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STAGECOACH: the first great western, now on DVD

Before John Ford shot STAGECOACH in Monument Valley, no one – especially in Hollywood – had ever heard of the place.  But when the film was released in 1939, everyone claimed they discovered the magnificent red rock landscape first. No matter who the honor rightfully belongs to, the northern Arizona desert valley, dotted with sandstone buttes jutting straight up as high as 1,000 feet, proved to be the perfect backdrop for the western that famously launched the genre from “B movie to the A-list.”

Claire Trevor (descending the coach) had to be signed on in order for producers to agree to let Wayne, then an unknown, play the lead role.

Nine characters, a prostitute, a crooked banker, a cavalry leader’s wife, a notorious gambler, a whiskey drummer, an outlaw, a sheriff, a Wells Fargo driver and a drunk of a doctor are brought together when a half day’s trip in a cramped stagecoach turns into a flight from the Apaches. Unlike prevailing westerns of the time, the nine characters avoid the easy stereotypes. Though they’re each given only a brief introduction, each introduction is composed like a portrait, with every character posing in his or her natural environment with all the extra clues to a persona found in a formal oil painting. The gambler, for example, is dressed and speaks like a gentleman, but he’s shown eyeing the stagecoach through the window of a gambling room. The prostitute, before we know that’s what she is, is ushered quickly to the stagecoach by a crowd of old biddies and the men whistle as she lifts up her skirts to ascend the carriage, revealing a striped stocking. In this way, Ford is able to manage a large and steadily growing cast, which includes a very young John Wayne in what is considered his breakthrough role as the outlaw Ringo Kid.

Wayne’s famous entrance.

Not only is STAGECOACH a step above in terms of storytelling, it’s also visually ambitious for the time. Instead of settling for a studio set and rear projection, Ford took his cast and crew on the road to Arizona. Just getting there was difficult enough. Much of the way wasn’t yet paved and a caravan of trucks had to be maneuvered off-road through the desert. It was worth it, however, to capture the vast, magnificent landscape in shots so wide the actors hardly figured at all. These sweeping compositions were among the first of their kind and set the precedent for the way westerns were shot from then on. His brilliant camera work is seen elsewhere, like in the shot that introduces Wayne, “one of the most stunning entrances in all of cinema.” The camera dollies in quickly on his face as he swings a rifle around in his hand. The shot is so fast that the dolly operator can’t quite hold the focus and there is a quick blur as we pull in for a tight close up. Orson Welles claimed that he watched it more than 40 times during the filming of CITIZEN KANE.

Ford, who hadn’t made a western since the silent days, proved not only that he could make the transition as a director, but that the genre was a viable form of cinema. He was notoriously difficult to work with in this film as in many of his others, but his exacting methods are among the chief reasons why STAGECOACH is hailed as one of the most influential films ever made. A new, restored high-definition digital transfer of STAGECOACH is now available on DVD for the first time from Criterion.