Stagecoach Review

Fresh-faced and with countless, middling westerns under his belt, John Wayne presents himself as the tour-de-force we all expect. He was the face of the western for decades. As Joan Didion put it, he was the man who “would build a house, ‘at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow’”. A beautiful tribute to the man who embodied that lust for a generation. He was the cool, chiselled face of an entire genre, and represents not just his own body of work, but frequent collaborator John Ford. Stagecoach, their late 30s collaboration, is a sign of what they would create for the years to come.

It is that quality which the two John’s would come to rely on one another for. Here, though, Wayne takes on a far different role than those which would fashion out his qualities as an actor. Age is the major factor. He is not as grizzled as those legends who surround him. When you have John Carradine and Thomas Mitchell present, it is hard to cement yourself as the tough face of the group. Still, Wayne’s performance as The Ringo Kid gives him the elusive and mysterious power only an emphatic nickname such as that could present. He is just one piece of the puzzle, and to some degree, I always enjoyed seeing him take centre stage. His name is bigger than that of a small, ensemble role. Take his work on True GritRio Bravo, or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as examples of this. He may share the screen with some of the greats, but he is always the man audiences can rely on for those close-ups and cool quips.

Not so much with Stagecoach, not just because of his youth and spirit, but also because of the fragile nature of the genre. Yet to hit its peak in 1939, the western genre would boom in the post-war period. It still had its intense charms but relied on the formalities and problematic pairings of classist tales, rather than the simplicity of gun-toting entertainment. The best of the genre could blur strong themes with action or even a sense of spectacle. Stagecoach hovers awkwardly between the two and is never sure on which it should commit to. Thankfully, Ford is always a safe pair of hands, and eventually, we are slipped into a world of clashing characters, their personalities and upbringings so far removed from one another that it is nearly impossible to see how they will form relationships and sympathies for one another.

But that is what Ford and Wayne do best. They are the heroes the genre needed. Within Stagecoach are devices and details that would live throughout the genre, outliving both of the creatives who championed their existence. Elevating themselves alongside the rest of their cast and crew, Stagecoach gives Wayne a handful of scenes that would prove a rough sketch for what he would do later in his career. For the time being though, Ford focuses on Claire Trevor and George Bancroft, and rightfully so. The best stars are guided by the greats that came before them. Just look to Sleuth, where Michael Caine sparred with Laurence Olivier. Caine paid the favour forward in a remake alongside Jude Law. Does Ford pay back the guidance he was offered by Andy Devine and Louise Platt? I like to think so. He is, after all, The Ringo Kid, and The Ringo Kid isn’t one for leaving people behind.

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