Stagecoach (1939) was director John Ford's first Western since Three Bad Men (1926). Although Ford had earned a reputation as a significant director with films such as The Iron Horse (1924), his early sound films were less successful. By the mid-30s, he had recovered lost ground, winning an Oscar for his direction of The Informer (1935) and becoming one of the most respected and highly paid directors in Hollywood. The source material for the screenplay was a short story by Ernest Haycox entitled "Stage to Lordsburg," published in the April 1937 issue of Collier magazine. As Ford acknowledged, the basic outline of the story resembles the classic Guy de Maupassant short story "Boule de suif." Ford bought the rights to the story for $7500 and his longtime collaborator Dudley Nichols wrote the adaptation. Unable to find support for the project at studios like Fox, MGM and Warner Brothers, Ford finally attracted interest from Selznick International Pictures. The head of production there, Merian C. Cooper, was Ford's old friend and drinking buddy. Although David O. Selznick expressed initial interest in the project, he wavered back and forth and attached various conditions to it, including a demand for big name stars such as Gary Cooper or Marlene Dietrich. Finally, independent producer Walter Wanger took up the project, giving it a relatively low budget of approximately $500,000. Ford agreed to work for $50,000, less than his usual director's fee. Dudley Nichols and the film's cast also agreed to accept reduced salaries.
From the moment we are introduced to John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, with the camera tracking in to an imposing close-up, we know we are in the presence of a major star. Although he had shown some early promise as an actor, Wayne's potential was being squandered in a series of forgettable B-Westerns for Republic Studios. Ford invited Wayne, who was already a good friend, on a weekend boat trip to read the screenplay. "I'm having a hell of a time deciding whom to cast as the Ringo Kid," he said. "You know a lot of young actors, Duke. See what you think." Wayne suggested Lloyd Nolan. "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 harbor, Ford declared, "I have made up my mind. I want you to play the Ringo Kid." It was likely that Ford had Wayne in mind for the role from the beginning. However, he had to work hard to convince Wanger to cast the star of mediocre B-Westerns in the part; and Republic Studios, to which Wayne was still under contract, proved to be a difficult negotiator.
Ford liked to bully actors on the set, and Stagecoach was no exception. At one point he said to Andy Devine, the husky-voiced character actor who plays the coach driver: "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," effectively humbling the director. Worst of all was Ford's treatment of the Duke. 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.
Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt also deserves to be noted for his contributions to the picture. 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. 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. But it is for Canutt's magnificent (and dangerous) stunts on this film that he is remembered today. In the most striking of these, he plays an Indian who rides alongside the coach at full speed - approximately forty miles per hour - and transfers from the horse he is riding to a horse on the team. After he is shot by Wayne, he falls between the two lead horses and hangs from the rig before letting go and allowing the horses and the stagecoach to pass over him. The stunt, which was broken up into two segments for the shoot, required precise timing and movements since any miscalculations or slips on Canutt's part could have been deadly. Steven Spielberg made an homage to this scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) when Indiana Jones slides down the hood of a moving car, passes underneath it and is dragged behind.
Although it was not the first film to use Monument Valley as a location, Stagecoach did much to popularize it. Part of the vast Navajo reservation near the Utah/Arizona border, the desolate landscape with its striking sandstone buttes and mesas, lends a mythic quality to the film, dwarfing the vulnerable stagecoach party in the presence of eternal and impersonal Nature. It came to embody the very idea of the West for John Ford, who used Monument Valley in many of his later films. At the time the film was made, the region was still sparsely populated and not readily accessible, making work difficult for the film crew. Yet as prominent as it appears in the film, the location was in fact used surprisingly little. The Apache raid was shot on the Muroc dry lake bed near Victorville, California, and the river crossing took place on the Kern River near Kernville, California, to name only a couple of other locations that were used. The interior scenes of the coach were all shot in a studio, and the town sequences were shot on Hollywood backlots. Moreover, to focus solely on the admittedly stunning outdoor landscapes is to lose sight of the film's stylistic richness as a whole: the beautifully lit nighttime scene in Lordsburg, with graceful tracking shots following Dallas and the Ringo Kid on their stroll through the town; and the taut editing of the conversations inside the stagecoach, with their perfectly timed reaction shots. Orson Welles later claimed to have watched the film dozens of times before directing his own masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941).
Stagecoach received seven Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Art Direction and Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell). Even in the face of the Gone With the Wind juggernaut at that year's Academy Awards ceremony, it won two awards - for Thomas Mitchell's performance as Dr. Josiah Boone and for the score, a deft combination of folk tunes, including the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River," which seems to have been used in every subsequent Ford Western and is darkly parodied in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969).
Director: John Ford
Producer: Walter Wanger
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, based on Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Editing: Dorothy Spencer and Walter Reynolds
Music: Louis Gruenberg, Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Principal cast: John Wayne (The Ringo Kid), Claire Trevor (Dallas), John Carradine (Hatfield), Thomas Mitchell (Dr. Josiah Boone), Andy Devine (Buck Rickabaugh), Donald Meek (Mr. Samuel Peakock), Louise Platt (Lucy Mallory), George Bancroft (Sheriff Curly Wilcox), Berton Churchill (Henry Gatewood), Tim Holt (Lt. Blanchard).
by James Steffen