Tuesday, January 13, 2015
The Wild West, 19th century. Several passengers - prostitute Dallas, an alcoholic doctor, pregnant Lucy, salesman Samuel, Hatfield, banker Henry - board a stagecoach to travel to Lordsburg, but are immediately informed by drivers Buck and Curly that the long trip is dangerous because it traverses through the Apache territory where Geronimo reigns. On their trip, the cavalry follows them only until the nearest town, after which they are on their own. The stagecoach continues and picks up Ringo Kid, who is wanted by the authorities. In a town, they stop for Lucy to deliver a baby. On their trip again, they are attacked by the Apache, but saved by the new cavalry. In Lordburg, the Kid takes revenge on outlaw Luke and his two brothers. In the end, Curly allows the Kid to escape with Dallas, who fell in love with him.
Even though he made a lot of films before 1939, John Ford definitely found his "true calling" with the western "Stagecoach", where he for the first time teamed up with his favorite actor, John Wayne. Even though "Stagecoach" is not on the same level as the most magical Ford-Wayne films ("The Searchers", "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") it still deserves the status of a classic: following the stiff opening, it takes a lot until it gets going, but once it does, it's like a good engine that keeps going until its final destination. A lot of credit has to be given to a wonderfully simple, pure concept that engages some universal human themes: the viewers can identify with the passengers of the stagecoach after the cavalry only protects them until the nearest station, after which they have to continue their way alone, and are informed that Indians might try to attack them. This gives their journey empathy and solidarity, whereas Ford uses the travel for a slow "mosaic" characterization of these protagonists, who unobtrusively say a lot about themselves.
The stand out protagonist is the always drunk doctor, played brilliantly by Thomas Mitchell: when nothing is expected from him, he is a slob, but when people are relaying on him, he turns by 180 degrees (when he has to deliver a baby, he drinks a lot of black coffee to throw up the alcohol in order to quickly sober up; when the outlaw Luke wants to take on Ringo Kid, the doc bravely orders Luke to leave the shotgun in the bar. This act of bravery actually works, and Luke and his two brothers leave the bar without the shotgun. Afterwards, the doc says to the bartender: "Don't ever let me do that again.") A lot of humor helps elevate the film, too (when the duel between the "unbeatable" Luke and Ringo Kid is announced, a newspaper editor tells his employee to write a story: "Ringo Kid was killed on Main Street in Lordsburh tonight. And among additional dead were... Leave that blank for a spell."). The storyline is stuck here and there due to a few schematic or unnecessary subplots (the 15-minute finale between Ringo Kid and Luke does not add up into the previously established structure), but otherwise, it flows smoothly, and shows Ford with a few neat camera shots, from the famous panorama of the Monument Valley up to the POV scene of the driver while the horses pull the stagecoach through the river (even though it is an "error" shot, since the shadow of the camera can be seen, it is still a great shot to look at).