A Star is Born in Monument Valley: John Wayne in John Ford’s STAGECOACH (United Artists 1939)

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If you think the characters and Western tropes in STAGECOACH are familiar, you’re right. But let’s be clear… STAGECOACH introduced many of these now-clichéd devices to film, and is one of the enduring classics of the American West. Director John Ford was well versed in Westerns, having cut his professional teeth on them during the silent era. This was his first sound Western and Ford was determined to reinvent the genre, with much more adult themes than the usual Saturday matinée kiddie fare. He succeeded with a daring story featuring an outlaw and a prostitute as his heroes, and exceeded his goal by creating a brand new Hollywood star in the process: John Wayne.

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Wayne had been a football player for the USC Trojans when an injury caused him to lose his scholarship. Through some university connections, he was able to gain employment in the film industry as a prop man and extra, working with cowboy star Tom Mix and director Ford, who took a liking to the young man. Wayne was noticed by Raoul Walsh, who cast him as the lead in his 1930 epic THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office however, and Wayne was relegated to budget Westerns and serials at Monogram Studios, then later at Republic. His career was going nowhere fast when Ford offered him the part of The Ringo Kid in STAGECOACH. It was a fortuitous move on both parts, and led to a long and prosperous screen teaming for both men. When that camera zooms in on Wayne early in the film, you knew right then and there this young actor was destined for great things. Wayne always credited Ford for making his career, and he’s right. Without John Ford, there is no John Wayne, at least not the Wayne we’ve all come to know through his movies. Wayne was Ford’s cinematic alter ego, what the director wanted to be, and Ford was Wayne’s movie muse, compelling him to give his best.

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STAGECOACH takes its characters on a perilous journey through hostile Indian territory while the renegade Geronimo is on the warpath. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a prostitute being run out of town, as is the drunkard Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning performance). Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is an Army wife seeking her husband as she’s about to give birth. Major Hatfield (John Carradine) is a proud Southerner and professional gambler. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a whiskey “drummer” from Kansas. Local banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is leaving town with embezzled money. Stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is joined by Marshal Curley (George Bancroft) riding shotgun, searching for escaped convict The Ringo Kid (Wayne). Ringo joins them when his horse goes lame, and he’s taken into custody by Curley. They’re given a cavalry escort to the halfway point, where another regimen is to take over. But the other troop is engaged in battle with the Apaches, and the stage has to go it alone to reach Lordsburg alive.

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This simple story is the peg on which Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols hang their character studies, turning the stereotypes on their ear. Outlaw Ringo has broken out of prison to find Luke Plummer and his brothers, the men responsible for killing Ringo’s father and brother. Booze soaked Doc shows great compassion toward Dallas, while the mannered, courtly Hatfield is filled with contempt. Upstanding citizen Gatewood is a loudmouth and a thief, but whiskey peddler Peacock is a soft-spoken family man. Whore Dallas is treated with scorn by Mrs. Mallory, but when Mallory has her baby, it’s Dallas who takes care of it. Marshal Curley is sworn to uphold the law, yet sets Ringo free to ride off with Dallas at the film’s conclusion. Ford and Nichols give us a reverse view of these individuals, rejecting the notion that everyone’s either a good guy or a bad guy. As in life, the characters in STAGECOACH are colored in shades of grey, not starkly cast in black and white.

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This was Ford’s first film to be shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The breathtaking scenery of this Colorado Plateau, with its majestic mesas and long, lonely plains, gave the director the perfect canvas on which to paint his American West masterpiece.  Ford would return to the Valley numerous times to give his films the authenticity they’re known for, including MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and THE SEARCHERS. Other filmmakers followed suit, and Monument Valley can be seen in such diverse works as Wayne’s ANGEL AND THE BADMAN, the counter-culture classic EASY RIDER, Kubrick’s 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY, Eastwood’s THE EIGER SANCTION, and Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP. Rumor has it the backgrounds in all those Road Runner cartoons were also based on Monument Valley!

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Any good Western has to have action, and STAGECOACH is no exception. The almost ten minute chase scene features one of the most exciting and dangerous stunts ever performed on film, when Yakima Canutt jumps from his horse onto the coach’s tandem, falls between the horses, and gets trampled over. This stunt was done in one take, and it’s a wonder Canutt didn’t get killed. The former rodeo rider handled the stunt action in over 250 movies, as well as acting and second-unit directing on numerous films. He was given a well-deserved honorary Oscar in 1966 for his contributions to the motion picture industry.

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Besides John Wayne, the players here shine in their respective roles. Claire Trevor received top billing, her name meaning more at the time than Wayne or  the rest of the cast. She was one of Hollywood’s best “bad girls”, later becoming “Queen of Noir” in films like KEY LARGO and BORN TO KILL . Mitchell won his Oscar here,  though he could have just as easily won for the same year’s GONE WITH THE WIND (or as Uncle Billy in 1947’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). Carradine again shows why he was one of the great character stars, before becoming a B horror star. Platt is rather stiff as Mrs. Mallory, but that’s exactly how the part was written. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, with a special shout out here to loveable Andy Devine. Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, and Chris-Pin Martin have minor roles, and if you look closely you may spot Dorothy Appleby, William Hopper, Paul McVey, Woody Strode, and Hank Worden.

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STAGECOACH is probably the most influential film in Ford’s canon. It’s been said Orson Wells watched it over and over, studying its composition and pacing before he began working on CITIZEN KANE. It’s been remade twice, in a 1966 all-star version (with Ann-Margaret and Bing Crosby, among others) and a 1986 TV Movie featuring Country Outlaws Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. Neither film comes close to matching the greatness of the original. Movie fans of all genres need to watch this one, for its strong acting, beautifully shot scenes, exhilarating action, and the birth of a true Hollywood icon, John Wayne. Do not miss an opportunity to see this extraordinary piece of Americana.

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