Stagecoach has often been called the most significant western ever. It was John Ford's first film in Monument valley, the first to feature his beloved Seventh Cavalry and above all the movie which marked the start of what would become the most successful relationship between a director and an actor in the history of cinema.
All things considered, it is amazing that Stagecoach did for John Wayne what Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, made a decade earlier, had failed to do: turn him into a star. While he had been the lead actor in The Big Trail, his biographer Gary Wills has pointed out that the Ringo Kid is only one of the characters in what is essentially an ensemble movie: Stagecoach belongs to the kind of stories in which an isolated group of people are thrown together in a relatively small room (a boat, a train, a hotel) and must co-operate in order to fight off an imminent danger. The Ringo Kid is in fact a minor role, he only appears after a quarter of an hour in a movie that isn't very long, and speaks fewer lines than several other actors. Moreover John Wayne was not top-billed and seven other actors got more than he did for his role. And yet it is his movie: his entrance, a remarkable tracking shot, showing him against a projected background of Monument Valley, twirling his rifle, is one of those almost hypnotizing moments which makes viewers' blood freeze in their veins.
In Stagecoach the isolated group makes the trip from one frontier settlement to another during an Apache uprising. There's the dance hall girl, forced to leave town by the ladies' club, there's the gambler, the salesman, the inebriated doctor, the pregnant woman, the marshal and the talkative and cowardice driver. En route they're joined by the Ringo Kid, a young man recently escaped from prison, who has a personal score to settle with three men in Lordsburg, the town they're heading for.
The essence of the story, is the interaction of this group of characters and the way they change under the stress of the perilous situation. Social barriers blur during the journey, and when the pregnant woman gives birth, she is attended to by the dance hall girl Dallas and the seemingly irresponsible drunken swab Doc Boone. With her altruist behavior, Dallas wins the respect of her travelling-companions as well as the love of the young Ringo Kid. Finally the whole group is united when the Apaches attack.
Officially the movie was based on a story by Ernest Haycox, Stage to Lordsburg, but in reality the major source of inspiration was a short story by Guy de Maupassant, Boule de Suif. Ford and his screenwriter Dudley Nichols not only transferred the story from France to the American frontier, but also made one crucial change (by adding a character), which altered the entire meaning of the story. In Stagecoach the group is saved by the bravery of this additional character, the Ringo kid, who is redeemed by his actions. There's absolutely no redemption in Boule de Suif. It is set during the French-Prussian war (1870-1871) and tells the story of a group of French residents of the recently occupied Rouan, who try to flee to Le Havre but are detained, halfway, by a regiment of Prussian soldiers. The group is told that they will be held captive until one of them, the prostitute Boule de Suif, decides to sleep with the officer. The respectable citizens first support Boule de Suif when she refuses to give in, but they gradually become more impatient, and try to convince the girl that sleeping with the officer is the right thing to do. Afterwards she is despised for her decision to sleep with the enemy, in fact: the decision confirmed all thoughts these citizens had about the morally decayed woman.
Boule de Suif is Maupassant's most famous story and it has often been described as the ultimate indictment of hypocrisy in world literature. The theme of hypocrisy is still present in Ford's and Nichols' version (the role of the Ladies Club, the social barriers only blur temporarily, etc.), but the message has been watered down by this additional character of the Ringo Kid and the idea of redemption. This is no criticism, Ford had the right to tell his own story and redemption is a classic western theme.
Watched today, more than seventy years after its making, it is remarkable how enjoyable this movie still is. Of course, on a few occasions one must watch it in a historic perspective, some of the conversations feel a little forced, but the drama is still intact and that Indian attack - highlighted by Yakima Canutt's magnificent stunt work - looks as fresh and exciting as ever. And note that he was 44 years old when he performed these stunts.
* Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, New York, 1997
* David Robinson, Stagecoach, published in: They Went That-a-Way, London 1982