Saturday, September 6, 2014

Film Review: Stagecoach

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

All the old western cliches fill up the wagon in John Ford's "Stagecoach" (1939).

A stagecoach is headed to Lordsburg, New Mexico from Tonto, Arizona, where the law (George Bancroft), the gambler (John Carradine), the drunk (Thomas Mitchell), the lady (Louise Platt), the whore (Claire Trevor) and the gunfighter (John Wayne) all meet.

Geronimo and Apaches are on the war path and there is a good chance while on the trail to New Mexico the stagecoach may run into them. What should these group of characters do? Will they be able to work together or will their differences divide them?

Although the movie is filled with western cliche characters I did enjoy "Stagecoach". There isn't much to these characters. All I need tell you is who the drunk is, who the lady is, who the whore is and your imagination can take care of the rest. The characters aren't really defined past their stereotypes yet it was the interaction between the characters that I enjoyed most about the picture.

"Stagecoach" is primarily known for being the first major film John Wayne and John Ford worked on together and the one that made John Wayne a star. Wayne had been an extra in some of Ford's early silent films. They would work on 15 more movies. It was also Ford's first sound western and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture and best director. It won two awards; best supporting actor (Mitchell) and best music.

Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, whose father and brother were shot by Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler). Ringo vows revenge. Plummer is considered a good shot and Marshall Wilcox (Bancroft) is worried Ringo will also be killed. The Marshall's plan is to lock Ringo up, so he'll be safe.

Claire Trevor, who gets top billing, stars as Dallas, a woman who is thrown out of town for being a whore. While on the stagecoach a romance blossoms between Ringo and her. Ringo doesn't know about her past and she doesn't offer any information.

This is kind of a weak point of the film. Wayne wasn't much of a romantic leading man. I guess he does a better job of that in Ford's "The Quiet Man" (1952). Here we simply don't believe the two could have fallen so deeply in love so fast.

The movie doesn't have those grand landscape shots of the open plains one expects in a John Ford movie. I felt something like "My Darling Clementine" (1946) had more beautiful shots but I must admit overall I prefer "Stagecoach" for its story.

One of the interesting ideas behind the movie is destiny. Some of these characters have their fate decided for them by other characters and some characters try to fight their fate. For example, it is decided Doc Boone (Mitchell) is nothing more than a vulgar drunk, thus his fate is decided for him. He is an outcast and is forced to leave town. Dallas (Trevor) is a whore. No honorable man would ever want to be with her. The same town has decided her fate. Her reputation will follow her wherever she goes. The town also forces her to leave. The Ringo Kid has decided the fate of Luke Plummber. He will kill him for what he did to his family.

But some characters like Dallas want to change their fate. When the Ringo Kid treats Dallas as a lady, she begins to feel maybe she is a lady, maybe she deserves a better life. Maybe she is more than her reputation and can change her future.

In some ways "Stagecoach" reminds me of flying an airplane, which I guess would be the modern day equivalent. On the stagecoach, traveling for days with other passengers, who begin to learn about people, you discover who they are and who knows, maybe a romance may start. There are people who still believe there is a chance they might find the love of their life while on an airplane. The person sitting next to them may be "the one". Studies have shown this.

That concept is what is suppose to give "Stagecoach" its appeal. A group of different personalities confined to this small space, having to deal with one another. The men don't treat the whore with respect, others look down on the drunk..ect But through the course of the ride the individuals all learn something about themselves.

If you've never seen a John Ford movie before, this is actually a great place to start. I wish this would have been the first movie I ever saw him direct. After watching this movie see his other westerns such as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), "My Darling Clementine" (1946), "The Searchers" (1956) and "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" (1949). Then you will see how this movie set everything else in gear. This movie put Ford and John Wayne on a new path.

"Stagecoach" is a very good movie, I like the way the movie mixes humor with drama and action. It has a terrific cast of supporting actors who you will recognize from countless other movies. And it is interesting looking back on the movie and see how John Wayne became John Wayne.