Monday, March 25, 2013

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach has often been called the most significant western ever, that is: not necessarily the best, but the most trendsetting and genre-defining western in history: It was John Ford's first film in Monument Valley, the first to feature his beloved Seventh Cavalry and also 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. And last but not least: it was the movie that made a star out of its lead actor, a young man called John Wayne.

Stagecoach belongs to the kind of stories in which a 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. In Stagecoach they make 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. 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. 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.

John Wayne had already been the lead actor of Raoul Walsh large-scale production The Big Trail (1930) and it’s remarkable that Stagecoach did what Walsh’s movie had failed to do: turn him into a star. 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. 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 a hypnotizing moments, one of the most iconic images in the history of film making. 

Officially the movie was based on a story by Ernest Haycox, Stage to Lordsburg, but Haycock’s story was already an adaptation of a classic story by French 19th Century autor Guy de Maupassant, Boule de Suif. Maupassant’s story is set during the French-Prussian war (1870-1871) and tells the story of a group of French residents of occupied Rouan, who try to flee to Le Havre but are detained, halfway, by a regiment of Prussian soldiers. They are saved by one of them, the prostitute Boule de Suif, who decides to sleep with the Prussian officer in exchange for their release. Even though she saved their lives, the woman is despised by the others for her decision to sleep with the enemy. Ford and his screenwriter Dudley Nichols transferred the story from France to the American frontier, and also made one crucial change (by adding a character): In Stagecoach the group is saved by the bravery of this additional character, the Ringo Kid, who is redeemed by his actions. 

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. 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 exciting as ever. 

Yakima Canutt performing 



* Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, New York, 1997
* David Robinson, Stagecoach, published in: They Went That-a-Way, London 1982

Dir. John Ford - Cast: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Louise Platt, Andy Devine, George Bancroft, Chief White Horse

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