terms of how well they respond to crises, in which their interpersonal conflicts are played out against an epic backdrop of some massive calamity, and which are usually defined by packing a disparate bunch of people into some kind of vehicle, which then provides the title of the movie–1970s disaster flicks!

Yes, that’s right–there are the echoes of Stagecoach in the likes of Airport, Poseidon Adventure, Bullet Train, and their cousins.

7 Responses All aboard the Stagecoach!
Posted By Steve Whiteman : October 5, 2013 11:26 am

I read the Morlocks faithfully, but this could be the finest introduction to a classic I’ve ever seen. Thanks, David.

By the way, isn’t there an “a” in “Aboard”?

Posted By LD : October 5, 2013 11:59 am

STAGECOACH is a great movie and one of my favorites. As you stated, it’s premise of disparate characters responding to a crisis played out in other genres, such as Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT. But the same could be said about 1936′s THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Regardless, STAGECOACH remains the gold standard, not just for westerns but for other films.

Posted By Richard Brandt : October 6, 2013 1:32 am

John Carradine’s Hatfield may have a shady reputation, but as soon as Lucy Mallory shows up he seems determined to go out as a Southern gentleman.

The man Ringo is gunning for seems like even more of a Frank Miller figure than Geronimo, who is kind of a force of nature.

The romance in STAGECOACH works for me too; Ringo’s seeming naivete makes sense if you remember he lived on a ranch until he was 17 and has been in jail pretty much ever since.

Posted By Doug : October 6, 2013 11:23 am

With all good graces, Steve:
“By the way, isn’t there an “a” in “Aboard”?”

You have to get with the knack of the vernacular, friend.
When I was a deckhand on board ship, my boss was the ‘Bosun’
or “Bosun’s mate”.
If I had gone up to him and said, excuse me, but you are actually what they call a “Boatswain’s mate”…I would still be swabbing decks to this day.

Dizzy Dean was being chided for his language by a schoolteacher who said,
“Mr Dean, I’m afraid that you don’t know the King’s English.”
Dean responded,”Th’hell I don’t! So’s the Queen!”

Posted By robbushblog : October 7, 2013 7:41 pm

I have always considered Stagecoach to be the granddaddy of the disaster film. Someone else sees it my way.

Posted By Qalice : October 7, 2013 9:51 pm

I saw Stagecoach for the first time after I’d seen many of the movies it inspired — and that’s quite an experience. What puts Stagecoach ahead, I think, is the beautiful efficiency of it. Character and plot are drawn so quickly it hardly seems like work, with an occasional grace note to remind you that you’re being entertained by masters. If only more film makers realized how hard that is, and how rewarding audiences find it!

Posted By The Big Trail (1930) | timneath : November 16, 2013 7:55 pm

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