24 July 2010

Stagecoach (1939)

I picked up the Criterion blu-ray edition of John Ford's Stagecoach yesterday (I highly recommend it, great transfer). A bit of background if you're unaware: the first major Western by John Ford since the mid-20s, the first serious Western made by anyone in a good while, first star turn by John Wayne, first major collaboration between Wayne and Ford, nominee for Best Picture, winner of Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell (the inebriated doctor), and placed amidst one of the best years of American cinema ever (other films that year: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka).

The film tells the story of several strangers thrust together in a perilous stagecoach ride across the desert, with the constant threat of attack by Apache Indians, as well as the threat of sabotage from within. The group is a microcosm of society: an outlaw, a prostitute, a society lady, a doctor, a salesman that everyone mistakes for a reverend, a Southern gentleman/gambler/cad, and a couple of trusty cowboys.

Pauline Kael calls it "Grand Hotel on wheels" and David Thomson describes the characters as being dipped in a "marinade of cliche." Both of these statements make perfect sense, particularly the latter, as the film does have a nostalgic feel in hindsight, but it's difficult to gauge how audiences might have received it back at its release. Frank Nugent's original NYT review tells us: "He (Ford) prefers the broadest canvas, the brightest colors, the widest brush, and the boldest possible strokes. He hews to the straight narrative line with the well-reasoned confidence of a man who has seen that narrative succeed before. He takes no shadings from his characters: either they play it straight or they don't play at all."

One gets the sense that audiences had seen all of these characters before, but never in such an artistically satisfying form; up until this point, most Westerns were B-pictures. For our purposes, it's as classic as a classic Western gets. And as with many great movies, knowing exactly what's going to happen next isn't a detriment. And at a breezy 96 minutes, it's incredibly economical.

The movie has its famous flourishes: John Wayne (as The Ringo Kid) has one of the greatest entrances in one of the most exciting shots I've ever seen. It's such an appropriate first appearance for one of the greatest stars who ever lived. The chase sequence through Apache country is brilliant, with stunts that baffle you. It's one of those moments that makes you realize just how cheap CGI can be. And you can see some classic Ford touches, such as his doorway shots and appropriate balance of moving and static shots.

In all, it's a must-see if you haven't already. If you've never seen many films by John Ford, this is a good place to start. It's him at his most crowd-pleasing. Sometimes, because of his influence, it's hard for modern audiences to get what kind of style Ford worked in. His language has become so absorbed that it seems average at first glance, but there's something about Stagecoach that hooks you so quickly that you can't help falling in love and wanting to see more.

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