Stagecoach is a 1939 American Western film directed by John Ford, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne in his breakthrough role. The screenplay, written by Dudley Nichols, is an adaptation of "The Stage to Lordsburg", a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox. The film follows a group of strangers riding on a stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory.
Stagecoach was the first of many Westerns that Ford shot using Monument Valley, in the American south-west on the Arizonaâ"Utah border, as a location, many of which also starred John Wayne. Scenes from Stagecoach, including a famous sequence introducing John Wayne's character the Ringo Kid, blended shots of Monument Valley with shots filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, and other locations.
In 1880, a motley group of strangers boards the east-bound stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. These travelers are unremarkable and ordinary at first glance. Among them are Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute who is being driven out of town by the members of the "Law and Order League"; an alcoholic doctor, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell); pregnant Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), who is traveling to see her cavalry officer husband; and whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek).
When the stage driver, Buck (Andy Devine), looks for his normal shotgun guard, Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) tells him that the guard has gone searching for fugitive the Ringo Kid. Buck tells Marshal Wilcox that Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) is in Lordsburg. Knowing that Kid has vowed to avenge the deaths of his father and brother at Plummer's hands, the marshal decides to ride along as guard.
As they set out, U.S. cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) informs the group that Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath and his small troop will provide an escort until they reach Dry Fork. As they depart, the stagecoach is flagged down to pick up two more passengers, gambler and Southern gentleman Hatfield (John Carradine) as well as banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), who is absconding with $50,000 embezzled from his bank.
Along the way, they come across the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), whose horse became lame and left him afoot. Even though they are friends, Curly has no choice but to take Ringo into custody. As the trip progresses, Ringo takes a strong liking to Dallas. When Doc Boone tells Peacock that he served as a doctor in the Union Army during the "War of the Rebellion," Hatfield quickly uses a Southern term, the "War for the Southern Confederacy."
When the stage reaches Dry Fork, the group is informed that the expected cavalry detachment has gone to Apache Wells. Buck wants to turn back, but Curly demands that the group vote. With only Buck and Peacock objecting, they decide to proceed on to Apache Wells. At lunch before departing, the group is taken aback when Ringo invites Dallas to sit at the main table, and Mrs. Mallory is clearly uncomfortable having lunch with a prostitute. Mrs. Mallory later asks Hatfield whether he was ever in Virginia; he tells her he served in the Confederate Army under her father's command. When they arrive, she faints and goes into labor when she hears that her husband had been wounded in battle and has left. Doc Boone is called upon to assist the delivery, and later Dallas emerges holding a healthy baby girl. Later that night, Ringo asks Dallas to marry him. She does not give him an immediate answer, afraid to reveal her checkered past, but the next morning, she agrees if he promises to give up his plan to fight the Plummers. He does so, but she tells him to go alone and will meet him later, because she does not want to leave Mrs. Mallory and the new baby. Encouraged, Ringo escapes but returns when he sees smoke signals as signs of an Apache attack. The passengers quickly gather their belongings and leave to avoid any encounters with the Apache.
When the stagecoach reaches Lee's Ferry, the passengers find that the station and ferry have been burned and those who were not killed have fled. Curly releases Ringo from his handcuffs to help tie large logs to the sides of the stagecoach and float it across the river. Just when they think that danger has passed, they are set upon by a band of Apaches. During a long chase, Peacock and Buck are hit and they all run out of ammunition. As Hatfield is about to use his last bullet to save Mrs. Mallory from being taken alive, he is fatally wounded. Just then, the 6th U.S. cavalry arrives to the rescue of the group.
When the stage finally arrives in Lordsburg, Gatewood is arrested by the local sheriff, and Mrs. Mallory is told that her husband's wound is not serious. When Mrs. Mallory reconciles with Dallas, Dallas gives Mrs. Mallory her shawl to show no hard feelings. Dallas begs Ringo not to seek vengeance against the Plummers, but he is determined to settle matters. Curly grants him leave and his gun. In the ensuing shootout, Ringo dispatches Luke and his two brothers, then returns to Curly, expecting to return to jail. He asks the lawman to take Dallas to his ranch. However, when Ringo boards a wagon and says goodbye, Curly invites Dallas to ride to the edge of town. As she climbs aboard, Curly and Doc laugh and start the horses moving, letting Ringo "escape" with Dallas.
- Claire Trevor as Dallas
- John Wayne as Henry "The Ringo Kid"
- Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone
- Andy Devine as Buck
- John Carradine as Hatfield
- George Bancroft as Marshal Curly Wilcox
- Louise Platt as Lucy Mallory
- Donald Meek as Samuel Peacock
- Berton Churchill as Henry Gatewood
- Tim Holt as Lieutenant Blanchard
- Tom Tyler as Luke Plummer
- Chris-Pin Martin as Chris, innkeeper
- Elvira RÃos as Yakima, Chris' wife
- Brenda Fowler as Mrs. Gatewood
- Nora Cecil as Boone's housekeeper
- Francis Ford as Billy Pickett, innkeeper
- Marga Ann Deighton as Mrs. Pickett
- Vester Pegg as Ike Plummer
- Joe Rickson as Hank Plummer
- Jack Pennick as Jerry, barkeeper in Tonto
- Duke R. Lee as the Sheriff of Lordsburg
- Chief White Horse as Geronimo
- Yakima Canutt as Cavalry scout, uncredited stunt coordinator and second unit director
The screenplay is an adaptation by Dudley Nichols of "The Stage to Lordsburg," a short story by Ernest Haycox. The rights to "Lordsburg" were bought by John Ford soon after it was published in Collier's magazine on 10 April 1937. According to Thomas Schatz, Ford claimed that his inspiration in expanding Stagecoach beyond the bare-bones plot given in "The Stage to Lordsburg" was his familiarity with another short story, "Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant. Schatz believes "this scarcely holds up to scrutiny" and argues that a more likely inspiration was Bret Harte's 1892 short story "The Outcasts of Poker Flat".
Ford's statement also seems to be the basis for the claim that Haycox himself relied upon Guy de Maupassant's story. However, there appears to be no concrete evidence for Haycox actually being familiar with the earlier story, 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.
Although Ford had made many Westerns in the silent film era, he had never previously directed a sound Western. Between 1929 and 1939, he directed films in almost every other genre, including Wee Willie Winkie (1937), starring Shirley Temple. Ford declined to use Wayne in any of his projects during the 1930s despite their close friendship, telling Wayne to wait until he was "ready" as an actor. In 1938, Ford gave Wayne a copy of the film's script by Nichols with a request to recommend an actor to play the Ringo Kid. After reading it, Wayne suggested Lloyd Nolan for the part, but Ford was non-committal to the idea. The next day however, Ford announced to Wayne that he wanted him to play the role. The offer left Wayne feeling as if he had been "hit in the belly with a baseball bat" ... and fearing that Ford would change his mind and hire Nolan instead.
Before production, John Ford shopped the project around to several Hollywood studios, all of which turned him down because big budget Westerns were out of vogue, and because Ford insisted on using John Wayne in a key role in the film. Wayne previously appeared in only one big-budget western, The Big Trail (1930, directed by Raoul Walsh), which was a huge box office flop. Between 1930â"1939, by Wayne's own estimate, he appeared in about eighty "Poverty Row" westerns. Independent producer David O. Selznick finally agreed to produce the film, but was frustrated by Ford's indecision about when shooting would begin, and 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, the most notable of which had been The Iron Horse (1924). 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 they 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, a more well-known name than John Wayne in 1939. Following the film's release on March 2, 1939, Ford's faith in John Wayne was rewarded as the film met with immediate critical and trade paper success. 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'".
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 this 5700 foot elevation were extreme with constant strong winds and low temperatures. Nonetheless, director John Ford was satisfied with the crew's location work. For this location, filming took place near Goulding's Trading Post on the Utah border, about 25 miles from Kayenta.
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. The film made a profit of $297,690.
Awards and honors
- Best Supporting Actor - Thomas Mitchell
- Best Music (Scoring) - Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken
- Best Picture
- Best Director - John Ford
- Best Art Direction - Alexander Toluboff
- Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) - Bert Glennon
- Film Editing - Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
- John Ford won the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Director. Other critics gave the film uniformly glowing reviews.
- In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten Top Ten"â"the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genresâ"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. Many independent companies were responsible for this film in the years since. The film's copyright (originally by Walter Wanger Productions) was renewed by 20th Century Fox, who produced a later 1966 remake of Stagecoach. 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 negatives of Stagecoach were either lost or destroyed. John Wayne had one positive print that had never been through a projector gate. In 1970, he permitted it to be used to produce a new negative, and that is the film seen today 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.
- The May 4, 1946 radio episode of Academy Award Theater had Claire Trevor reprise her role alongside Randolph Scott.
- The January 9, 1949 radio episode of Screen Directors Playhouse had John Wayne and Claire Trevor both reprise their parts.
- The 1966 remake of Stagecoach starred (in alphabetical order) Ann-Margret, Red Buttons, Mike Connors, Alex Cord, Bing Crosby, Robert Cummings, Van Heflin, Slim Pickens, and Stefanie Powers.
- A 1986 television version featured Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings.
- John Wayne filmography
- Stagecoach Movie Booklet
- Stagecoach at the Internet Movie Database
- Stagecoach at Rotten Tomatoes
- Stagecoach at AllMovie
- Stagecoach at the TCM Movie Database
- Stagecoach at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Review of Stagecoach at TVGuide.com
- Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox
- Literature on Stagecoach
- Stagecoach: Taking the Stage, an essay by David Cairns for The Criterion Collection
- Movie Locations used in Stagecoach (1939)
- Stagecoach Stills and Cast Letters
- Stagecoach on Academy Award Theater: May 4, 1946
- Stagecoach on Screen Directors Playhouse: January 9, 1949