For us western genre enthusiasts, it’s hard to believe that John Ford’s Stagecoach turned eighty years old on February 15, 2019. Released on that date in 1939, possibly the most historic year in film, Stagecoach became a film that would receive both critical and popular success, especially for its director and his hand-picked future star John Wayne.
While the film was categorized as an action western, a closer look reveals a far more in depth examination of film making and essentially the human spirit. Ford fundamentally created the ensemble cast and brought human vices to the forefront in this film. Comprised of nine, yes nine “leading characters” played by eight veteran noteworthy character actors and one B-list player, the story benefitted from great writing, acting and backdrop. One could argue that no prior film had ever attempted such a task.
Additionally, Ford didn’t attempt to hide man’s seedier side as the film dealt directly with crime, prostitution, gambling, alcoholism and prejudice, not to mention the basis of the story, an alleged criminal’s revenge. Despite all of the heavy burdens carried by the coach’s passengers, the film moves along casually with just enough comedic relief from the coach’s driver Bucky, played by Andy Devine, who Ford depicts as being involved in a multicultural marriage with a Mexican woman.
Along the journey, made perilous by the constant tension of impending Indian attacks, the occupants of the stagecoach learn a little bit about each other as the character studies bloom. The audience eventually learns that none of the characters, with the possible exception of the blowhard embezzling banker, played by Barton Churchill, are as nefarious as they seem. Each character rises to the occasion when needed and the truth about the fugitive Ringo Kid, played by Wayne, is realized and rewarded at the end.
There are numerous reasons why this is one of my favorite films, not only in the western genre, but in all of film. Certainly, the emergence of Wayne and Ford’s exquisite eye for filmmaking remain at the top, but the ability to wrestle with so many characters and their “baggage” in such a simple and atmospheric fashion make viewing this film incredibly easy and fulfilling. It truly is an historic artform and not just because it’s eighty years young.