A device known as a "Running W" was used on the Indians' horses during the sequence where they are chasing the stagecoach. Strong, thin wires are fixed to a metal post, then the other end of the wires are attached to an iron clamp that encircles the legs of a horse, and the post is anchored into the ground. The horse is then ridden at full gallop, and when the wire's maximum length is reached--just when the rider is "shot"--the animal's legs are jerked out from underneath it, causing it to tumble violently and throw the "shot" rider off. The trouble was that the rider knew when the horse was going to fall but the horse didn't, resulting in many horses either being killed outright or having to be destroyed because of broken limbs incurred during the falls. The use of the "Running W" was eventually discontinued after many complaints from both inside and outside the film industry.
The hat that John Wayne wears is his own. He would wear it in many westerns during the next two decades before retiring it after Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), because it was simply "falling apart." After that, the hat was displayed under glass in his home.
Asked why, in the climactic chase scene, the Indians didn't simply shoot the horses to stop the stagecoach, director John Ford replied, "Because that would have been the end of the movie." In addition, Apaches would have stolen the stagecoach horses because, in their culture, horses were valuable in calculating a warrior's worth.
In 1939 there was no paved road through Monument Valley, hence the reason why it hadn't been used as a movie location before (it wasn't paved until the 1950s). Harry Goulding, who ran a trading post there, had heard that John Ford was planning a big-budget Western so he traveled to Hollywood, armed with over 100 photographs, and threatened to camp out on Ford's doorstep until the director saw him. Ford saw him almost immediately and was instantly sold on the location, particularly when he realized that its remoteness would free him from studio interference.
The interior sets all have ceilings, an unusual practice at the time for studio filming. This was to create a claustrophobic effect in complete counterpoint to the wide open expanse of Monument Valley.
When the film was being cast, John Ford lobbied hard for John Wayne but producer Walter Wanger kept saying no. It was only after constant persistence on Ford's part that Wanger finally gave in. Wanger's reservations were based on Wayne's string of B-movies, in which he came across as being a less than competent actor, and the box office failure of Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930), Wayne's first serious starring role.
It's believed by many that the famous line "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," widely attributed to a John Wayne Western character, is spoken by Wayne in this film. It isn't. His character, The Ringo Kid, instead says "There are some things a man just can't run away from," when asked why he intends to stay and avenge his family's murders rather than try to escape to Mexico.
John Ford gave John Wayne the script, asking him for any suggestions as to who could play the Ringo Kid. Wayne suggested Lloyd Nolan, not realizing that Ford was baiting him with the part. Once filming began, however, Ford was merciless to Wayne, constantly undermining him. This psychological tactic was designed to make Wayne start feeling some real emotions, and not to be intimidated by acting alongside the likes of such seasoned professionals as Thomas Mitchell.
Near the end of the movie, Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) has a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights. This is the notorious "dead man's hand" supposed to have been held by Wild Bill Hickok before he was killed.
John Ford successfully sought to use "Stagecoach" to make John Wayne a big movie star. The early scene where Ringo stops the stagecoach for a ride and twirls his Winchester rifle while the camera zooms in on his face is the exclamation mark on that effort.
John Ford liked to bully actors on the set, and this was no exception. At one point he said to Andy Devine, "You big tub of lard. I don't know why the hell I'm using you in this picture." Undaunted, Devine replied, "Because Ward Bond can't drive six horses." Likewise he attacked Thomas Mitchell, who eventually retorted, "Just remember: I saw Mary of Scotland (1936)," effectively humbling the director. Worst of all was Ford's treatment of John Wayne. He called him a "big oaf" and a "dumb bastard" and continually criticized his line delivery and manner of walking, even how he washed his face on camera. However, at least part of this was to provoke the actor into giving a stronger performance; Claire Trevor recalls how Ford grabbed Duke by the chin and shook him. "Why are you moving your mouth so much?" he said. "Don't you know you don't act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes." Wayne tolerated the rough treatment and rose to the challenge, reaching a new plateau as an actor. Ford helped cement the impression that Wayne makes in the film by giving him plenty of expressive reaction shots throughout the picture.
Yakima Canutt explained how the stunt where he gets dragged behind the horses was accomplished - "You have to run the horses fast, so they'll run straight. If they run slow, they move around a lot. When you turn loose to go under the coach, you've got to bring your arms over your chest and stomach. You've got to hold your elbows close to your body, or that front axle will knock them off." After the stunt was completed, Canutt ran to Ford to make sure they got the stunt on film. Ford replied than even if they hadn't, "I'll never shoot that again."
Louise Platt, in a letter recounting the experience of the film's production, quoted John Ford on saying of John Wayne's future in film: "He'll be the biggest star ever because he is the perfect 'everyman'".
The six-sheet poster declares, "A Powerful Story of 9 Strange People!" and features head shots of the coach's nine passengers but mistakenly substitutes director John Ford's brother Francis Ford and omits Berton Churchill.
The Breen Office, the censorship watchdog in Hollywood, rejected Dudley Nichols treatment because of the story's sympathetic portrayal of the prostitute Dallas, Doc Boone's constant drunkenness, the Ringo Kid's thirst for revenge and the marshal's involvement in some deaths. Nichols' first draft script took the Breen Office suggestions to heart and the production went ahead without further objections from the censors.
John Ford employed scores of local Indians to play Apache warriors and the various Indian tribes of many of his other Westerns. More than 200 were hired to film the climactic attack on the stagecoach alone. For his commitment to providing them with much needed work (paying them on a union scale no less), the Navajos called Ford "Natani Nez," which means "tall leader."
In 1938, John Ford gave John Wayne a copy of the script by Ted Nichols with a request to recommend an actor to play the Ringo Kid. After reading it, Wayne suggested Lloyd Nolan for the part, but Ford was non-committal to the idea. The next day however, Ford announced to Wayne that he wanted him to play the role. The offer left Wayne feeling as if he had been "hit in the belly with a baseball bat" ... and fearing that Ford would change his mind and hire Nolan instead.
John Ford spent $2,500 for the rights to the Ernest Haycox story on which the film was based. In 1937, after co-writing a script with Dudley Nichols, Ford tried unsuccessfully to interest 'Darryl Zanuck' (QV) at Twentieth Century-Fox. Other studios approached were MGM, Paramount, Columbia and Warner Bros.