Friday, July 31, 2015

Movie Review: Stagecoach (1939) with John Wayne & Claire Trevor

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*

And now….

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!

So tell me! Have you seen Stagecoach? And what do you all think? Should I do more narrative reviews in the future?


  1. I have not seen Stagecoach! Let me see, John Wayne, good music, and good storyline. Yep. I think I'll like it. :-)

    1. Ekaterina,
      Oh my.... the delights in store for you!!! I do hope can see it soon and I'll look forward to hearing if you enjoyed it! ;D

  2. *sighs happily* Heidi, your writing is always so very beautiful. It really is a joy to read :)

    I've never seen this movie--John Wayne was awfully young then, wasn't he? I'm so used to seeing him old and grizzled and this is very different!

    1. jessica,
      Ohhhh..... thank you so much! *blushing* I so appreciate your encouragement!

      And yes, Wayne was quite young. I think he'd done about 70 B-rated films, but Stagecoach was his first major break, shooting him to stardom. I hope you can see it sometime! :)

  3. Is it any wonder that this is the movie that rocketed John Wayne out of C-movies and into actual stardom? He clearly knew it was make-or-break for his career, and he revered John Ford so much -- you can see how hard he's working here.

    I honestly haven't seen Stagecoach for probably ten years. During college, it was one of the few westerns my roommate/best friend liked, so we kind of watched it a bunch, whenever I got to hungering for a John Wayne movie or a western, and as a result, I haven't watched it a lot since. You've got me thinking it's time to dust it off and give it a rewatch sometime soon.

    I love all the depth you've highlighted in this! Especially in Ringo and Dallas's relationship. They're two of the most upright, honest people in the whole movie -- and they're the outcasts. Fascinating, juicy stuff.

    I really like narrative reviews, which is probably no surprise to you since I do them now and then myself. But they are a TON of work, so I tend to reserve them for movies I am passionate about. I would love to see more of them from you in the future!

    1. Hamlette,
      Absolutely stunning stuff. ;D And yes, I can see what you mean about Wayne and Ford. It's so neat to get those little tidbits sometimes! :)

      Yes, definitely time to blow off the dust! ;) Isn't it funny how sometimes you can end up going a long time between seeing or reading something you love tremendously? It just becomes so much a part of you. (Though, at other times I could just see something over and over and over and over and never get tired of it.... Thinking Ever After.... ;D *happy sigh*)

      Okay! Where was I? I'm wandering from the point "at tissue" as Constable Oates would say. :P

      Ringo and Dallas! Yes, exactly. So fascinating. And yet the film isn't pardoning or denying the position they're both in (i.e. saying there aren't moral absolutes). It's whitewashed, "feel good about ourselves" moralism that's the problem. Real grace comes into dark places and gets its hands dirty and creates stunning beauty from ashes.

      And YES. It was a ton of work ;P, but a lot of fun! I'm so glad you'd love to see more. I think I'll alternate then, based on the nature of the particular film. Some (whether or not they're my absolute favorites) seem to lend themselves more toward one approach or the other, so I guess I'll go with the tone of it and what I feel like at the time. :)

    2. I have a tendency to go through phases with books and movies -- where I love them tremendously and watch them over and over and over, and then I've seen them enough that I only have to watch them once in a great while to get a refresher on them. Many of my favorite movies are like that. Sometimes, having seen them 8 or 10 times, I will then go ten years before seeing them again, not because I no longer love them, but because I have absorbed them to such a great extent.

      Yes! The film doesn't excuse Ringo and Dallas -- it pardons them. Such a big difference! It doesn't say they haven't sinned, but that they are forgiven.

      I find that I do narrative reviews of movies I have seen several (or many) times, that I want to dig more deeply into. Quicker reviews are for things I've only seen once or twice and have something to say about but don't feel the need to dive into. Does that make sense? A lot of times I start to write a review and don't know until I'm a little ways in that, yup, this is one of those where I have to just write about every little thing.

    3. Hamlette,
      Yes, that happens a lot for me with books. I have some absolute favorites that I read (at a conservative estimate) about a zillion times growing up and they've just become part of me. So sometimes I get this mental jolt looking at them on the shelf and realizing, "Oh, I probably haven't actually picked that book up and opened it in two or three years." But I'm still breathing the stories. :D

      And yes, that makes sense! For me I can see it all being highly subjective.... how many spoilers I want to give away, simplicity, tone, etc. :)

  4. Oh, Heidi, this was such a good review! I think you should definitely try more "narrative reviews" in the future-if you enjoyed it! I loved how you were able to cover the story basics in an orderly fashion while still inserting your own opinions and notes.
    (I never noticed that about the saddle blanket, for instance, versus the coat. It's so sweet!)

    1. Natalie,
      Thank you and thank you for the encouragement!! :) I'm thinking I'll see how it goes then.... and what I feel like as the inspiration for reviewing different stories strikes me.

      And yes! Isn't that so sweet?!? I still can't believe I hadn't noticed that particular little detail before. :P I love it when a movie is so well done and thought out that you keep noticing things every time. ;D


    Oh my--I cannot EVEN BEGIN. I've heard of this, and it definitely looked promising, but this review has consolidated it. I am watching this as soon as I possibly can.

    Young Johnny Wayne! My word *ahem*

    Okay, these relationships seem absolutely too feelsy to handle (but I'm sure gonna try!). Seriously--you have invited happies and feels in me about this movie and I haven't even seen it yet!!!!:D

    So. Leaving before I explode. Wonderful, wonderful review!

    (Oh, and thank you so much for participating in Western Week!!!:D)

    1. Olivia,
      *laughing* I loved getting your comment!!! Oh my. Warning, health advisory: Between this and Shadow on the Mesa I think somewhere you're bound to be bouncing off the ceiling. :)

      Let's just say yes, indeed. Double *ahem.* ;D *grinning* All that to say I do hope you don't explode as I'll love hearing if you enjoy them! ;D

      And oh, you're welcome! I'm so happy I was able to participate -- it was such a lovely time! I'm looking forward to/hoping to get around and read everyone else's contributions as soon as I can. :)

    2. Okay, so I wanted to tell you: I finally got to watch both Stagecoach and Shadow on the Mesa. MAH WORD.

      (Okay, first, does SotM end with Wes riding away after they bury Mona? I just wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything since I watched it on YouTube :D)

      Stagecoach I think I'll have to watch it a couple more times to fall completely in love with the story, but Ringo and Dallas!!!!! DA CUTENESS. I seriously can't take it. They're one of my new favorite screen couples;) I LOVED how sweet and gentle and defensive Johnny was--"What about the other lady?" AAAAACK MY HEART. And then Dallas was so perfect for him... I KNOW, the dinner scene! Whew! Remember when the Something Big happens, like in those screencaps you included, and it zooms in on Ringo's face as he watches Dallas? My heart melted, melted, I tell you! Oh, and then, of course, the music. Like you said, wonderful.

      Shadow on the Mesa! I just watched it yesterday and now I'm kind of walking around in a daze. The ending seems a little rushed to me, but I LOVE WES. He reminds me of another of my favorite cowboys, Tom Harte, which is always a good thing. "Don't you talk, Mr. Rawlins?" "When I got something to say." :D And then the story is just awesome, too. And seeing Kevin Sorbo and Wes Brown act together makes me happy for some odd reason;D

      So, yeah. Just thought you should know;)

    3. Olivia!
      You did??? Both of them?!?!? Thank you SO much for telling me!!!! ;D I'm just grinning from ear to ear. :D

      Stagecoach! Yes, indeedy -- soooo sweet! And it's all so understated it's incredible. And Ringo watching Dallas after the Something Big.... I know you'll believe me when I say I actually had several more close-ups that I just had to leave out. They just wouldn't fit without making the whole thing even longer than it already is. :P

      And SotM -- oh, you don't know how excited I am to hear you like it!!! ;) That's about exactly what happened to me, too. ;D And yes, you didn't miss anything on the ending. Personally, I actually feel like it strikes a perfect note of both resolution and continuation: i.e. "This is wrapped up, but we're going places. Things are going to happen." :) I love it!

      And I'm so glad you liked Wes. Okay, a semi-secret, I've actually "cast" him as Cedric, the protagonist in my current WIP, On David's Shoulders. And having SotM has been fantabulous as it's also great for writing motivation. ;) At the moment, though, I'm working hard trying to finish my Sleeping Beauty retelling and hence (as it's early medieval) there's no SotM for me. ;P I'm really wanting to see it again, but I KNOW I'd want to get back working on ODS so I'm keeping the lid firmly screwed down on it till I'm finished with my other draft. ;) Can't wait!


Oh, you're thinking of leaving a comment! How entirely lovely -- thank you and please do!! :) I just ask that all comments be God-honoring and edifying. (And btw, I LOVE comments on old posts! ;))

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