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A simple stagecoach trip is complicated by the fact that Geronimo is on the warpath in the area. The passengers on the coach include a a drunken doctor, two women, a bank manager who has taken off with his client's money, and the famous Ringo Kid, among others. Written by
Andrew Hyatt <email@example.com>
In the beginning sequence when the stage is coming into town you can see that the buildings are stage facades as the camera shot is at an angle and it is clear there is no structure behind the false front. See more »
These hills here are full of Apaches. They've burnt every ranch building in sight.
[referring to Indian scout]
He had a brush with them last night. Says they're being stirred up by Geronimo.
Geronimo? How do we know he isn't lying?
No, he's a Cheyenne. They hate Apaches worse than we do.
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One of my favorite movie shots of all time comes in Stagecoach when the coach rounds a bend and you see a figure in the distance and has the camera zooms in closer you recognize it as John Wayne, saddle in one hand and winchester rifle in the other.
Certainly the figure of John Wayne is familiar enough even to today's moviegoers as the man who put more people in theater seats than any other player. But back then in 1939 all he was known as was B picture cowboy who was a friend of John Ford, whom Ford happened to be giving a break to. He sure took advantage of it.
Wayne heads an ensemble group of players who are journeying from Tonto to Lordsburg by stagecoach. It is a dramatization of the western novel by Ernest Haycox and John Ford brilliantly cast his film.
Anyone of them could have been Oscar material, but one player did win an Oscar, Thomas Mitchell as the alcoholic Doc Boone. 1939 was maybe the highpoint of Mitchell's career. Imagine being in three films nominated for Oscars, Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He could have been nominated for any one of them.
On top of the coach is driver Andy Devine and riding shotgun is Marshal George Bancroft. Devine is a befuddled dunce and a lot of reviewers usually pass him over in talking about the film. To be sure he is, but there is a scene where the stagecoach has to cross a deep stream. A pontoon like device is rigged, but it's professional teamster Andy Devine who drives the stage across with his team swimming it. He may be a dunce, but he's a professional at his job. I think it was Andy's moment to shine.
Bancroft is a stern but kindly marshal. He and Mitchell are friends of Wayne who plays the Ringo Kid. Wayne's busted out the penitentiary to get the Plummer brothers who framed him. There's a reward for Wayne, but Marshal Bancroft ain't worried about the reward, he's concerned about Wayne getting killed, biting off more than he can chew.
However Mitchell spends most of the journey cultivating mild mannered Donald Meek who's a whiskey salesman. A useful friend to have you like to imbibe. If ever a character actor was aptly named it certainly had to be Donald Meek.
In 1939 you couldn't say that Claire Trevor was playing a prostitute named Dallas. But it's surely hinted at often enough. Claire Trevor was Hollywood's greatest portrayer of girls with easy virtue and a heart of gold which she has here. She got her Oscar in Key Largo again playing just such a role. The difference is she loves good guy John Wayne instead bad guy Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo.
And to add to the mix we have an embezzling banker on the journey played by Berton Churchill who played many a sanctimonious hypocrite in his career. He gets news that the telegraph is down because of the Apaches on the warpath and in an act of impulse fills a satchel full of the bank's money and grabs the stagecoach at the last minute. He's also trying to escape a hatchet faced harridan of a wife. Nevertheless he's the least sympathetic and most useless character on the journey.
A few months ago I saw and reviewed the film Carrie which was based on a Theodore Dreiser novel. The lead character in that, George Hurstwood is also an embezzler of his employer's money as he runs away to New York to get away from his harridan of a wife. But Hurstwood, same crime for the same reasons, is a sympathetic figure. Not our friend banker Gatewood as Churchill portrays him here. It some times depends on the writer's point of view.
The last two passengers are John Carradine a mysterious gambler of Southern origins and the pregnant wife of an Army Captain played by stage actress Louise Platt. He also boards the stage at the last minute as he's crushing out big time over her. He becomes her protector during the journey.
Of course Stagecoach is the first film that John Ford shot in Monument Valley and the long shots of the valley with the lonely stagecoach driving on to Lordsburg are breathtaking.
And there's the Indian attack. The question is often asked why didn't the Indians just shoot the horses. The real answer is you wouldn't want to cut short abruptly one of the most spectacular chase scenes in film history. And then of course maybe the Indians wanted the live horses.
Ford uses for the first time a spectacular gambit during the Indian attack. I won't say more, but think about the fact that he repeated the same shot in Fort Apache with the Indians chasing John Agar and the repair party there.
What I like most about Stagecoach altogether is that it sticks to the first rule of movies, it moves. Even in the scenes of dialog inside the coach you get the feeling of movement. Nothing static about it, and the story could never be adequately done on a stage.
It's what movie making is all about.
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