30 Great Westerns

George Bancroft, Claire Trevor, and John Wayne in a publicity shot for Stagecoach.

1939 was the great watershed year in the history of the Western. By the late '30s, with only a few exceptions, the Western had been turned over to the B-movie studios (Republic, Lone Star, Universal, etc.), where stars such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and William Boyd thrived. The "A" Western had become a rarity. In 1939 this pattern suddenly changed when Hollywood showed renewed interest in feature length Westerns by producing Dodge City, Jesse James, Union Pacific, and, arguably the most influential Western of all time, Stagecoach. Many writers have pointed to the importance of Stagecoach in revitalizing Hollywood's attitude toward Westerns, but when Stagecoach was first released, it did only mediocre box-office business. Over the ensuring decades, however, the reputation of Stagecoach has soared--for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the presence of John Wayne in the role that made him a major movie star.

When Stagecoach was being cast, director John Ford lobbied hard for Wayne, but producer Walter Wanger kept saying no. Ford stuck by his guns, though, and eventually Wanger gave in. It's not hard to understand Wanger's uneasiness about Wayne. Throughout the '30s, Wayne had starred in a plethora of relatively undemanding B-Westerns, where Wayne's characters projected a warm, boyish charm, but he often looked inept when scenes demanded real acting ability. Wayne had failed his biggest test to date--a starring role in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930), a big-budget Western that had fizzled at the box office.

Part of the problem is the B Westerns frequently asked Wayne to project emotions outside of his range. However, John Ford understood Wayne's limitations as an actor and created a role--the Ringo Kid--that could use Wayne's greenhorn talents. In the process, Wayne learned that being a Western star depended as much upon what you don't say as what you do say. Like Clint Eastwood's man-without-a-name character, Wayne often best served his characters through a minimum of words. In Stagecoach, Ford frequently simply focuses the camera on Wayne's face. But whereas a B-Western director might ask Wayne to show surprise or fear or anger, Ford evoked much subtler reactions from Wayne. In one shot, as Ringo and a woman share a brief look, Wayne's face remains passive, while a faint but discernible glimmer warms his eyes: as a result, you respect his strength and sense the Kid's moral character. Whether this is acting or just masterful direction is irrelevant, for on some level Wayne understood what happened in Stagecoach and what it said about his future in "A" Westerns. Never again did he return to the enthusiastic-but-boyish acting of his B-Western career.

But there is much more to Stagecoach than simply John Wayne. John Ford made use of Monument Valley for the first time in Stagecoach. Other directors had used it before, such as George B. Seitz in The Vanishing American (1925), but no one used it as well, or as extensively, as John Ford. The stark buttes and dusty desert plains of Monument Valley would soon become one of the most widely recognizable locations in the world. John Ford liked the scenery so much that the movie's stagecoach trip traverses Monument Valley three times. But you can't blame Ford for the repetition. It's a stunning location that for many movie lovers around the world instantly evokes images of the West and the arid, inhospitable land that pioneers crossed while settling this continent.

Much of Stagecoach's power comes from what critic Andrew Sarris called Ford's "Double Image; alternating between close-ups of emotional intimacy and long shots of epic involvement, thus capturing both the twitches of life and the silhouettes of legend." Whereas movies such as Union Pacific and Dodge City are concerned almost entirely with "the silhouettes of legend," Stagecoach allows us to get close to the main players by using a narrative structure not dissimilar to Grand Hotel. The story introduces us to a stagecoach full of characters, who all bring with them their own problems and motivations. Claire Trevor plays the prostitute, named Dallas, being run out of town by the women's benevolent society; Thomas Mitchell (in an Academy Award-winning performance) plays the alcoholic doctor, Doc Boone, being run out of town by the sheriff; Berton Churchill plays the banker who has embezzled funds; Louise Platt plays the pregnant wife traveling to see her husband (a cavalry officer); John Carradine plays a card shark with a roving eye; Donald Meek is the whiskey drummer who Doc Boone instantly befriends (much to Meek's dismay); George Bancroft is the town sheriff who rides shotgun when word spreads that Geronimo is on the prowl; Andy Devine is the stagecoach driver who'd prefer to be back at home with his Indian wife; and John Wayne is the Ringo Kid, who has recently broken out of jail with the intention of killing the man who killed his father and brother. Ford's camera gives Wayne the type of introduction usually reserved for only the biggest stars: the camera quickly tracks in on the Kid as he twirls his rifle as a signal for the stagecoach to stop and pick him up. From this moment forward, our attention is riveted by Wayne every time he's on the screen.

American audiences have always been attracted to characters with shady pasts who have chosen to reform their ways (usually as a result of romantic love). Stagecoach's story ultimately depends upon a double act of reformation as represented by the budding relationship between Dallas and the Ringo Kid: in the climatic scene, Dallas waits while the Kid and outlaw Luke Plummer face-off in a showdown. Her entire future rests in the balance: if he doesn't return, she will no doubt return to prostitution, and if he does return, Dallas and the Kid will start their lives anew on his small ranch. Director Ford expertly plays with our expectations in this scene: as the Ringo Kid approaches Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) and his two sidekicks, the Kid lunges forward into the dust, firing his rifle while the camera captures him at ground level--but Ford cuts away. Instead of showing us the action scene through to its conclusion, Ford takes us back to the darkened street, where Dallas waits, half out of her mind in fear of what might be happening to the Kid. It's one of the great bits of misdirection in the history of cinema.

Significantly, if the Kid and Dallas ride off into the sunset, they're headed for the wilderness, where in the words of Doc Boone "they'll be saved from the blessings of civilization." As the movie shows us with Platt's snobbish society lady and Churchill's banker who can't be trusted, society can't be depended upon for help. And commercial interests (as represented by the whiskey drummer) are ineffectual and incapable of protecting themselves. It's outcasts (as represented by Dallas, the Ringo Kid, and Doc Boone) and military force (as represented by the cavalry that rides to the rescue) who save the day and provide flashes of stability and nobility.

Ford would return to these themes, with more optimistic results for civilization in My Darling Clementine (1946); however, with The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford once again questioned the relationship between civilization and the people who settled the West.

Orson Welles has long been credited with being among the first directors to film scenes with ceilings intact. But when you watch Stagecoach, watch closely the scenes at Dry Forks and Apache Wells: you'll find the interior scenes have ceilings. Ford's camera frequently drops down low so that it must look up at the actors. In the process, the ceilings appear huge, massive, and foreboding. The effect is absolutely claustrophobic when compared to the openness of the wilderness as represented by Monument Valley. Ford leaves little doubt where his allegiances lie.

--by Gary Johnson