Stagecoach (1939, John Ford)
Aside from a school-age look at The Grapes of Wrath, this was years ago my first exposure to John Ford; knowing him then and now to be one of the guiding lights of American cinema, I nevertheless missed the boat on it the first time, writing it off as typical of a genre I held in considerable disdain. But this absorbing, suspenseful western about nine characters in search of an exit is not just a taut, action-packed chase picture, though it’s technically astonishing enough in that capacity that this would be enough. But as in so many of Ford’s films, there is much more here than meets the eye, and it’s quite impossible to process all of its nuances on one viewing; just ask Orson Welles, who is said to have practically married it during production of Citizen Kane (a primary reason I was anxious to see the film initially, and one reason my expectations for it may have been too lofty). In some ways this independently produced, relatively low-budget potboiler marks the culmination of the most sophisticated Hollywood storytelling in its decade.
Stagecoach could scarcely be more beautiful to look at… or more exciting, shot in stunning black and white by Bert Glennon. The vistas and fast movements communicate an absolute vitality in the vein of The 39 Steps or, much later, A Hard Day’s Night and The 400 Blows. These films all benefit from black & white because they are about essential information, movement, urgency. Color is for subtlety, for majesty; black & white is for getting in your bones and pushing you forward. Not only is the photography breathtaking in its sophisticated use of closed-in and wide-open spaces (Monument Valley looks glorious — and makes the case for Academy ratio actually being more expansive than the alternatives), Ford knows exactly how to use the medium and the audience to his best advantage, keeping the pace tight and quick for eighty-odd minutes before exploding with visceral, logical, violent insanity at the quite shocking climax. A 95-minute film structured as well as this one is, it must be said, an unmistakably impulsive (almost sensual) experience.
The story is relatively simple, even rote, of a group of citizens transported in the stagecoach of the title across dangerous “Apache Country.” It trades in a lot of the things that are so familiar to anyone who’s seen more than two or three westerns of the period, but it’s important to keep in mind that it virtually invented much of that iconography — and did so in the broader context of a lively and alarming thriller story infused with a real sense of dread. At times it feels more like the nearly concurrent The Lady Vanishes than an archetypal Saturday morning serial of cowboys-and-Indians action sequences. This is thanks to the airtight screenplay, and the melting-pot nature of the characters. Each of the occupants of the coach comes equipped with a complete and three-dimensional enough story to make its own movie, and more impressively yet, all of the character dynamics are so well-considered that it scarcely matters how many of these people seem to be acting out tropes.
Take the sex worker Dallas (Claire Trevor), who could easily have been positioned as a reductive figure; she’s always a vivid and in-control personality even if the script does finally suggest that her destiny is to be swept off her feet and taken home to a farm. Or the sweating, constantly panicked Berton Churchill as a shifty banker who’s pulled a Marion Carne and is already wrecking himself with guilt over it — his performance would bring sympathy regardless, but the film’s back story for him only adds to our recognition. Only Wayne’s own “Ringo kid” seems like a lazy creation, and that’s strictly because the film was built around Wayne — at this point, hardly an A-lister — and Wayne only knew his way around one role. He plays it well even if his entirely ridiculous constant placidity can’t live up to the range of the emotional rollercoasters playing out around him.
No one uses character actors like John Ford; his intimate knowledge of people is finally more important than the film’s many technical achievements. Gentlemanly John Carradine is perfect as a repellent Confederate sycophant whose prejudices and misplaced morals nearly drive him to murder — but in the film’s strongest bit of irony, his pending act of misogynistic hate is met one to one. And Thomas Mitchell, like Wayne, is the same man in nearly every film, but Ford uses him remarkably well and senses considerable depth in his wide-eyed sorrow and drunkenness. As is apparent in the haunting sequence of Lucy giving birth after she discovers her husband is injured, no one harnesses unspoken emotions quite like Ford either; the weight of both the journey and the both disparate and suddenly synchronized states of mind of these characters seem to linger in the shadows.
This is a vastly stronger appropriation of Expressionistic ideas than we saw in Ford’s The Informer a few years earlier, because it deals in the confused, grateful and terrified complexity of the heart rather than a simple point A to point B guilt and redemption. All of the actors, Wayne included, are phenomenal here, playing everything that happens (which is much more than a woman suddenly going into labor) in their eyes. There’s nothing so momentous about any of this objectively — there are scenes like this in hundreds of films — but Ford has successfully turned this rocky trek out of town into our problem, seeking out the common humanism that runs as an undercurrent below even such a conventional tale as this for him.
The depth of Stagecoach is sufficiently fascinating and pleasurable that it can be easy to overlook what even a novice in the study of American cinema knows: that Ford was a master of the action sequence. The climactic ambush here upholds as many ugly stereotypes as any of the bravura setpieces in The Birth of a Nation, but after seventy-odd years its mechanics remain so impressive that it does attain a grace separate from its story context. Of course it’s been masterfully set up thanks to the film’s devoted attention to character detail, but as Ford and his three editors whip quickly from heroes to villains to the villains among the heroes, the weight of our prior intimacy with each distinctive personality on display comes to fruition. It’s a masterful, fever-pitch payoff… and I admit I sort of wish the film didn’t roll on for twenty minutes afteward, but that makes me sound a bit like those crazies who think Vertigo should save the big reveal for the end. If anything, such a lopsided structure proves Ford’s commitment to character and story resolution sits far beyond the gratification and comfort we now associate with his chosen genre. Even the flaws in his films serve to demonstrate his mastery.