DIRECTOR: John Ford
CAST: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell
RATING: Not Rated
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WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
Stagecoach is one of the greatest seminal westerns in American cinema history. It is not only one of the movies that set the template for the genre but also the movie which made John Ford a Hollywood force and John Wayne a marketable movie star.
John Ford used this western to turn preconceptions of the wild west on its head. It is a known fact that the “wild west” we see in the movies bears little similarity to real life in the American west but when it comes to watching a movie like Stagecoach, there is no reason to bother with historical accuracy. The movie stands the test of time and remains as interesting to watch today as it must have over 70-years ago.
Stagecoach tells the story of a coach leaving an old west town, carrying a group of stereotypes into dangerous Indian Territory. The standouts include two misfits ostracized from an uptight town, a sheriff who sets out to arrest an outlaw called The Ringo Kid and a southern belle who looks down on the entire group.
The movie takes this group and leads them through hell, dodging vicious Indian attacks, dealing with an unexpected childbirth and eventually culminating with The Ringo Kid seeking vengeance against the men who killed his father and brother. The story fleshes out what would become signatures of the western genre including the prostitute with the heart of gold, the outlaw with principals, the town drunk and the goofy sidekick.
Based on the short story, Stage to Lordsburg, Ford made simple changes to make the movie into an intriguing character piece with just enough western action to satisfy the genre enthusiast. The movie took the western, which thrived up to that time with B-level efforts starring actors like Tom Mix, and turned it into an A-list production. The film had an estimated budget of $500,000 and, according to Jim Kitses on the commentary track, grossed over $1 million.
Criterion has chosen some interesting titles as it continues to roll out its Blu Ray library. Of all the westerns to choose from, there is not a better choice than Stagecoach to restore in this pristine edition. One of the best choices Criterion made was to clean up the picture but not make it look too clean, being that it is a western released in 1939. When the movie begins, there is clearly grain in the shots and that makes it even better. The visuals are still gorgeous, the black and white photography crisp and immaculate but retaining the feel of an old western movie.
The sound quality is also great with the music, foley and dialogue measured out perfectly. Criterion did a fantastic job restoring this movie for the Blu Ray release.
But what about the features that make this Blu Ray worth choosing as a Top 25 choice?
Other than the fact that the movie is great enough to warrant a place on this list all by itself, Stagecoach also possesses the extra features which make Criterion releases so important for film lovers.
There is a commentary track by western authority Jim Kitses but it is not easy to get through. Kitses is a scholar who looks at the film’s themes as well as the cinema history of both the genre and the actors involved. He gives a comfortable talk but piles on so much information that it can overwhelm at times. For a commentary to listen to in the background while doing something else, it is a nice listen, but it is not the most interesting to listen to while watching the movie.
The Blu Ray picks up with some great supplements though and makes this a must buy for western fans, John Wayne fans, John Ford fans and film students alike.
Bucking Broadway is a 54-minute silent film from 1917 and remains important as one of John Ford’s earliest works and was only rediscovered in 2002 at the French National Center for Cinematography. While Ford was not known for westerns until he made Stagecoach, this early film was a western that showed why Ford would soon become the greatest western director of all-time. The short stars Harry Carey as a cowboy who falls in love with his boss’ daughter and soon has to rescue her from the treacheries of the city when she makes a mistake and runs off with a wealthy man.
Next up is a John Ford interview from 1968. It is always great to hear John Ford talk because he is so aloof. One of the first things he mentions is he was not interested in movies as a child and they still didn’t interest him, just seeing them as a way to make a living. He is always an entertaining listen because he doesn’t take himself, or the film business, seriously.
Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) chips in next with his thoughts on the structure of the film’s plot and how important it was in setting up the guidelines for the western films that followed. He also goes into great detail about how John Ford worked to turn John Wayne into a major star.
Dreaming of Jeanie is a video essay that looks at the visual style that John Ford utilized in Stagecoach. The feature is decent as Tag Gallagher talks about the visual cues of the movie and what those styles tell us about the characters. The feature is educational but, thanks to a monotone narrator, remains a chore to sit through.
John Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford, has an interview segment as well as sharing clips from Ford’s home movies to give us a look at the man behind the film director. True West is a video interview with Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) about Monument Valley, Ford’s iconic shooting location. There are also features about Yakima Canutt, the stunt coordinator and a 1948 radio adaptation.
WHY DIDN’T IT RANK HIGHER?
Unfortunately, Stagecoach is seen as a classical black and white western film which limits its popularity to modern audiences. The movie is still a fantastic film and deserves all the attention it can get. This Blu Ray is a great release of a great film. It also might have helped if it was not so expensive but it is Criterion, so that is expected.
THE BEST SUPPLEMENT
The best supplement is the interview with John Ford. Listening to this man talk is a refreshing change of pace from the directors who seem to believe their work is Gold. He doesn’t bullshit with the interviewer and lets him know when something doesn’t matter enough to waste time on.
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