Filmed in black-and-white, 1939’s Stagecoach began a decades-long collaboration between classic movie star John Wayne and his most loyal director, John Ford. The fact that it’s also the film that catapulted John Wayne to true stardom is an even better reason to like it. What’s also interesting is that his portrayal of The Ringo Kid is recognized by critics as moving the typical Western hero from a person who basically wore a white hat, so to speak, and without ulterior motive, to somebody who was more complicated and multidimensional. Also starring Claire Trevor as a frowned-upon woman of so-called loose morals, and Thomas Mitchell as a drunken doctor of no real courage, director Ford’s examination of true motives and complicated behaviors among several members traveling on a stagecoach going through the Indian Territories set a pattern of realism for more than a few Westerns that followed over the years. It’s worth noting that Mitchell also won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his effort.
Stagecoach brought about a new era of Westerns to emerge from Hollywood, and many of the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s have a direct lineage back to this one film.
A veteran of dozens of B-movies by that time, John Wayne took The Ringo Kid, who was a man of ready violence, if need be, and used him to show how someone who might’ve been not-too-pure in the past, could make himself capable of good works in the defense of those weaker than himself. Also, Claire Trevor’s run-out-of-town saloon girl proved she was more than equal to the rigors of stagecoach travel, and in dealing with bands of marauding Indians and raiders. Though she’d been beaten down a bit by life, she demonstrated a ready willingness to stand up when it counted. And also to love, when it mattered.
Many critics contend that this now-classic movie was the first really adult oriented Western to come out of the cowboy movie factories of old Hollywood.
This is due in part to Ford’s examination of societal mores, and also in the way in which complex relationships between members of the stagecoach traveling party were laid out. Particularly in the case of the alcoholic doctor, memorably played by Mitchell, one can see Ford’s continuing fascination with redemption and episodic feats of courage. Additionally, the crisp cinematography and the film’s use of light and shadow to depict deep emotions make for an experience which made this John Wayne vehicle a movie that was hard-hitting for its time, and beloved among classic movies in the here and now.