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.
John Ford declined to use John Wayne in any of his 1930s films, despite their close friendship, telling Wayne to wait until he was "ready" as an actor. Ford successfully sought to use this film to make 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.
The original negatives of Stagecoach were either lost or destroyed. John Wayne had one positive print that had never been through a projector gate. In 1970, he permitted it to be used to produce a new negative, and that is the film seen today at film festivals. UCLA fully restored the film in 1996 from surviving elements and premiered it on cable's American Movie Classics network. The previous DVD releases by Warner Home Video did not contain the restored print, but rather a video print held in the Castle Hill/Caidin Trust library.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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.
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.
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."
Louise Platt, who played the very proper Mrs. Lucy Mallory, wasn't quite so prim off-camera. Observing John Wayne on the set one day, Platt turned to Claire Trevor and said, "I think he has the most beautiful buttocks I have ever seen."
In 1938, John Ford invited John Wayne on a weekend boat trip to read a copy of the script by Ted Nichols with a request to recommend an actor to play the Ringo Kid. Ford said, "I'm having a hell of a time deciding whom to cast as the Ringo Kid. You know a lot of young actors, Duke. See what you think." Wayne suggested Lloyd Nolan for the part, but Ford was non-committal to the idea. "Nolan?" Ford asked incredulously. "Jesus Christ, I just wish to hell I could find some young actor in this town who can ride a horse and act." The next day, as the boat pulled into the harbour, Ford declared, "I have made up my mind. I want you to play the Ringo Kid." 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.
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'".
Modern sources have frequently indicated that the film raised the status of Westerns from the "B" to "A" level as well. However, according to contemporary sources, Stagecoach was one of several Westerns made between late 1938 and early 1939 that were produced on large budgets including, Union Pacific (1939), Jesse James (1939), Dodge City (1939) and Stand Up and Fight (1939).
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.
One scene, which required the stagecoach full of passengers to be floated across a river, was deemed impossible by technicians to pull off and John Ford considered removing it from the script altogether. Yakima Canutt, however, suggested using hollow logs tied to the coach; the air would give them increased buoyancy, offsetting the weight of the fully loaded coach. In addition, an underwater cable was used to help pull the stagecoach. Canutt's plan worked, and the scene was retained for the film.
The members of the production crew were billeted in Kayenta, in Northeastern Arizona, in an old CCC camp. Conditions were spartan, production hours long, and weather conditions at this 5700 foot elevation were extreme with constant strong winds and low temperatures. Nonetheless, John Ford was satisfied with the crew's location work.
This was one of two dozen Walter Wanger films re-released theatrically in the 1940s by Masterpiece Productions, and ultimately sold by them for USA television syndication in 1950. It was first telecast in New York City on WCBS Saturday 5 August 1950.
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 F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. Other studios approached were MGM, Paramount, Columbia and Warner Bros.
A biography of John Ford notes that he spent $2,500 for the rights to the story on which the film was based, and further notes that in 1937, after co-writing a script with Dudley Nichols, Ford tried unsuccessfully to interest Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. Other studios approached, according to the biography, were MGM, Paramount, Columbia and Warner Bros.
In "Frontier Marshal," also released in 1939, John Carradine plays a disreputable character named Carter, who is opening a "pleasure palace" in Tombstone because he was driven out of Lordsburg. "Stagecoach" is based on the Ernest Haycox story, "Stage to Lordsburg."