Until John Ford filmed Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was in sad shape as a genre. There was a lot of galloping horses chasing other galloping horses. In one fell swoop, Ford opened up the Western. For starters, it was the first Western to take advantage of the stunning scenery of Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The Indians in the picture were real Indians—even if they were Navahos playing Chiricahua Apaches.
Although it was John Wayne’s first major release, it was by no means a John Wayne vehicle: Rather, it was an an ensemble production (see poster below) in which Claire Trevor received top billing as a prostitute driven out of the town of Tonto by the forces of morality. At roughly equial billing were Thomas Mitchell as a boozy physician; George Bancroft as a sheriff; Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver; John Carradine as the gambler Hatfield; Louise Lasser as the pregnant wife of a U.S. Cavalry officer; Berton Churchill as an obnoxious banker; and Donald Meek as a, well, meek whisky salesman.
Stagecoach is a film that is always in motion, even when the scene moves indoors. Ford plays one character off against the other. Their stage ride to Lordsburg takes them through an area where Geronimo, having broken out of the reservation, is attacking ranches and preventing the stagecoach from having a reliable Cavalry escort.
The Apache attack on the stagecoach contains some of the most outstanding (and dangerous) stunt work to appear in a Western. At one point, stuntman Yakima Canutt, dressed as an Indian, jumps on the lead horse of the coach’s team, is shot by John Wayne, and falls under the team and under the wheels of the coach, being dragged by the lead horse for several feet before letting go. The chances for such a shot to end in tragedy are almost overwhelming.
In the end, the film leaves me with the impression of all the legendary elements of the Western in a single film: Cavalry, Indians, gunfights, thieves, Mexicans, and—above all—the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley.
This is a great film; John Ford is a great (if not the greatest) film director; and, together with Samurai films, Westerns are my favorite film genre. That’s a pretty formidable combo.