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May 13, 2013

Stagecoach

by Franz Patrick


Stagecoach (1939)
★★★ / ★★★★

The driver of a stagecoach (Andy Devine) and a sheriff (George Bancroft) on the lookout for Ringo Kid (John Wayne), a man who has recently broken out of prison, are ready to take their passengers from Tonto, New Mexico to Lordsburg. But just before they are about to leave, a military lieutenant (Tim Holt) warns them that if they decide to go on their journey, they are likely to encounter a group of hostile Apache Indians.

One of the central motifs in “Stagecoach,” based on the screenplay by Dudley Nichols and directed by John Ford, consists of opposite elements colliding–the splendor of the desert landscape and its disregard for those who trek across the heat, the wildlife, and strangers with unknown intentions–the contradictory byproducts the reason why the story feels so vibrant and alive.

For example, some of the men and women in the stagecoach, especially Ms. Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), are considered “uncivilized” by members of their community. The two are essentially banished from Tonto for being a lustful woman and a drunkard, respectively. But as the group crosses the unknown “savage” territory to get to another “civilized” town, it is shown that although they are treated like pariahs, they are just like everyone else in that when thrusted into the wilderness, they must react to and do whatever is necessary to survive and get through another day.

The heart of the film lies in the growing romance between Ringo and Ms. Dallas. Both carry an unwanted label, a criminal and a prostitute, but Ringo is not aware of Ms. Dallas’ line of work. Pain is seen in her eyes as he tries to get to know her but she remains reluctant, always on the defensive, to reveal all of herself to him. She is embarrassed of her background and she cannot find the courage to disclose her shame. Hiding it, though it keeps them apart, is, for her, an act of loving him back.

There is an excellent scene between Ms. Dallas and Doc Boone in the hallway, after Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) has given birth, where she asks the doctor if it is a good idea to accept Ringo’s marriage proposal and run away to Mexico. Doc Boone, uncharacteristically sober and without comedic jolt that is found in many of his scenes, looks at her with tender intensity as if she were his own daughter and says, even though they know almost nothing about each other, that it is a good idea. It is irrelevant if Doc Boone does or does not believe his own answer. What matters is, although he is constantly under a state of insensibility, he recognizes that it just might be what Ms. Dallas wishes to hear at the time.

Eventually, the colorful characters find themselves being chased across the desert by the Apaches. The scene is shot with effervescence, increasing momentum, and lyricism. The approaching Apaches can be interpreted as a symbol of the characters’ sins catching up to them. For a long time, it seems like no matter how hard or creative our protagonists try to evade their pursuers, the Indians just kept on coming like a tidal wave. It is thrilling, even scary at times. Every time the camera moves inside the horse-drawn vehicle to get a reaction shot, the claustrophobia reaches a peak.

But the film, I think, is evokes a small but important layer hope. That is, if one has the determination to swim against the ugly prejudice of others as well as one’s own, winning the battle becomes a real possibility. The rest just might fall into place.

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