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Stagecoach, The John Wayne 1939 Classic

Updated on June 23, 2014

Stagecoach, The Western Redefined

'Stagecoach' was released in 1939 which was a rich year for movies, to say the least - 'Gone With The Wind', 'Mr Smith Goes To Washington', 'The Wizard Of Oz', are 3 out of many which spring to mind, and it was a particularly good year for the Western genre. As well as 'Stagecoach', the Westerns, 'Union Pacific', 'Dodge City', 'The Oklahoma Kid', 'Drums Along the Mohawk, 'Destry Rides Again' and 'Jesse James' also saw the light of day in a quite astonishing collection of movie talent, richness and variety.

After these movies, and particularly 'Stagecoach', the genre would never again be automatically classed as second rate. Instead, it was seen as potentially more sophisticated, with richer characterisation and deeper themes. 'Shane', in 1953, and 'The Searchers' in 1956 could not have been made without 'Stagecoach' showing the way.

The movie, as well as being a box-office hit was praised by the critics and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Black and White Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, and Best Film Editing, and won two awards for Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Score (for its compilation of 17 American folk tunes of the 1880s).

Basic Plot

'Stagecoach' tells the story of a group of nine travellers aboard a stagecoach crossing Indian country between two frontier towns during an Apache uprising. The stagecoach's occupants are a microcosm of the Old West and John Ford explores the characters of each one before introducing us to the hero, the Ringo Kid, John Wayne in all his glory. The characters vary widely in social class, attitude and values and are vividly portrayed in closely confined stressful situations.

The structure of the movie enables Ford to explore important themes such as social prejudice, alcoholism, greed, and revenge whilst blending the whole into an exciting adventure story.

The last part of the film packs in plenty of traditional Western action. Before the film ends the Ringo Kid becomes the hero, risking his life to save the stage from an attack by Geronimo's braves when he could more easily have run away. In another of the film's famous action shots, the strapping Wayne as the Ringo Kid kills the three Plummer boys and thereby gets his revenge for the death of his father and brother. His bravery and moral strength win the day, as he and the good-hearted Trevor fall in love. The sheriff refuses to arrest him due to his bravery and instead, he sends the couple away to start a new life.

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Main Cast List

Each of the travellers is cleverly and economically sketched in. Dallas, the dance-hall gal (ie prostitute) who is run out of town, together with the alcoholic, disgraced frontier doctor Boone. Peacock, a timid whiskey salesman; Hatfield, a southern gambler; Mrs Mallory, the pregnant wife of an army officer; and Gatewood, a banker who is making off with the assets. Working outside the coach are Buck, the portly driver, and Curly, the local sheriff. In addition to this mix is the rugged outlaw, the Ringo Kid, who is picked up on the road shortly after the coach's departure, and who has broken out of jail to seek revenge for the murder of his father and brother.

There is a wonderful opportunity, of which John Ford takes full advantage, to explore the interaction between the members of this oddly assorted group of people, allowing him to explore a cherished theme, the superior moral qualities of those whom 'respectable' society disdains. As the stagecoach progresses and the pressures build, the outcasts are seen in a more sympathetic and nobler light than their ostensibly more respectable but judgmental and hypocritical companions.

John Wayne as The Ringo Kid

John Wayne made more than 200 films over 50 years, and became the best known figure in Hollywood Westerns.

His movies range from cheap 'B' Movie shorts to such classics as "Stagecoach", "Red River" and 'The Searchers'. He won an Oscar as best actor for another western, "True Grit," in 1969. Yet some of the best films he made such as "The Quiet Man" and "The Long Voyage Home" were not Westerns and he played sailors, football coaches and war heroes with genuine success.

In the last decades of his career, Wayne became something of a folk hero. He grew to represent a rugged, American ideal of masculinity, tough, sentimental and straight-talking. John Wayne is one of the genuine icons of 20th-century American film.

Claire Trevor as Dallas

Claire Trevor was a very successful and talented actress whose career spanned more than seven decades and included success in stage, radio, television and film. She often played the hard-boiled blonde floozy, and every conceivable type of tart, broad and bar girl role.

After attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she began her acting career in the late 1920s and made her movie debut in 1933. She became a glamorous leading lady, opposite male stars like John Wayne, Clark Gable, Glenn Ford and William Holden. It was Stagecoach that made her a major star and she won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for 'Key Largo' in 1948.

Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone

Thomas Mitchell was a great American character actor who seems to have had an important role in so many of the movies of the golden era, including Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr Smith Goes To Washington (all these in the same year - 1939!), It's a Wonderful Life in 1946 and High Noon in 1952. His portrayals were so diverse and convincing that it seems impossible that one actor could have

played them all.

After his brilliant movie career he successfully made the move to television in 1951 and made many programmes in the O. Henry Playhouse series.

He was the first actor to win the 'triple' - an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor in Stagecoach in 1939), an Emmy, and a Tony Award.

Andy Devine ... Buck

John Carradine ... Hatfield

Louise Platt ... Lucy Mallory

George Bancroft ... Curley

Donald Meek ... Peacock

Berton Churchill ... Gatewood

Tim Holt ... Lieutenant

Tom Tyler ... Luke Plummer

A Movie Masterpiece

Even by today's today's standards Stagecoach is still an impressive film. It has, rightly, been called the first great Western, and it played a key role in the development of the status of the Western as the quintessential American genre. It gave the classic Western one of its greatest directors, Ford, and its most iconic star, John Wayne, until then an almost unknown B-movie actor  a team that would go on to make some of the genreÂs classics, including The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

There was another new 'star' in the movie - This was the first of seven films that Ford shot in the stunning Monument Valley, a landscape of massive mesas and towering sandstone buttes on the border between Utah and Arizona. As the tiny coach makes its way through the vastness of the desert, the frailty of its occupants is doubly emphasized partly by the group of indians observing its progress and partly by the surrounding giant scenery. Both the indians and the landscape are presented as a force of nature.

Instead of the standard conflict between the wholly good and the irredeemably bad guy, Stagecoach laid the emphasis on character development, social commentary, and the drama of moral dilemmas, whilst retaining the excitement and actiion of the traditional Western. And the extended Indian attack scene toward the end, heightened by Yakima CanuttÂs famous stuntwork, established a new high-watermark for action moviemaking, echoing in later films for decades.

Stagecoach is undoubtedly a masterpiece of movie-making. Enjoy it at the first opportunity.


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Reader Feedback

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      @christopherwell: who and what the hero of stagecoach

    • christopherwell profile image


      7 years ago

      My wife and I got this on DVD fairly recently - great movie!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      My favorite and some of the best films he made told stories far from the wilds of the West, such as The Quiet Man, and The Long Voyage Home.

      In the last decades of his career, Mr. Wayne became something of an American folk figure, hero to some, villain to others, for his outspoken views.

      2012 Predictions

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great Lens about a great actor.Thanks.


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