Thursday, July 18, 2013

2013 Blind Spot Series: Stagecoach

Based on the short story The Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox, Stagecoach is the story of a group of strangers riding on a stagecoach through strange circumstances as they trek through the dangerous Apache territory. Directed by John Ford and screenplay by Ben Hecht and Dudley Nichols, the film is a thrilling tale involving nine people going on a journey hoping to survive in the American west as it’s considered one of the definitive films of the western genre. Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, and George Bancroft. Stagecoach is an exciting yet powerful film from John Ford.

The film revolves around a group of different people riding on a stagecoach from the small town of Tonto in the Arizona territory to Lordsburg in New Mexico as they have to trek through the dangerous territory where the Apache wreaks havoc. Yet, the film is more about the people that is riding a stagecoach that includes a prostitute, a drunken doctor, a whiskey salesman, a gambler, a banker, and the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer as they ride with two men driving the stagecoach to get through this treacherous journey. They’re later joined by a criminal known as the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) who helps them as have to endure some circumstances including the Apache led by Geronimo (Chief White Horse).

The film’s screenplay has a unique structure where the first act is about these six different passengers and two stagecoach drivers as they’re all very different while being aware about the Ringo Kid who just escaped prison and is seeking revenge against another criminal. While the passengers know about the Ringo Kid and his reputation, he’s a character that doesn’t fit the mold of what is expected in a criminal as he’s a man of honor as he tells one of the stagecoach drivers in Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) that he will go back to prison after getting his revenge. The second act is about these characters including Ringo seeking shelter at a place run by a Mexican named Chris (Chris-Pin Martin) where they have to wait for the Apache to see if they will go after them knowing they’re in Apache territory.

One of the interesting aspects of the film’s screenplay are the characters that are present in this story. Aside from Ringo, the Marshal, and the Marshal’s dim-witted but sweet stagecoach driver Buck (Andy Devine), there’s these six passengers who sort of know each other but don’t want anything to do with each other. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a prostitute who is driven out of Tonto because of a woman’s league while Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is a pregnant cavalry officer’s wife who dislikes Dallas because of what she is. There’s also a drunken doctor named Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) who is driven out of town because of his drunken behavior as he befriends the whiskey salesman Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek) who is part of stagecoach trip. There’s also this Southern gambler named Hatfield (John Carradine) who served in the Confederate army as he knows Mallory while the banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is a man that just embezzled $50,000.

While they’re aware of what they have to do to reach their destination, not everyone is on board as it plays into the desperation of the characters until they stop at this shelter where nearly everyone bands together to not only help the pregnant Lucy but also hide from a possible attack from the Apache. It is in these moments that everyone forgets their differences and work together where Ringo makes an offer to Dallas about a life that she could have. While the third act involves a climatic chase scene involving the stagecoach and the Apache, it also plays into the sense of honor that Ringo has towards the people’s he’s with and what he needs to do once he reaches Lordsburg.

The direction of John Ford is truly sensational in not just the sense of intimacy he creates in the drama but allowing to balance it with something that is sprawling and vast in some of the location settings he provides for the scenes in the stagecoach. Shot in the Arizona-Utah border as well as parts of Monument Valley that would become a playground for Ford for many years. The film has this look that is very broad where Ford can create something that is sweeping and epic though it’s only presented in the Academy full-frame theatrical aspect ratio as the widescreen format wasn’t invented at the time.

While Ford is able to maintain something that is thrilling and vast in many of the scenes with the stagecoach including some stylized hand-held shots, tracking shots, and other stylized camera work to play up that intensity. Ford also knows when to slow things down so that he can get the chance for the audience to get to know the characters and how they have to survive the sense of impending danger. One of the interesting aspects of Ford’s direction is where he puts the actors in a frame such as a scene where the passengers sit on a table to eat lunch where it plays to the sense of tension between the characters. It’s a very simple yet poignant scene to establish these differences until later in the film where everyone bands together as Ford uses some wide and medium shots along with some close-ups to help intensify the drama.

The film’s chase scene involving this band of Apache warriors led by Geronimo is certainly one of the most thrilling moments of the film. It is followed by a sequence where Ringo learns what Dallas really does as well as the fact that he’s going to embark on a showdown. The suspense does build up very slow where Ford knows what he needs to show and what he doesn’t need. Notably as it shows what kind of man Ringo is as someone who is a man who always gives his word as even someone like the marshal knows that he’s someone that does good. Overall, Ford creates a very sensational film about a band of people working together to survive against danger.

Cinematographer Bert Glennon does excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to play up the sense of beauty for many of the exterior scenes including some of the shots in Monument Valley along with low-key lights in some of the film‘s interior scenes. Editors Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer do brilliant work with the editing with its tight yet rhythmic approach to cutting in the film‘s action scenes while being very straightforward with its approach to drama and suspense. Art director Alexander Tubuloff does superb work with the set pieces from the look of the stagecoach and shelters to the look of the towns the characters go to.

The costumes of Walter Plunkett is terrific for the look of the different clothes the men wear as well as the dresses the women wear. The sound work of Frank Maher is fantastic for the atmosphere it creates including the sound of coyotes and gunfire in the desert. The film’s fantastic music consists of many traditional pieces adapted by Gerard Carbonara that includes some sweeping orchestral scores and some more mid-tempo country-folk pieces.

The film’s cast is truly remarkable for the ensemble that is created that includes appearances from Chris-Pin Martin as the Mexican shelter owner, Chief White Horse as Geronimo, Tim Holt as a cavalry lieutenant who accompanies the stagecoach in the film’s first act, and Tom Tyler as the criminal Ringo is going after upon his arrival to Lordsburg. Berton Churchill is very good as the very suspicious and cowardly banker Gatewood while Donald Meek is terrific as the kind whiskey salesman Mr. Peacock. Andy Devine is very funny as the sweet-natured stagecoach driver Buck while George Bancroft is superb as Marshal Curly Wilcox who leads the stagecoach while being wary of the Ringo Kid. Thomas Mitchell is brilliant as Doc Boone as a drunk doctor who might seem incompetent but turns out to be a complete professional.

Louise Platt is wonderful as Lucy Mallory as a woman who is uncomfortable with Dallas’ presence until she realizes how much she needs her help as they become friends while being intrigued by Hatfield. John Carradine is excellent as Hatfield as a gambler who is fascinated by Mallory while helping out Ringo and the marshal handle the Apache as he becomes Lucy’s protector. Claire Trevor is amazing as Dallas as a woman who has to find a new home as she deals with what she has to face as well as the offer that Ringo has as it’s a very complex yet engaging performance from the actress. Finally, there’s John Wayne in a truly spectacular performance as the Ringo Kid from the way he’s introduced from that zoom shot to the way he handles things. It’s definitely a performance where Wayne gets to prove himself to be the badass as well as the everyman that audiences can identify with as it’s certainly a performance for the ages.

Stagecoach is an outstanding film from John Ford that features a magnificent performance from John Wayne. Along with a great supporting cast and amazing technical work, it’s a film that definitely has many elements into why the western is such a beloved genre. It’s also a film that is very entertaining as well as engaging about the way people work together and put their differences aside with help from a criminal who has a sense of honor. In the end, Stagecoach is a phenomenal film from John Ford.

© thevoid99 2013


John Gilpatrick said...

One of my all-time favorite movies. I watched this for a film class in college and wrote a couple papers on it, actually. Had to watch it a lot that semester, and I never got sick of it.

thevoid99 said...

I had a hell of a time watching this film. That intro of John Wayne is really a moment in cinema that will be there for eternity. It's a great fucking film. I hope to do more John Ford westerns soon.