Stagecoach (1939)

directed by John Ford

Plot Summary
A stagecoach travelling to the town of Lordsburgh carries a mixed array of passengers: Mrs. Mallory, an upright young wife of a cavalry officer; Hatfield, a stately Southern gambler; Peacock, a diminutive whiskey peddler; Gatewood, a corrupt banker who is making off with his depositors' money; Dr. Boone, a heavy drinker and a kindly medical practitioner; and Dallas, a prostitute with a heart of gold. Along the way they pick up the Ringo Kid, a friendly outlaw seeking revenge against the Plummer gang for the murder of his family. Mrs. Mallory is revealed to be pregnant, and Doc Boone sobers up to help deliver her child. Ringo and Dallas begin to fall in love, and he asks her to come live with him on his ranch. However, before the coach reaches Lordsburgh, it is attacked by Apache Indians; Hatfield is killed, and Peacock is injured. The cavalry show up at the last minute to save the passengers and fight off the Indians. In Lordsburgh, Ringo outduels the Plummer gang and rides off with Dallas into the Western landscape.

Commentary


John Ford’s quintessential Western is a well-crafted, entertaining journey from Tonto to Lordsburg and from disrepute to redemption. Certainly on the surface its archetypal characters and situations seem familiar, and the film seems firmly rooted within the genre conventions of the Western. Yet Stagecoach is one of the films that initiated these conventions and perhaps has lost some of its freshness only through subsequent imitation of later works; critics Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington comment that "before Stagecoach, the Western seemed to be dying; after Stagecoach, it became the one permanently popular film genre".

Although most of the character types present in this film are well known to viewers, they are nonetheless interesting because of their significant development and various interactions. The film quickly establishes who are the primary outcasts in the group and soon afterwards creates strong amity between them. The fatalistic and humorous Doc Boone joins up with the kindly prostitute Dallas when the two of them are being run out of town. She is at first distressed by this action, but he shows her not to be bothered by it and instructs her to "be a proud, glorified dreg like me." He becomes a kind of father figure to her as shown later when she asks for his approval in marrying Ringo; he characteristically responds that he cannot tell her what is right and wrong but gives his approval nevertheless. When Ringo joins the coach, Dallas is immediately drawn to him because he treats her like a lady in the absence of any preconceived notions about her. Ringo even assumes it is him that Mrs. Mallory and Hatfield are moving away from at the dinner table because of his criminal record, and he comments on the importance of one’s reputation: "I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week." Doc Boone and Ringo are linked by the doctor’s past treatment of Ringo’s now deceased brother, and Ringo seems to sum up Boone’s character in the statement, "You did a good job, Doc, even if you was drunk." Boone is continuously dipping into Peacock’s whiskey samples, but when the crisis of Mrs. Mallory’s baby arises, Boone realizes he must sober up and completes the difficult task; he even acts fearlessly in the presence of Indian attackers and the Plummer gang. In a way the film justifies the doctor’s alcoholism through his bravery and the great pressure he feels, illustrated by his seeking out the bottle after delivering the baby or standing up to Luke Plummer. In fact all of these three outcasts, Boone, Ringo, and Dallas, behave most nobly when they are called upon and wind up being the heroes of the film.

Dallas and Ringo’s relationship gradually becomes a primary focus for the film, and it takes central stage after the Indian attack is repelled. Dallas’ virtue is shown by her frequently rejected offers to help Mrs. Mallory, in spite of that woman’s hostility towards her. Dallas does provide needed help with Mallory’s baby, and as the two part, the young mother can only offer an abbreviated thank-you, suggesting the strong social differences that still exist between them. Ringo, however, has little care for these constricting social standards and begins to fall for Dallas when he sees her holding the baby. He soon afterwards admits his love to her, but the idea has already been imparted to the viewer through skillful direction and editing. Dallas and Ringo’s relationship is facilitated by the fact that they are both alone in the world and have no family to support them. Dallas realizes that this fact is unalterable and feels they should forget about the past in favor of the future, but Ringo is so intent on vengeance that he holds back ammunition during the Indian attack. Fortunately, against all odds, Ringo survives his encounter with the Plummers, accepts Dallas for who she is, and rides off into the dawn of a new day as this mythic Western comes to a close.

The supporting characters on the stagecoach are also memorably outlined although Peacock, the whiskey peddler, seems to be given short shrift, conveyed by the fact that no one can remember his name. Having several children of his own, however, he does seem sympathetic to Mrs. Mallory and the baby’s conditions, and he knows how to behave around the newborn better than the other men do. The Southern ‘gentleman’ and gambler Hatfield finds something in Mrs. Mallory that stirs his forgotten aristocratic ideals and chivalrous nature, and he capriciously decides to accompany her on the journey. Similarly, when a decision is being made on whether to continue the dangerous trip, Hatfield splits a deck of cards, comes up with an ace and decides to vote to keep going. This idea of fate determining the action reappears later when Jake Plummer gets a ‘dead man’s’ hand at poker and when one of his brothers misses from close range while shooting at a black cat crossing their path. Although Hatfield seems to have some sense of honor, it is a purely elitist notion that he will only show to Mrs. Mallory. His claim to being a gentleman is punctured by Doc’s remark that he recently took a bullet out of a man who was shot by a ‘gentleman’ in the back; later, Hatfield is shown perceptibly smiling while gunning down the Indians during the attack. The film establishes that his virtuous talk and honorable manners are only empty codes that conceal his less dignified inner nature. The banker Mr. Gatewood is an even less thinly disguised villain who hypocritically talks about what is right but is himself a criminal. With this assortment of characters, one can expect the fair amount of bickering that goes on between the passengers, and it has been suggested that they form a microcosm of American society with its contrasting interests and values. Sadly, the Native Americans in the film are outsiders to this society and exist solely to represent a dangerous threat to it. Like a war that brings the nation together, only an external attack from the Apaches brings all the stagecoach travelers together for a common cause.

The film shows a strong visual style that carves out the story through Monument valley, one of Ford’s favorite settings. The opening scenes show shadowed cavalrymen riding through an expansive landscape and under a brightly-lit sky that posits man to be a small element in relation to the surrounding nature. In the Tonto bar that Boone visits, the light pours in through a window in the background, providing an interesting chiaroscuro effect that can frequently be seen in Citizen Kane as well--Stagecoach is the film that Orson Welles watched repeatedly in order to learn about filmmaking. When the coach pulls out of Tonto, there is a memorable long shot of the vehicle passing through a gate in the foreground moving towards the rocky pillars in the background, perhaps symbolizing the bounds of protected civilization being left behind for a journey into majestic and unformed territory. The famous tracking shot into Ringo’s face is a memorable introduction to his character and suggests the star potential of John Wayne. Before the Apache attack, the film illustrates how peaceful external conditions can lead to internal dissention as scenes of the bickering passengers are alternated with the beauty and calmness of the land they are traversing. The Indian raid is also interestingly filmed, featuring incredible stunt work by Yakima Canutt and exciting shots of the stagecoach and of Indians riding directly over the camera. Another technique that was oft repeated in Citizen Kane involves not lighting an actor’s face so he takes on a more ambiguous appearance, as is done here in certain shots with Jake Plummer.

The film shows the Law and Order League that expels Boone and Dallas to be a group of hateful, self-righteous perpetrators of "social prejudice"; one of them hurries to put on her badge and joins the others in leading Dallas to the stagecoach. As discussed earlier Hatfield and Gatewood also put on airs of respectability while the truly virtuous turn out to be those initially considered ignoble. This illustrates perhaps the main theme of Stagecoach in that people’s humanity and kindness should be recognized and held in higher esteem than their social standing. The film suggests one possible solution to society’s injustices is to leave society itself behind as Dallas and Ringo do at the end of the film, and Doc Boone ironically remarks, "Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization." Stagecoach helped to successfully revive the Western by bringing thematic depth to the genre and also by imbuing this turbulent period of our nation’s history with a mythical, nostalgic resonance.

5 of 10


Please send me any comments you have about this review by clicking here.
© 1999

Back to the index of films.