Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach (1939) movie poster

director John Ford
viewed: 03/29/2013

John Ford’s first “talkie” Western, Stagecoach, was also the launchpad of “the John Wayne” that had been toiling in movies for over a decade. Seen as a watershed in both Ford’s and Wayne’s careers, it has long been considered a significant and important film.  And it’s also pretty damn great.

This was only the second Western that I’ve watched with the kids.  A year or so ago we watched The Magnificent Seven (1960), but for all of our movie-watching we hadn’t really delved into the Western.  Maybe this is part of a watershed for us of sorts, venturing into a more full spectrum of movies.

Stagecoach is the story of a group of characters who have boarded the titular conveyance, crammed together and then beset by warring Apaches, most notably Geronimo.  There is the aristocratic lady who is heading to be with her cavalry officer husband, the once aristocratic gambler, the meek traveling whiskey salesman, the drunken doctor, the prostitute, the sheriff, driver, thief banker, and then there is Wayne’s Ringo, a strapping young man escaped from prison out to avenge the murders of his father and brother.  Everyone has their own story, some more explicitly than others, but it’s also a study of class, prejudice, and redemption.

I had to explain to the kids what a prostitute is and why the people of Tonto, AZ decided to chase her and the drunken physician from town.  And then I went on to explain that the film was critiquing that behavior, showing that its sympathies sided with the outcasts.  So, not only do I have to talk about sex and commerce, but I tap into the basics of film analysis.  We certainly talk about the movies we watch, but it’s possibly the first time I found myself describing the narrative with those specific “tools” in mind.

Interestingly for me, this Criterion Collection edition of Stagecoach featured a commentary track by a former professor of mine from grad school, “Big” Jim Kitses (the “Big” was added by a colleague of mine and is not a commonality, I believe, in referring to the man.)  But it did take me back a bit to hear his loping, erudite old-school film professor voice booming from my television.  It impressed the kids a little, but probably just a little, to hear that I had worked/studied with him.  They tolerated only about 10-15 minutes of commentary.

It’s truly an excellent film, probably one of the most satisfying I’ve seen all year so far.  I’ve read that Orson Welles has said that he watched Stagecoach 40 times prior to making Citizen Kane (1941), as a tutelage in the art of cinema.  True or not, it would actually do quite well to operate as such a guide.  The narrative deftly weaves the stories of the many characters, the pacing and cinematography are prime, the Monument Valley landscapes definitive, and that dolly shot that introduces us to the Ringo Kid, Mr. John Wayne is straight-up cinematic iconography.

The kids both enjoyed it quite well.  I loved it.  And I can certainly proclaim: more to come!

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