Stagecoach (1939)

Director: John Ford

Time to revisit a film I haven’t seen since the days of VHS, at which time it was difficult enough to find in this country for some reason (my local video shop only had the 1966 remake of it)… not that it’s easily available here now either (again, only the ’66 version seems to be on DVD here), obviously I’m reviewing it now thanks to Criterion… Anyway, it’s 1939, John Ford hasn’t made a western since the mid-20s, and the genre itself has been in the B-movie doldrums for much of that time too, so for Ford to resolve to change both these situations, i.e. by not only making another western but by elevating the genre to A-level again, was a big move. Slightly too big for Ford’s producer, David O. Selznick, so Ford moved to United Artists and made what could almost be called the “western”, if you know what I mean. I recall liking the film when I saw it so many years ago, without really understanding its importance; I think I got a better sense of that on revisiting it tonight, though, cos watching it again I just got this feeling of Ford consciously setting out to make the definitive example of the genre. Let it be said, obviously, that he succeeded in that; if you were to show someone a classical example of a western, this is the one you’d show them. Of course, with hindsight, Ford’s most successful act of elevation was the job he did on John Wayne. Jim Kitses’ DVD commentary makes a useful point in this regard by insisting that Wayne shouldn’t be considered the star of the film, even though at this remove it’s tempting to view him as such; he was paid a B-movie rate far below most of his fellow actors (just a few dollars more than John Carradine got, apparently), and audiences of the time would’ve only known him as a B-movie figure if they knew him at all. The remarkable thing about Stagecoach is that it really is an outstanding ensemble piece; it’s quite a large clump of people in and around that stagecoach and singling anyone out would be kind of futile. Selznick’s reservations about the film’s commercial prospects were mocked by its box office success, and it was a hit with good reason; delightful to revisit it again after so long.

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