A disparate group of travelers must traverse dangerous ground to reach their mutual goal, fighting both themselves and Apaches along the way. John Ford’s epic Western accommodates nearly every genre trope before subjugating them, turning expectations upside-down as STAGECOACH becomes not a shoot’em-up excess but an exercise in Sociology.
Ford pulls focus to create a claustrophobic suspense between the characters, divided by their social graces (or lack thereof) and reputations. Dallas is a prostitute spurned by Lucy, pregnant with desire to visit her husband. Doc Boone’s soul is captured in a bottle of spirits, and he takes full advantage of Peacock the meek whiskey salesman. Hatfield is a rogue and gambler, offering his flirtatious protection to Lucy while the banker Gatewood jealously guards his suitcase and prejudices. Their fate clashes with the notorious Ringo Kid who surrenders uneventfully and forms a kinship with Dallas, the other outsider.
Much of the film is enclosed in tight spaces, emotionally charged and reactive as the stagecoach bounces from one plot point to the next. Ford films in Death Valley where the fractured plateaus are like broken teeth, an alien landscape that diminishes these trifling human anxieties. The ambush sequence utilizes many trucking shots and it’s difficult not to notice the tire tracks that criss cross the desert. Ford introduces John Wayne (as the Ringo Kid) with one of the most famous tracking shots ever: it’s so quick that the image slips slightly out of focus as it zooms in for a close-up!
Ford evokes the classic Western conventions before subverting them, showing the loners as the true heroes and the businessmen as thieves. Immorality gets its due as Hatfield and Gatewood face their own poetic justice, and the two lovers are given a well earned second chance. Ford sets up the climactic gunfight between Ringo and the Plummer clan then cuts away: he doesn’t show the battle but heightens tension as Dallas waits in the forlorn darkness. Together, they make a break for their own Nirvana as the Sheriff looks on knowing the law has been broken but Justice has been served.
Final Grade: (A)