One of the most iconic Westerns ever made, Stagecoach, was only the beginning of one of the most prolific collaborations in film history, that of John Ford and John Wayne.
Before Stagecoach, Wayne had already worked in more than half a dozen Ford films, but only in minor roles in which he received no screen credit. It wasn’t until Ford saw Wayne starring in The Long Trail for Raoul Walsh that he began to think of Wayne as a leading man. And it would be another eight years before the right role came along, but when it finally did it was magic, and the John Wayne personae, as we know it was born.
Very few actors have ever had as electrifying an introduction in a film as Wayne did in Stagecoach (Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia is the closest contender I can think of). We hear a great deal about the exciting and dangerous Ringo long before we ever see him, especially from the colorful cast of characters who are to be his fellow passengers on the ill-fated coach. But it isn’t until the coach is forced to stop along the trail that we get a dramatic, push-in, rack-focus shot of Wayne twirling his shotgun and posing as the Western Adonis he came to personify. It is one of those rare moments in the history of cinema where even the camera knows its subject is bound for stardom. I still get chills when I watch it today. Of course after all the big talk, it turns out that Ringo is just a good kid at heart who got into some trouble and landed in jail. Now he’s broken out of prison so he can revenge his brother’s death by the hands of some real rough riders.
His fellow passengers, however, are not all what they seem to be. Claire Trevor for one is a lady of the evening who is being run out of town by the ladies of the church. With her good looks and a heart of gold Ringo naturally falls for her, much to her own bewilderment. Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell plays an alcoholic doctor who can’t resist a snort, but makes good in a pinch. And amongst the other fine character actors is the magnificent John Carradine playing a mysterious gambler with a gentlemanly air. Carradine gallantly joins the stage party just so he can be of service to a refined lady in need. His selfless and nearly anonymous sacrifice is one of the most noble in all of early cinema.
When it comes right down to it Stagecoach is your basic “bunch of strangers stuck together on a journey, forced to pull together and place their petty differences aside when their lives are placed in danger” movie. But it’s very likely the best one of its kind due in large part to a stellar cast under the superb direction of one of Cinema’s all time best. After all, when it’s Ford, Wayne, and a Western, you just can’t go wrong.