Stagecoach: Special Edition
It seems impossible to believe in retrospect, but John Wayne almost didn't become a movie star. Born Marion Morrison but nicknamed "Duke" at a young age, the athletic young man grew up in southern California, where he played football at USC while majoring in pre-law. However, after an injury cost him his scholarship, he found his way onto the back-lots of the Los Angeles film colony, where he handled everything from stunts to props. He even appeared as an extra in some of John Ford's early films, but it wasn't Ford who turned Duke Morrison into "John Wayne" rival director Raoul Walsh came up with the screen-name and cast Wayne in The Big Trail (1930), which was a financial failure. Reduced to shooting Poverty Row westerns, Wayne wasn't on speaking terms with Ford for several years, but eventually he joined Ford's crew of regulars on the director's sailboat the Araner, where they would drink and play cards. By 1938, Ford was contemplating shooting an "A-western" at the time, the genre had been relegated to serials and one-week productions, and Ford hadn't helmed one in 13 years, instead building his reputation with such titles as The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935). Stagecoach (1939) was to be Ford's first western shot with sound, and, as usual, he was determined to make it his way, with the unknown John Wayne as his star. Studio heads balked, suggesting Gary Cooper instead, but Ford shopped the project, securing independent funding from producer Walter Wanger. Few films since can measure up to Stagecoach's results, as well as its profound influence on cinema. It marked the first of 14 collaborations between Ford and Wayne, introducing an iconic presence to audiences worldwide. It restored the western as old as 1903's The Great Train Robbery as a big-budget enterprise. It gave other writers and directors a reason to mine the old west for everything from interior dramas to grandiose fable-myths. And it directly led to the most critically heralded film in history when asked how he prepared to shoot his first feature, Citizen Kane, radio star Orson Welles simply said that he watched Stagecoach 40 times.
Stagecoach includes a justly famous cinematic introduction after we hear a rifle-shot and a man call "Hey!," Ford's camera rapidly zooms in on The Ringo Kid (Wayne), an outlaw who has just escaped from prison but got sidetracked by a lame horse. Ringo's hailing a passing stagecoach, which has departed from Tonto, Ariz. on its way to Lordsburg. However, Ringo's come up unlucky Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) is riding shotgun with driver Buck (Andy Devine), not far from a U.S. Cavalry escort. The entire territory has been thrown into a panic in recent days, thanks to Apache Indians, who are burning settlers' homesteads under the command of their legendary warrior-chief Geronimo. Because of the unrest, Curly can't place Ringo in handcuffs and lose a good marksman, which is just fine with Ringo he's on his way to Lordsburg to settle a score with the Plummer boys, who killed his dad and brother. And the crowded stage only make matters more complicated. Local prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) has been drummed out of Tonto by the "Law and Order Society," while the alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) has declared the town good riddance. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), who appears seriously ill, is traveling to meet her husband, a cavalry officer; banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) took passage at the last minute; whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek) is terrified of Indians; and professional gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) says little, as is his custom. The group arrives safely at their first stopover, but after they discover that their cavalry unit has not been ordered to escort them further, they vote to forge on, despite the risk. But revenge-minded Ringo soon falls for Dallas, and it seems that almost every one of the passengers has some sort of secret to keep. Even worse, one of them turns out to have a hidden, murderous agenda.
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When the first film schools were founded in the 1960s and '70s, in the wake of an emerging body of scholarship, John Wayne as an actor was commonly dismissed, along with most of his pictures. In part, this had to do with Wayne's well-known conservative politics, which didn't jibe with the era's profound leftist, antiwar sentiments. But it likely had just as much to do with the dominance of both Method and the New Hollywood aesthetic Wayne's production of The Green Berets in 1968 was about as out-of-step with the youth movement as a polka festival. However, a deeper appreciation of Golden Age films in the passing years allows us to accept, and admire, John Wayne on his own terms. He never had the sophistication of Cary Grant or intensity of Marlon Brando, but John Ford recognized Wayne as an undiscovered movie star, a man with the sort of physical presence and grace who could command a lifetime of attention on screen, even if he always played subtle variations of the same character. Or, put a different way, those who would insist that a "bad" actor like Wayne could still carry an American masterpiece like The Searchers (1956) will find that they are having a ludicrous argument with themselves. Stagecoach gave audiences their first authentic look at Duke Wayne, who seems impossibly young, but also innately charming as the outlaw Ringo. It also introduced audiences to one of the most iconic cinematic landscapes, Monument Valley and its towering mesas, which Ford shot on location for the first time and would return to, often. And it was here that Ford captured the race across the dry lake bed as stuntman Yakima Canutt leapt through a team of bridled, galloping horses, and then falling under them, risking his life for a shot that the director swore he would never try again. From first reel to last, Stagecoach defined everything an "adult" western should be, with a perilous river crossing, top-speed battle scene, and the requisite showdown at Lordsburg — but also its rich interpersonal dramas and their echoes of deceits and dangers and romance.
Warner Home Video's two-disc special edition DVD release of Stagecoach features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. The source-print is acceptable and pleasant, although not quite as good as other black-and-white films of the era, with minor collateral wear and grain visible throughout the feature, while the audio is crisp and clean, highlighting Gerard Carbonara's rousing, non-stop score. Disc One includes a scholarly, informative commentary track from John Ford biographer Scott Eyman, as well as the theatrical trailer, while Disc Two includes three wonderful extras the PBS "American Masters" documentary John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker & the Legend, with comments from Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, John Milius, Richard Schickel, and others (83 min.), the featurette "Stagecoach: A Story of Redemption" (30 min.), and an "Academy Award Theater" radio adaptation from 1946, featuring Claire Trevor and Randolph Scott (29 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.