Click the poster to buy at MovieGoods
John Ford’s classic western Stagecoach is one of those seminal moments in film history where the hodgepodge of popular mythology, unexpected historical insight, and cinemagraphic risk-taking give birth to a new level of artistic endeavor. In film genre history, Stagecoach marks the shift from primitive stage (The Great Train Robbery, 1903) to the paradigmatic classical western. Out of the dime-novel and nickelodeon traditions of popular American culture, Ford transforms simple escapist adventure into the material from which Greek tragedy and Shakespearean characters were forged. This almost did not come to pass, since David O. Selznick was interested in the project only if he could cast Gary Cooper as the outsider-hero, The Ringo Kid, and Marlene Dietrich as Dallas, the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold. Claire Trevor was cast as Dallas, and from the Ringo Kid character Marion Morrison built the persona which would become the icon of John Wayne.
In a typical western the huge, empty desert landscape (Utah’s Monument Valley) evokes both the morally neutral stage and the largely invisible moral universe of mankind in which classical Greek tragedy unfolds. In Stagecoach it is the dry ocean which the ship of fools must cross at great peril. And like a ship of fools, danger, evil, and treachery are as visibly omnipresent among the traveling party as they are suspected, intuited, or known from past journeys to be out there, waiting in secret.
The desert ship (or is it a Noah’s ark, given that there seem to be two of everything?) takes on all of American society, embodied in the handful of travelers. The pregnant Mrs. Mallory, wife of an Army officer is desperate to rejoin her husband at his new outpost. She must share stagecoach space with Dallas, the prostitute-victim who has been railroaded out of town by the ladies of the Law and Order League (as Dallas remarks, “there are worse things than Apaches.”). The alcoholic Dr. Boone has also been driven out by the same ladies, though he soon imposes a boon companionship upon one Mr. Peacock, whiskey drummer, who is frequently mistaken for a preacher. In the middle of a card game at a front window of the local saloon the southern-gentlemanly con artist Hatfield catches the eye of Mrs. Mallory (whom he claims is “like an angel in a very wild jungle”) and offers to “escort” the married woman to the safety of her husband. Hatfield’s craven appetites are only whetted by the good lady Mallory’s inviting eye.
The crew is rounded out with the Falstaffian stage driver Buck, played mirthfully by character actor Andy Devine, who is supporting his fiancee and her entire family in Mexico, his foil, the town’s sheriff who rides shotgun, and the banker who is fleeing town before his act of embezzlement is discovered. Numerous ghosts also come to haunt this ship. The specter of the danger of the jungle is conjured by the mere naming of “Geronimo.” Indians on the warpath means the cavalry will have to accompany the stagecoach. Oddly, the soldiers disappear, and by the time the stagecoach reaches its first stop, the fort where Mrs. Mallory had expected to be reunited with his husband, the relief cavalry has also disappeared.
In the meantime, in the middle of nowhere in the desert a god appears, Hollywood style. The camera zooms in, with breathtaking pleasure, on the lanky figure of The Ringo Kid, horseless and—like nearly everyone else on board– on his way to Lordsburg (“Fortress of God”) to avenge the murders of his father and brother. Ringo is beloved by all who know him, is easy-going, a natural gentleman, someone wronged by the gods (via the murderous Plumber brothers). Ringo is, of course, the Ideal Western Outlaw-Hero, as powerful as a troop of US cavalry, as kind, honest, and good-hearted as society (as manifested in the traveling company) is cruel, deceitful, and disingenuous. Suffering, along with Dallas and Dr. Boone, from “the foul disease of social prejudice,” Ringo will prove himself the savior of all onboard, including Mrs. Mallory’s unborn child and a payroll of $50,000.
The greatest enjoyment in watching Stagecoach is in observing how Ford builds and populates this moral universe, in seeing complex personalities sketched in simple words or gestures, and in the complex interplay of opposites. But most of all, the genius of the film lies in how American society, in all its contradictions, is packed onto one tiny stage in one tiny coach, and then launched into a malignant universe of unforeseeable consequences. And, true to American melodrama, the viewer attains cathexis, and a most satisfying one at that, when Ringo and Dallas intertwine their fates forever.
Even if you hated every western you have ever seen, you may be saved yet. Stagecoach can cause the scales to fall from your eyes; from a 60 year old movie, the possibilities of the western emerge in a new light.