As aforementioned, Emma and Olivia are hosting their Legends of Western Cinema event this week and I’m reviewing one of my favorite films of all time—the original Stagecoach starring John Wayne. (Also, this is the first time I’ve ever taken a stab at doing a review in narrative style, so let me know how you like it in the comments! ;))
*Warning: this will be rife with spoilers*
First off, the music is thrillingly, longingly, triumphantly and entirely splendid through the entire thing. (So just keep that in mind.)
The titles roll and we start with a column of cavalry riding past—silhouettes against the sun. Then the music switches eerily and a band of mounted Indians are following just on their heels—feathers and war spears showing ominously. Finally, the trumpets sing out again and our stagecoach comes rolling past.
The story proper starts with word arriving at military headquarters by Indian scout that the fearsome Apache chief—Geronimo—has broken reservation and is on the warpath. A telegram arrives bearing only one word—Geronimo. The rest is nonexistent. The wires have been cut.
But that’s a problem for the army. We’re off to this delightful, bustling western town with dust and excitement flying in the air.
The stage comes in and various important people get off to stretch their legs (pardon me, “limbs!”) and all our set-up happens in a few perfect scenes.
While the thoroughbred Southern lady and officer’s wife, Mrs. Mallory, is first catching sight of Hatfield, the notorious gambler…
…Buck (our stage driver) is in with the boys looking for his shotgun rider. Turns out the rider has gone off to join the posse looking for Ringo Kid, who has broken jail and is now probably hot on the trail of the Plummer boys who sent him to the penitentiary in the first place. (Everybody else is grave about the news while Buck is delightfully and ridiculously pleased.) It all adds up to Curley, the marshal, riding shotgun. Meanwhile the banker, Mr. Gatewood, is over at the bank, showing forth his pompous pretentiousness.
And… uh oh. It looks like our charming little town may not be so charming after all.
Two social outcasts are being ridden out of town. Doc because he’s penniless and can’t pay for his whiskey—let alone his rent—
and Dallas for what she is. (The question remains: you can superficially whitewash a town with your League of Law and Order, but how do you really deal with the deep-dyed branding a girl like Dallas has to bear? In practical terms, it’s also an almost exact example of the truth in James's words, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”)
So. After a few more goings on everyone is loaded and settled in the stage—including Mrs. Mallory who is determined to get to her husband despite the societal stigma of riding with Dallas, Hatfield who decides to accompany them at the last minute, placing his services and protection at Mrs. Mallory’s disposal, Mr. Peacock the circumspect whiskey dealer from Kansas City, Kansas, and finally—as we’re heading out of town—Banker Gatewood carrying a not-so-mysterious small traveling case.
Oh! And just as we’re starting the lieutenant comes up to say a detachment of cavalry will be escorting the stage to Dry Fork where fresh troops will take over. With Geronimo loose travel is at your own risk. The danger’s imminent, but no one (for their own complex reasons) is willing to step out of the stage.
The whip cracks and we’re out past the town’s last defenses and on the open trail into the unknown—our stagecoach a little traveling island unto itself.
Buck and Curley’s interchanges happening out on top (throughout) are just perfection
while, inside, Gatewood is quickly proving himself obnoxious.
Now wait! Who’s this? Ringo Kid! :) His horse went lame and he’s holding the stagecoach up for a ride. He’s not going to hand his gun over to Curley, but then the troopers come round the corner behind the coach and—not being one for needless waste—he tosses it up and climbs in. (And I love that Curley doesn’t threaten him with the troopers! It’s all man-to man.)
There’s more conversation following going on up outside, but I don’t want to give spoilers on that. Meanwhile, down in the coach connections are being made and undercurrents are starting to swirl.
At last the coach reaches Dry Fork, only to discover the troops (including Captain Mallory) have been ordered on to Apache Wells, leaving us without further military escort.
Going on is put to the vote and it’s decided the troopers will go back to town as ordered and our valiant (and not so valiant) little band will continue straight on.
And surrounding the vote, we get this epic dinner scene absolutely packed with stunning character development! It’s almost too much to take in.
Separating from the troops, we’re then off on the next stage of the trip, bringing with it yet more incredible development via dialogue whose potent simplicity underscores its power.
Taking a little used road, we’re soon running into cold and snow. (This whole film is chock full of men being men in different variations and with that comes a whole load of protection stuff going on. This time around I particularly noticed how Hatfield and Ringo—as they each care for a woman with true chivalry—are both similar and contrasted. Here in particular, I’d noticed Mrs. Mallory wearing Hatfield’s greatcoat before—but, if you scroll up to one of my earlier screen caps, do you recognize the saddle blanket Dallas is wrapped in? :))
At last in triumph, without sighting a single Apache, we reach Apache Wells—only to discover Captain Mallory has been badly wounded in a skirmish and his troops have taken him on to Lordsburg, leaving us now totally without protection.
At Apache Wells all sorts of things start getting shaken up and the heart of the story comes facing out in the open. Something Big happens, tightening the knot and bringing everyone even closer in their actions and reactions.
It’s mind-boggling how each and every character is further richly developed in such few and poignantly delineated moments and lines.
Of course, our major action is happening between Ringo and Dallas and it’s just amazing. The true courtly honor with which he treats her—his calling her “Miss Dallas”—his care and his protection and his trust in asking her to marry him.
I love, too, Dallas’s subsequent short interchange with Doc.
In the end, she’s desperate for Ringo to make a break for his own land over the border, leaving his plans for Lordsburg behind—desperate to keep him from knowing what she is (as if he doesn’t)—desperate to keep him alive and promising to come and join him.
But it’s too late. Apache war signals are rising in the hills and everyone promptly piles back into the stagecoach—hoping against hope to beat the Indians to the river crossing. Arriving at the crossing, the Apaches have already put everything to the flames.
And now they’re definitely sighted—sun glinting off spears and gun barrels as they file down through the hills toward our coach.
On the far side we finally meet our war party and the last race for Lordsburg is full of flying arrows and bullets and heroics and the cavalry arriving at the very last possible instant.
Our party is saved—but at the cost of two members wounded and one dead.
But we’re not near done! We come into Lordsburg: crowded, populous, raucous—full of saloons and dance halls and houses of ill repute. Word flies that Ringo Kid is in town and—holding Dead Man’s Hand—the Plummer boys band together.
Meanwhile, all the passengers are taken care of and accounted for—duly displaying their either changing or unchanging colors.
And so we come to Ringo and Dallas. Dallas—with her fear and her deep despair and her hard knowledge of the impossibility of redemption—and Ringo who doesn’t have or want to know all the sordid details. But he knows enough and he’s going after her.
She fled Lordsburg and—trying to start in a new place—has been thrust back hopeless. The inescapability has peaked and is crowding down—stifling. For he’s now walking beside her—seeing exactly who and what she is.
But he’s walking beside her—walking past it all, covering her with a full and honest love—claiming her before everyone—not taking the “no” of despair for an answer—loving her with an unrelenting love. His word stands.
And so comes the shoot-out—three against one.
Finally—when justice is served—the bride is fully claimed and both are set free. And understated—brimming over with tough, raw grace—it’s all throbbingly, beautifully, achingly magnificent from beginning to end!