Stagecoach (1939) Directed by John Ford. John Wayne, Claire Trevor, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell (97 min.)
Today, in the movies and on tv, in print ads and video, Monument Valley is an inescapable symbol of American self-reliance and the pioneering spirit. Everyone on a cross-country odyssey of self-discovery simply must go there. It has lost its meaning in a morass of truck and SUV shills and rugged individualist cliché. During John Ford’s lifetime, no other director dared appropriate his most characteristic location. Only Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote were allowed in. The paved road that prevents Ford’s most famous shots from being duplicated wasn’t put in until the 1950s. But now, Monument Valley often validates the ironic and the uninspired.
Things were different in 1938. Harry Goulding and his wife were scraping by with a trading post near an impoverished Navaho reservation on the Arizona-Utah border. The Depression had hit hard and his starving customers had pawned all they had to pawn. The Gouldings heard (probably from the Wetherills, who owned another trading post) that John Ford was planning a big-budget Western. The Wetherills had occasionally hosted other travellers and a movie company or two in the silent days. Cartoonist George Herrimann stayed with them, and set his Krazy Kat comics in Monument Valley. Only a dirt track lead the way in and few people had ever seen the staggering monoliths. The Gouldings gathered a stack of photos and drove to Hollywood. At the studio, the receptionist said Goulding had to have an appointment. “I can wait. I’ve lived among the Navajo so long that I don’t get so busy that I can’t wait. I’ve got a bedroll. I’ve got plenty of time, so I’ll stay right here.” The location director was hastily summoned and he in turn brought Ford. They pored over the photographs for hours, then asked him if he could accommodate the arrival of 100 people in three days time.
John Ford had bought a short story called “Stage to Lordsburg” the year before and co-wrote a script with Dudley Nichols. They may have based their script more on “Boule de Suif”, a Guy de Maupassant short story, but didn’t wish to appear too “arty.” Ford had made more silent Westerns than any other director, including a couple of great ones, The Iron Horse and Three Bad Men. When sound came in, Westerns fell out of favor because of the difficulty of recording sound outdoors, although there had been several lavish ones around 1930. Technical problems overcome, Ford wanted an intelligent Western with a moral backbone that would revitalize the genre for adult audiences. He also missed the remote locations free from executive interference, where he was free to indulge his patriarchial/autocratic (take your pick) inclinations. He considered his cast and crew and extended family. The local Navajo played the Apaches in the film, and Ford treated them with respect and employed some of them in many of his films. Hosteen Tso, a Shaman, promised and delivered the exact cloud formations that Ford desired, and became a respected number of the location crew. Ford contributed greatly to the local economy in a time of desperate poverty by giving jobs to hundreds of local Navajo as extras and laborers and insisting they be paid Hollywood scale.
John Wayne had been a prop man and a bit player in some of Ford’s silent films after his indifferent USC football career was cut short. The handsome athlete had lucked into the lead in just about the last of the big budget Westerns, Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail. But, the Depression had just hit, and few theaters wanted to convert to the 70mm format called “Grandeur” in1930 after just converting to sound, and the film flopped. Throughout the 1930s Wayne cranked out budget “oaters” at a number of Poverty Row studios. He often worked with stuntman and champion rodeo rider Yakima Canutt. They became friends, worked out action sequences together and stunted for one another. Real cowboys, “the last of the last” worked as extras in these films, driven off their ranches by the Depression, they worked in the movies because it was the closest to the life they knew they were leaving behind forever. Wayne internalized their authentic Western mythos during the grueling workdays.
Wayne had been a sailing and drinking buddy of John Ford’s throughout the 30s, and one weekend Ford threw him the Stagecoach script and said, “Read this for me. I’m having a hell of a time deciding whom to cast as the Ringo Kid. You know a lot of young actors, Duke, See what you think.” Why don’t you get Lloyd Nolan?” he suggested. “You idiot!” Ford shot back, “couldn’t you play it?” Ford was either a sadist or a shrewd psychologist; perhaps both. On the set he ragged Wayne pitilessly. Perhaps he did it because the more experienced actors would feel sorry for him, instead of resenting the newcomer’s plum part. Ford certainly felt most creative when he was behaving most cruelly to his actors. “He knew what he was doing,” Wayne told one of his biographers, “First of all, he was making me feel emotions. He knew he wouldn’t get a good job of work out of me unless he shook me up so damn hard, I’d forget to worry about whether I was fit to be in the same picture with Thomas Mitchell Mr, Ford only wanted to do one thing, and that was to make good pictures, and to do this, he would do anything, anything.” After they went back to the studio, Ford filmed the thrilling close-up that announced Wayne’s ascendancy to the rarified rank of movie star.
Stagecoach was intended to be an ensemble piece, and in a way, Wayne’s unexpected charisma threw Ford’s concept off-balance. In 1939, Claire Trevor (Dallas) was the most famous cast member with the biggest salary. This February you’ll see her 10 years later in her Oscar winning role in Key Largo at the NCMA. Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his role as the drunken doctor, although it was probably also partly for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind the same year.
There is a hair-raising stunt in the chase scene done by Yakima Canutt. He virtually invented modern stunt work as a profession, and he stunts and doubles many times in this film. He designed safety equipment to make stunting safer for men and horses, and the camera angles so the safety equipment wouldn’t be seen. Canutt has one line at the very beginning, as a rider who announces that Geronimo is in the area; but he’s tough to spot. He is also the Apache who jumps onto the stagecoach’s horses, is shot and falls through while the horses and coach thunder over him. This has often been imitated, but it was Canutt’s gag, and he made sure to roll over at the end of it so you knew he wasn’t a dummy. The cameramen weren’t sure they got the shot, and Canutt said he’d do it again, “You know I love to make money.” Ford said, “I’ll never shoot that again. They better have it.” One of my big complaints about current films is that (except for Jackie Chan) stuntwork is so over-edited, you never get the thrill of seeing one person do a single stunt from beginning to end.
“You can say the real star of my Westerns has always been the land” John Ford said, and he would return 6 times to the primordial formations of Monument Valley his “test of valor, a passageway to the unknown.” In spite of the intervening years that have made many of the innovations in Stagecoach commonplace, it’s still jammed with sequences that make an audience gasp (and they did) and charcters you can really care about. Wayne’s sexy authority is magnetic and the cinematography lush.
Ford did not individualize the Native Americans, because he considered them part of the natural landscape. Revisionist history sometimes views these sagas as racist, but it is an historical fact that the US Cavalry did defeat the warrior tribes of Plains Indians; the interpretation has changed. Scott Eyman, in Print the Legend, his great new biography of John Ford, believes this is Ford’s most perfect film. Orson Welles watched it 40 times before starting Citizen Kane. Ford believed that nation building is always done by society’s outcasts. He thought the conquest of the Western wilderness as America’s creation myth, containing endless opportunities for reinvention and freedom.
(Photo of Claire Trevor from anonymous Shirley Temple “Child Stars” scrapbook, one of the few “grown-up” actors pasted in; John Wayne, c. 1942 from Claire Drazin’s movie star scrapbook; John Ford on location (with Tim Holt) for Stagecoach in Monument Valley; photo from May, 1978 American Film article on Ford’s films there.)