Today marks the 70th anniversary of the US release of John Ford’s immortal western Stagecoach and is one of the many landmark films of 1939 that Project 39 is proud to celebrate. I was probably round ten years old when I saw Stagecoach for the first time, so pardon me, if you will, while I gush. Even on our family’s teensy television set, the scope of John Ford’s creation was simply boggling to me. The film hits on all six cylinders from start to finish. Character, story and execution are in many ways textbook perfect and John Ford’s inspired, sprawling visions in Stagecoach influenced each and every Western film to follow.
It has been called a ‘watershed’ film, often mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Godfather and Citizen Kane—and rightly so. Just as those films were envelope pushers that reinvented their genres, it can be concluded that John Ford’s Stagecoach truly did reinvent the modern Western (notwithstanding Cimarron from earlier in the decade). It was the first film that Ford made using Utah’s dramatic Monument Valley as his canvas, brought John Wayne’s imposing large-than-life form and gruff vulnerability into our social consciousness and proved that Westerns could be intelligent character studies rather than bang-bang shoot-em-ups—a lesser director would have made just another popcorn matinee flick out of the admittedly tired plot. He wove gutsy, realistic action, drama and a fair share of comedy together to create a winning formula that Directors have been faithfully following ever since.
Although the characters of the film are rudimentary in themselves, Ford turned them into multi-dimensional human beings which is why we still love John Wayne’s Ringo Kid, love-to-hate John Carradine’s Hartfield and root tirelessly for Claire Trevor’s bad girl Dallas. Paul Brenner of FlimCritic.com summed it up marvelously when he said: “Ford takes these characters, puts them together in the enclosed space of a stagecoach and watches the cardboard characters pop and explode, exploring how their stereotypical veneers are melted away to reveal desires, needs, and regrets that were never explored in westerns before this one.”
In a year jam-packed with film firsts, legendary performances and technological innovations, Stagecoach is not only stands out as one of 1939’s best—but as one of cinema’s best. Period.