13 May 2001 | MadReviewer
Dallas and The Ringo Kid -- Awesome!
`Stagecoach' isn't so much a traditional Western as it is a forefather to the modern disaster film (with Apache warriors being the `disaster'). In many ways, the film is closer in style to `The Towering Inferno' than to `True Grit', but it's undeniably a great film, one of John Wayne's best. It's a simple story, really -- eight strangers, each with their own secrets and emotional baggage, are passengers on an Arizona stagecoach going from the town of Tonto to the city of Lordsburg, despite the looming threat of imminent Apache attacks. Along the way, the stagecoach comes across the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who's just broken out of prison -- he's looking to go to Lordsburg as well, to avenge the death of his kid brother. He joins the passengers to Lordsburg, and during the journey, in one way or another, most of the passengers wind up learning something about themselves -- and wind up fighting Indians as well.
Hokey? Not really -- the story's quite good, and for the most part, the acting's wonderful. John Wayne's great as the Ringo Kid -- this actually may be one of his best Western roles. The Ringo Kid is a murderer, looking to avenge his family, but he's also a fairly principled man. The role's a lot deeper and more complex than some of Wayne's later `white hat' heroes who were always perfectly good and flawless. The Ringo Kid wants a normal life, but at the same time knows he'll probably never have one, and John Wayne pulls off this internal conflict flawlessly. Wayne also has great chemistry with the wonderful Claire Trevor, who plays Dallas, the former lady-of-the-evening -- she's also seeking to create a new life, and the uncomfortable, almost shy way she reacts to Wayne's gentle, genuinely polite comments is terrific to watch. Like the Ringo Kid -- indeed, like most of the characters in `Stagecoach' -- Dallas wants to change her life around, but doubts that she can. The other characters in `Stagecoach' are excellent as well, but it's Claire Trevor and John Wayne who really make the film enjoyable. (Side note -- while he's quite good, I was shocked to read that John Mitchell actually won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Josiah Boone in this film. His character's essentially a cross between W.C. Fields and Yoda, and while I'm not sure who else was in contention for the Best Supporting Actor award with Mr. Mitchell, I find it hard to believe that this was, in fact, the best supporting performance captured on film in the year 1939.)
John Ford's direction is excellent as well. `Stagecoach' is the first film where Mr. Ford used the breathtaking landscapes of Monument Valley, and even in black-and-white, they're still used to vivid effect. His action shots of an Apache attack and war raid are also stunning, even by today's standards. Ford also has great touch with changing moods in `Stagecoach' -- the film moves effortlessly from light comedy to tear-jerking drama, and the changes of mood never seem contrived. `Stagecoach' is clearly one of John Ford's better films.
Does `Stagecoach' have problems? Yes, but most of them are more a by-product of the customs and conventions of filmmaking in the 1930s. For example, the music is often obtrusive, and doesn't always fit with what's actually happening in a given scene. There's also not a lot of time spent exploring the character's backgrounds -- it would've been nice to know lot more about where the characters had come from (particularly Dallas), if only to help understand each character's motivations. Since this can be said about most films made during this era, it' somewhat forgivable. However, one significant flaw of `Stagecoach' itself is the character of Hatfield (John Carradine) -- while Mr. Carradine does a good job with the part, the character constantly contradicts himself. He behaves one way in one scene, then in a completely different manner in the next, and there's never a reason given for this. Add to this that Hatfield adds next to nothing in the film (his only useful purpose, apparently, is to ask Mrs. Platt (Lucy Mallory) `Are you all right?' every thirty seconds), and he becomes totally superfluous. If the part of Hatfield had been excised entirely from the script, "Stagecoach" would have been much better.
`Stagecoach' is not a typical Western (there's a lot more character introspection going on than blazing six-shooters), but it's an extremely entertaining film nonetheless. The memorable interaction between John Wayne and Claire Trevor alone makes it a near-classic. Grade: A-