December 27, 2006
Various Western characters board a stagecoach in danger from an Indian war party.
John Wayne shows compassion as the Ringo Kid, a guy who is headed for jail, but not before he helps keep the big bad indians at bay from the roof of the stagecoach. Exciting and remarkable to think that it’s nearly 70 years old. The high-speed chase is amazing, the horse stunts are terrific, and there’s a camera angle when the stage must cross a river that’s very forward thinking.
Some of the acting is melodramatic, Director John Ford keeps the camera on people’s reactions a bit too long. We aren’t really sure what people’s motivations are while they ride. We get to know them little by little.
The entire story revolves around people needing to get from one place to another all the while worried about Geronimo. Funny driver, by-the-book sheriff, hooker, drunk doctor, high-class woman with a secret, uppity banker, whiskey salesman, gambler, and John Wayne who uses his height and frame to seem tougher and at the same time more of a softie.
John Ford is already in love with shadows and light coming from doorways, which he used to such great effect in THE SEARCHERS. He also uses low ceilings and low camera angles to make characters seem more menacing and off-kilter.
At the end of the film, before the shootout, a poker playing guy lays down two black Aces and two black 8′s which has come to be known as “dead man’s hand” as Wild Bill Hickock was said to be holding it while he was shot in the back in Deadwood.
And speaking of DEADWOOD, the HBO show (and second-best thing on TV), it has sort of ruined other Westerns for me. While we’re meeting the characters in STAGECOACH before the journey begins, I’m looking around the dusty town and waiting for the swearing to start. We see hookers and gamblers and drinkers, but none of the menace that DEADWOOD shows us, and which must have existed.
Another problem with a Western from this era is that they used to attach wires to the horses’ legs and then gallop them and when they reached the end of the wire, they’d violently trip, flipping and driving their heads into the ground while the rider pretended to get shot. The horses didn’t know this was coming and many had to be killed because they had broken bones. Horses used to have no juice in Hollywood. I think one of them was riden off a cliff in BUTCH CASSIDY and drown when it hit the water. Now, horses are trained to fall over. It’s a bit hard to watch this one. Maybe a dozen horses are tripped during the high speed chase.
And boy was it high speed. The stage itself is simply flying over a dry lake bed at full gallop. Very impressive. And Wayne lays atop it while firing his rifle. The sheriff literally “rides shotgun” for this journey. There is a stunt where an indian jumps off his horse at full speed onto the stagecoach horses and works his way up to the front two. These things are running incredibly fast. He tries to grab the reins but is shot by Wayne and hangs off the middle wooden piece. Wayne shoots him again and he falls under all the horses and the stage itself and then rolls over to prove he’s real and not a dummy. Amazing.
During this chase, the southern gentleman gambler saves one bullet for reasons I couldn’t understand, mostly because I wasn’t alive way back when. He needs it for a mercy killing. It seems that to a southern gentleman there are worse things than death for a proper lady.
Academy Award–Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell.
Academy Award Nomination–Best Picture, Best Director for John Ford, Best Cinematography, Best Editing.
**** Halliwell’s–What looked like a minor Western with a plot borrowed from Boule de suif, became a classic by virtue of the firm characterization, restrained writing, exciting climax and the scenery of Monument Valley. Whatever the reason, it damn well works.
**** Maltin–One of the great American films, and a landmark in the maturing of the Western, balancing character study and peerless action.