With the most famous rifle twirl in the history of American cinema, John Wayne was on his way to becoming one of the biggest movie stars and pop culture figures of the 20th century, yet he isn't even the star of his own breakthrough film.
John Ford's "Stagecoach" (1939) is not just one of the greatest and most influential Westerns ever made, it's also a template for the ensemble film. Dudley Nichols' screenplay, adapted from a short story by Ernest Haycox, is a study in white space efficiency, and Ford packs each shot with as much information as possible. In just a handful of shots, the main characters are not only introduced with verve but their relationships are instantly mapped out. "Saloon girl" Dallas (Claire Trevor) is literally marched out of town by the Women's Temperance League and runs into her ally, the perma-soused Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), also hounded out of his business by a landlady who looks like she was late for the Temperance meeting. The minute Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) steps out of the stagecoach we know both that she's a "real lady" and that her fate will be intertwined with that of the shady gambler Hatfield (a gaunt John Carradine) who lurks in the background of all of Lucy's earliest shots. And we've already met the chatterbox stagecoach driver Buck (the wheezy voiced Andy Devine) who has a lot to say and nobody to say it to. Add in the wispy whisky drummer Peacock (the appropriately named Donald Meek), the scheming banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) and lawman Curley (George Bancroft) and there's only one missing piece left: The Ringo Kid AKA The Duke AKA John Wayne AKA Marion Morrison.
He's not difficult to spot. The Ringo Kid, recently escaped from prison and gunning for the low down dirty nogoods who killed his brother, isn't trying to hide. And why would he want to? With that unforgettable rifle twirl and a soft focus dolly in to a star-making close-up, John Wayne gets the Hollywood introduction of a lifetime.
Yet this is not the swollen-ego Duke who would eventually need to be preceded by the bellowing strands of "Chisum! John Chisum!" whenever cohorts of angels weren't available to herald his entrance. Ruggedly handsome at age 32, he still looks a bit too pretty with his tidy little neckerchief. In fact, the soft-spoken Ringo is just the sensitive sort of fellow the Duke would normally lay out flat. He takes forever to get around to killing anyone and focuses most of his energy on trying to get hitched to Dallas. Not only does The Duke want to settle down, he even agrees with Dallas' plan to ride off and forget about the whole revenge thing, a pretty revolutionary idea for a Western then or from any other era. Of course he soon comes to his senses. Think he wasn't going to take out those nogoods? Like hell he wasn't!
The cast is marvelous across the board, inhabiting their roughly sketched stereotypes (hooker with a heart of gold, drunken doctor, devoted wife, villainous gambler) with a vitality that makes them more memorable than their hundreds of genre counterparts. Trevor, the most bankable name at the time (she was paid more than twice as much as Wayne), stands out as the film's moral center and nominal main protagonist. Perhaps it's a cliché to cast the "fallen woman" as the noblest character, but Ford doesn't stack the deck against his snooty upper-crust types. Lucy may be a judgmental prig, but she's also a victim of her upbringing while Hatfield, cad that he may be, has his own peculiar, if outdated, code of honor. The Apaches don't get the same even-handed treatment, however. The film has many virtues, but a nuanced depiction of Native Americans is not among them.
"Stagecoach" was praised upon its release and its reputation has only grown in the seven decades since. It is sometimes referred to as the first modern Western or the first mature Western, but both labels are probably an oversimplification. It is certainly an anomaly though, a classically mounted film that freely violates the classical rules of editing whenever it's convenient. It almost completely elides the climactic gunfight without leaving the audience feeling cheated in the least. As has been related thousands of times, Orson Welles considered "Stagecoach" to be a film course unto itself, and reportedly ran it on an almost-daily basis while shooting "Citizen Kane." There's no doubt the low angles of Ford's film, lensed by Bert Glennon, were a major influence on Welles and Gregg Toland.
"Stagecoach" is also famous for introducing a second star to the Western genre, Monument Valley. Other films had been shot there, but Ford transforms the landscape into a prominent character in its own right, making this miracle of nature on the Arizona/Utah border not into just a Western setting but into The West as far as American cinema was concerned.
Though "Stagecoach" has long since secured its place in film history, it's the sort of "straight up" Western that sometimes gets short shrift compared to edgier revisionist fare like the films of Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah. But Ford's masterpiece, still fresh and energizing, stands up to any other film in the genre and to just about any other movie as well.
The film is presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The image is pictureboxed.
The original negative of "Stagecoach" has apparently been lost to the ages (or at least until its inevitable discovery in a Scandinavian wine cellar) and the various available prints are fraught with problems. According to Criterion: "We evaluated several of the best surviving prints, both restored and original, before we found a 1942 nitrate duplicate negative that showed exceptional detail, gray scale, and clarity… Inevitably, certain defects remain. The picture suffered from thousands of blended-in scratches and debris, especially around reel changes and in action sequences. In cases where the damage was not fixable without leaving traces of our restoration work, we elected to leave the original damage."
The latter point is a key for any archival restoration. When you reach the point at which the buffing and polishing would destroy the original information, you have to step back. As a result, "Stagecoach" has its rough parts with several scenes where it looks well-worn and others in which vertical scratches are more prominent. The biggest upside to the restoration (and the choice of source print) is the rich gray scale which shows a remarkable range of contrast.
Compared to the 2005 Special Edition release by Warner Brothers (included in the John Wayne/John Ford Collection), the gray scale contrast is the most noticeable improvement. The Criterion image is also richer in detail in general with a slightly darker, more robust look, evidence of the wisdom of the decision not to "over"restore the image. Between the two, the Criterion is, as you would expect, a significant improvement.
Criterion has also released "Stagecoach" on Blu-Ray with the usual improvements.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. There is less damage to the audio than to the image and the Mono restoration is generally strong. There are a few hisses and cracks from time to time, but they are too few to complain about. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion has held nothing back with this bonanza.
Disc One features a commentary track by scholar Jim Kitses, author of the excellent book "Horizons West." Kitses sounds a bit stiff at times and drops into lecture mode on several occasions, but the level of detail his analysis offers is quite impressive. He's not as smooth as some commentary track veterans, but I was interested enough to listen to his entire commentary, and that's a rarity. Disc One also includes a Theatrical Trailer.
Disc Two. Where to start?
"Bucking Broadway" (54 min.) is a 1917 silent film starring Ford favorite Harry Carey Sr. as a lovesick cowboy who heads to the city to win back his sweetheart. Why he want to win back a woman who, just after agreeing to his proposal, left him because a city slicker smiled at her, I have no idea but he's a simple kind of fellow. It's not exactly one of Ford's finest, but it's great to have one of his lesser-seen silent films available. It is accompanied with a new score by Donald Sosin.
An interview (72 min.) with John Ford, conducted in 1968 by British journalist Philip Jenkinson, finds the 74 year old director at the height of his cranky old bastarddom, reluctant to answer many of Jenkinson's questions and somewhat reticent about discussing his contributions to the Western. It's a fascinating interview that covers a wide range of topics and makes for a great extra.
Tag Gallagher's visual essays are quickly becoming a staple for Criterion but it is readily apparent that they have a major shortcoming. They're just too damned short. "Dreaming of Jeannie" (22 min.) is one of Gallagher's best efforts and leaves the viewer desperate for more. My recommendation: Write in to Criterion and request that they put together a feature-length Tag Gallagher essay. I'd watch it.
"True West" (11 min.) is an interview with author Buzz Bissinger ("Friday Night Lights") and discusses the "key role that 1920s trading post operator Harry Goulding played in bringing Monument Valley to the attention" of John Ford and his team. Goulding had already established a trusted relationship with the Navajo of the Monument Valley area and helped Ford establish a beachhead there.
One of the niftier features is a short one (10 min.) about Yakima Canutt, the legendary stuntman who performed on "Stagecoach." I'm sorry to break the news to you, but that's not really The Duke scrambling his way along a team of runaway horses. Canutt is a venerated figure among stuntpersons today and stuntman Vic Armstrong (best known for his work on "Raiders of the Lost Ark") pays tribute to him.
The disc also includes an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, a January 9, 1949 radio broadcast of "Stagecoach" (with Trevor and Wayne reprising their roles) and a short collection of John Ford movies (7 min.) discussed by the director's grandson Dan Ford. Most of the home movies show Ford and his famous friends on his houseboat.
The insert booklet features an essay by writer/filmmaker David Cairns and the original Ernest Haycox short story "Stage to Lordsburg" from which the film was adapted.
This is one of Criterion's everything and the kitchen sink releases, featuring the best available transfer of the film and a passel of extras that should satisfy just about anyone. Great film, great release. A must-own.
Criterion has also released "Stagecoach" on Blu-Ray As usual the Blu-Ray is superior in quality and is offered at the same price point. SD viewers will be perfectly thrilled, but the Blu-Ray is obviously the way to go.