Theaters: February 1939
Streaming: May 2010 (digitally restored)
Runtime: 96 minutes
Genre: Action – Adventure – Classic – Drama – Romance – Western
Amazon: 4.7/5 stars
Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 9.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Audience: 3.9/5
Metacritic Metascore: NA/100
Metacritic User Score: NA/10
Awards: 2 Academy Awards
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dudley Nichols (screen play), Ernest Haycox (short story)
Music by: Gerard Carbonara
Cast: Claire Trevor, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, John Wayne, Andy Devine, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Louise Platt
Film Locations: Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, US
Worldwide Box Office: $1,103,757
A stagecoach, in 1880, carries 9 disparate members of the old west from Tonto in the Arizona Territory, through hostile Apache territory, to Lordsburg, New Mexico; all passengers with a story that needs telling. Ringo Kid (Wayne) breaks out of jail to avenge his father’s and brother’s murder, a banker (Churchill) escaping his harping wife with ill-gotten gains, a mysterious southerner (Carradine) attracted to a pretty young lady passenger (Platt), a submissive whiskey salesman (Meek), a marshal (Bancroft) along to ride shotgun and return Ringo to prison, a prostitute (Trevor), and an alcoholic doctor (Mitchell), all compelled to Lordsburg by ghosts that don’t give a wit about the Apaches. They start off their trip in relative safety with a cavalry escort but lose it at the next town when the relief soldiers fail to show. As they continue on their way to Lordsburg, tensions and troubles mount as the Apaches close in for the attack.
The movie is based on the 1937 Ernest Haycox short story, Stagecoach to Lordsburg, originally published as The Last Stage to Lordsburg in the 10 April 1937 issue of Colliers. Dudley Nichols, a frequent writer for John Ford movies, adapted the book for this movie.
John Ford hadn’t made a western since the 1920s. No one was making big budget westerns in the 1930s and no one wanted Wayne anywhere near a big production, especially in a starring role. Well Ford had an idea and a story that proved he was right and the experts could go teach their grandmothers to suck eggs. Ford resurrected the western, took it out of the kids’ Saturday matinée round-up, and gave the movie going public a good 30 years of great follow-up action movies involving horses and gunslingers. Oh, by the way, this movie made John Wayne the biggest name in Hollywood for decades to come. Artists are always a tough bunch to judge.
It is a rare movie when all the characters are cast just right. Wayne the righteous bad guy-good guy, Meek the meek whiskey peddler, Trevor the conflicted prostitute; all fitting their roles like a cow hand’s wet leather glove. Devine, along with Ken Curtis and Walter Brennan, defined the role of humorous sidekick, adding in the well oiled schtick to move the drama along. Carradine plays a good guy this time, although it is not apparent until much later in the movie whether he is a shady character or an honorable southern gentleman. Playing a drunk doesn’t get more realistic than Mitchell’s whimsical but competent doctor portrayal, for which he deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for.
This movie redefined westerns going into the 40s and 50s for the movie going public. Not the best western every made but certainly in the top 10. Orson Wells is said to have watched this movie dozens of times to provide background and ideas for his Citizen Kane. Watching this movie dozens of times in a short period is likely not good for your mental health but once a decade will remind you what a truly ground breaking film this was.