The film has long been recognized as an important work that transcends the Western genre. In 1995, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry. Still, Stagecoach has not avoided controversy. Like most Westerns of the era, its depiction of Native Americans as simplistic savages has been criticized.
Stagecoach was the first of many Westerns that Ford shot in Monument Valley, on the Arizona–Utah border in the American Southwest. Many of the movies Ford filmed there also starred John Wayne. Scenes from Stagecoach, including a sequence introducing Wayne as the Ringo Kid, blended shots of Monument Valley with those filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, RKO Encino Ranch, and other locations. As a result, geographic incongruities appear, including the closing scene where Ringo (Wayne) and Dallas (Trevor) depart Lordsburg in southwestern New Mexico by way of Monument Valley.
In June 1880, a stage driver and four passengers prepare to board the coach from Tonto, Arizona Territory, to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Among them are Dallas, a prostitute driven out of town by the "Law and Order League"; the alcoholic Doc Boone; snobbish Southerner Lucy Mallory, who is travelling to join her cavalry officer husband; and diminutive whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock.
Buck, the stage driver, looks for his shotgun guard, and Marshal Curley Wilcox tells him the man is off searching for the Ringo Kid. Ringo has broken out of prison after hearing that his father and brother were murdered by Luke Plummer. Buck tells Curley that Ringo is heading for Lordsburg. Knowing that Ringo has vowed vengeance, Curley decides to ride shotgun on the stage.
Before the stagecoach sets out, U.S. Cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard announces that Geronimo and his Apache warriors are on the warpath, and that the small cavalry troop will provide an escort only to Dry Fork. Upon seeing Mrs. Mallory's distress, chivalrous gambler Hatfield offers her his protection to Lordsburg and climbs aboard. At the edge of town Henry Gatewood, an arrogant banker, flags down the stage and boards.
Further along the road, the stage comes across the Ringo Kid, stranded when his horse went lame. Though Curley and Ringo are friends, Curley takes Ringo into custody and crowds him into the coach. When they reach Dry Fork, they learn the expected cavalry detachment has gone on to Apache Wells. Buck wants to turn back, but most of the party votes to proceed. The group is taken aback when Ringo, unaware of Dallas' past, invites her to sit at the main table for lunch. As they are eating the genteel Hatfield reveals that he served in the Confederate Army under the command of Mrs. Mallory's father in Virginia.
At Apache Wells, Mrs. Mallory learns that her husband had been wounded in battle with the Apaches. She faints, and stunning the group, goes into labor. Doc Boone sobers up and delivers the baby with Dallas assisting. Later that night, Ringo asks Dallas to marry him and live on a ranch he owns across the border in Mexico. Afraid to reveal her past, she is evasive. The next morning, she accepts, but is unwilling to leave Mrs. Mallory and the newborn; instead, she gives Ringo the rifle Curley had taken and prods him to escape, promising to meet him there later. Before Ringo can leave he sees smoke signals heralding an Apache attack and returns to custody.
The stage reaches Lee's Ferry, which the Apaches have murderously sacked. Curley uncuffs Ringo to help lash logs to the stagecoach and float it across the river. Seemingly beyond danger, they're attacked. A long chase follows, with some of the party injured in the fight. Down to his last bullet, Hatfield is pulling back the trigger to humanely dispatch Mrs. Mallory when he is mortally wounded. The 6th U.S. Cavalry rides to the rescue.
At Lordsburg Gatewood is arrested for attempting to abscond with his bank's funds. Mrs. Mallory learns that her wounded husband will fully recover. She thanks Dallas, who gives Mrs. Mallory her shawl. Dallas then begs Ringo not to confront the three Plummer brothers, but he is determined to have his vengeance on them. As they walk through town he reiterates his desire to marry her. Luke Plummer, who is playing poker in one of the saloons, hears of Ringo's arrival and summons his brothers to join him in killing Ringo.
Ringo guns all three down in a shootout, then surrenders to Curley, expecting to go back to prison. As Ringo takes his seat on a buckboard, Curley invites Dallas to ride with them to the edge of town. But when she gets aboard Curley and Doc stampede the horses, letting the couple speed off together toward Ringo's ranch across the Mexican border.
Left to right: Donald Meek, Berton Churchill and Thomas Mitchell
Left to right: George Bancroft, John Wayne and Louise Platt
Left to right: Joe Rickson, Tom Tyler and Vester Pegg
The screenplay is an adaptation by Dudley Nichols of "The Stage to Lordsburg," a short story by Ernest Haycox. The film rights to the work were bought by John Ford soon after it was published in Collier's magazine on April 10, 1937. According to Thomas Schatz, Ford claimed that his inspiration in expanding Stagecoach beyond the bare-bones plot created by Haycox was his familiarity with another short story, "Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant, although Schatz believes "this scarcely holds up to scrutiny". Ford's statement also seems to be the basis for the claim that Haycox himself relied upon Guy de Maupassant's story. However, according to a Haycox biographer, there is no direct evidence of Haycox being familiar with Maupassant’s tale, especially as he was documented as going out of his way to avoid reading the work of others that might unconsciously influence his writing, and he focused his personal reading in the area of history.
Before production, Ford shopped the project around to several Hollywood studios, all of which turned him down because big budget Westerns had been out of vogue since the silents, and because Ford insisted on using then-B-movie actor John Wayne in the key role in the film. Independent producer David O. Selznick finally agreed to produce it, but was frustrated by Ford's indecision about when shooting would begin, and had his own doubts over the casting. Ford withdrew the film from Selznick's company and approached independent producer Walter Wanger about the project. Wanger had the same reservations about producing an "A" western and even more about one starring John Wayne. Ford had not directed a western since the silent days. Wanger said he would not risk his money unless Ford replaced John Wayne with Gary Cooper and brought in Marlene Dietrich to play Dallas.
Ford refused to budge; it would be Wayne or no one. Eventually the pair compromised, with Wanger putting up $250,000, a little more than half of what Ford had been seeking, and Ford would give top billing to Claire Trevor, better known than John Wayne at the time.
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 the 5,700 ft (1,700 m) elevation were extreme, with constant strong winds and low temperatures. Nonetheless, director John Ford was satisfied with the crew's location work, which took place near Goulding's Trading Post on the Utah border, about 25 miles from Kayenta. Additional scenes were filmed in Monument Valley locations, as well as the Iverson Movie Ranch and the RKO Encino Ranch.Stagecoach was the first of many Westerns that Ford shot using Monument Valley as a location, many of which also starred John Wayne. Anatopic incongruencies of landscape and vegetation are thus evident throughout the film, up to the closing scene of Ringo and Dallas departing Lordsburg, in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern New Mexico, by way of the unmistakable topography of Monument Valley's Colorado Plateau location.
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The film was released on 2 March 1939, and met with immediate critical and trade paper praise. The picture cemented John Wayne's standing as an A-list leading man, and made a profit of $297,690. Cast member Louise Platt, in a letter recounting the experience of the film's production, quoted Ford on saying of Wayne's future in film: "He'll be the biggest star ever because he is the perfect 'everyman'". On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 100%, based on 47 reviews, with an average rating of 9.3/10. The site's consensus reads: "Typifying the best that the Western genre has to offer, Stagecoach is a rip-roaring adventure given dramatic heft by John Ford's dynamic direction and John Wayne's mesmerizing star turn."
Stagecoach has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made.Orson Welles argued that it was a perfect textbook of film-making and claimed to have watched it more than 40 times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane. In 1995, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.
The film has also been recognized as transcending the Western genre. Robert B. Pippin has observed that both the collection of characters and their journey "are archetypal rather than merely individual" and that the film is a "mythic representation of the American aspiration toward a form of politically meaningful equality." Nevertheless, its depiction of Native Americans is not above criticism. Writing in 2011, Roger Ebert noted that "The film's attitudes toward Native Americans are unenlightened. The Apaches are seen simply as murderous savages; there is no suggestion the white men have invaded their land."
In June 1998, the American Film Institute published its "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies"—the 100 best American films, in the judgement of over 1,500 movie industry artists and leaders, who selected from a list of 400 nominated films. They ranked Stagecoach as #63 of the 100 best.
In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten Top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American Western film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Stagecoach was acknowledged as the ninth best film in the western genre.
Re-releases and restoration
The film was originally released through United Artists, but under the terms of its seven-year-rights rule, the company surrendered distribution rights to producer Walter Wanger in 1946. Numerous companies have held the rights to the picture in the years since. The film's copyright (originally by Walter Wanger Productions) was renewed by 20th Century Fox, which produced a later 1966 remake of Stagecoach. The rights to the original 1939 film were subsequently acquired by Time-Life Films during the 1970s. The copyright has since been reassigned to Wanger Productions through the late producer's family under the Caidin Trust/Caidin Film Company, the ancillary rights holder. However, distribution rights are now held by Shout! Factory, which in 2014 acquired Jumer Productions/Westchester Films (which in turn had bought the Caidin Film holdings after the folding of former distributor Castle Hill Productions). Warner Bros. Pictures handles sales and additional distribution.
The original negative of Stagecoach was either lost or destroyed. Wayne had one unscreened positive print that director Peter Bogdanovich noticed in Wayne's garage while visiting. In 1970, Wayne allowed it to be used to produce a new negative, often seen 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 digitally restored Blu-ray/DVD version was released in May 2010 via The Criterion Collection.
Lone Ranger radio play
The theme of the movie has been reproduced as a Lone Ranger radio episode "The Last Coach West", which played August 22, 1945. Most main characters in the movie had a counter-part in the radio play.
The Ringo Kid, protagonist, escaped from prison
The Waco Kid, suspected bank robber
Dallas, prostitute driven out of town
Joessy, dance-hall girl driven out of town
Doc Boone, alcoholic doctor
Doctor Taylor, alcoholic doctor
Lucy Mallory, pregnant
Phyllis Alden, wounded by arrow
Luke Plummer, killed Ringo Kid's father and brother
John Gall, framed Waco Kid
Marshal Curley Wilcox, arrested The Ringo Kid
Sheriff Beaker, arrested The Waco Kid
Henry Gatewood, a banker absconding with embezzled money
John Gall, loan-shark banker, frames Waco Kid
Samuel Peacock, whiskey salesman
Horace Pennypacker, whiskey salesman
Buck, stage driver
Pete Morley, stage driver
The plot of the radio play paralleled that of the movie quite closely in spite of the character changes, with exception of the Lone Ranger and Tonto heroically saving the stagecoach occupants from Geronimo's warriors.
The radio play run time was only about 22 minutes, less than one quarter of the movie's 96. Consequently, character and plot development had to be accelerated, which resulted in weakening the character's motivation for certain actions (such as the Lone Ranger somehow managing to single out a solitary stagecoach amid a wide Indian uprising).