Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Stagecoach (1939)

Welcome to the Oscar Film Journal here at, where I examine a Best Picture-nominated film, either from this year or yesteryear.

Today I'm heading way back to 1939 again, to review one of the most influential of all Westerns, John Ford's early opus Stagecoach, featuring an ensemble cast that included John Wayne in his breakout performance, but also Thomas Mitchell (whom you might recognize as Uncle Billy from It's a Wonderful Life), and Andy Devine (whose voice you might recognize as Friar Tuck in Disney's animated Robin Hood), as well as John Carradine, Claire Trevor, and Louise Platt.  The film's premise is fairly simple - put a host of characters of divergent backgrounds and moral inclinations together in a confined space, and see how they all interact with each other.  It's a very familiar concept seen as recently as Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, just to name an example.  In Stagecoach you have the lawman, the driver, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the doctor (drunk for most of the film except when he has to sober up to deliver a baby), the corrupt banker (who pontificates early in the film about the virtues of deregulation as he's engaged in major embezzlement), the gambler, the soldier's pregnant wife, and the outlaw, all traveling from Arizona to New Mexico for various reasons, with the very real danger of an Apache attack looming over the entire trip.  

As expected the prostitute is ostracized early on, and only the outlaw treats her like a human being, while the dashing gambler makes it his personal mission to look after the soldier's wife, having served under her father in the Confederacy.  The lawman intends to turn the outlaw in to the authorities upon their arrival, while the outlaw toys with the idea of escaping so he can exact revenge on another outlaw for the murder of his father and brother.  We're introduced to the ensemble in quick succession, but the film breathes enough to let us form opinions of all the characters and draw our own allegiances.  Thus when the various threads play out and the inevitable Apache attack comes, we care enough about the characters to be invested.
The Apache scene itself is pretty masterfully executed and hugely influential in its own right; films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Road Warrior owe it a debt.  Ford shot and edited the scene in such a way that it's chaotic while perfectly easy to follow - this has to be considered one of the earliest great action sequences.

As for the depiction of the Native Americans, as with all Westerns of the era and beyond, sadly the filmmakers weren't enlightened enough to show the Apaches as anything more than dangerous savages, an issue that persisted well into the 1970s.

The performances are all very strong.  John Wayne had captured John Ford's attention after years as a glorified stuntman, conveying the rugged everyman quality for which he'd become famous.  Claire Trevor, the film's biggest star at the time, plays the prostitute Dallas as a woman who makes no apologies for her past and just wants a chance to start over and find love.  Thomas Mitchell is the benevolent drunk, offering nuggets of wisdom from beneath his alcoholic haze.  John Carradine, taut-faced and shifty, nonetheless shows real tenderness when dealing with Louise Platt's Mrs. Mallory.  

I found the film a bit clunky at times, made in 1939 but playing out more like an early '30s movie, with often simplistic scene blocking (though stylishly lit like a noir piece) and a grittiness unusual to most Hollywood movies by this point.  So many characters are thrown at us so quickly it's hard to keep track of them all at first, but as the film settles in we start to care about them.  Interestingly for the 1930s it's the morally ambiguous characters who prove the most sympathetic, another way in which Stagecoach was ahead of its time.  The film seems to hammer the notion that everyone deserves a second chance to make good, as well as serving as a microcosm of America as a melting pot of varied societal types all trying to work out their differences.  The Western genre would be better executed in later years, but there's no denying Stagecoach's importance as one of its prototypes.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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