"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, May 14, 2010

DVD of the Week: Stagecoach: Criterion Collection

If there is one director that helped define the classic western more than any other, it would be John Ford. With Stagecoach (1939), he took B-film material and elevated it to A-list status. In doing so, Ford established a benchmark that other films of the genre would be measured against for years to come. However, at the time, he was trying to get his film made, he had a spotty commercial track record and couldn’t convince studio boss David O. Selznick to bankroll his adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg.” So, Ford bought the story with his own money and brought the project to Walter Wanger at United Artists. Stagecoach would also mark the beginning of an important relationship between Ford and actor John Wayne. The filmmaker had used the actor before as an extra but with this film Wayne would make the transition from B-movie obscurity to iconic leading man status.

We meet a group of passengers making a dangerous journey to Lordsburg on a stagecoach. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a beautiful prostitute escaping the conservative elements of the town. Peacock (Meek) is a mild-mannered liquor distributor which instantly endears him to Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the town drunk. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is pregnant and looking for a fresh start. Hatfield (John Carradine) is a slick, shifty-looking gambler. Driving the stagecoach is Buck (Andy Devine), the comic relief complete with a voice that cracks, and Curley (George Bancroft), the lawman who rides shotgun. Along for the ride is Gatewood, the unscrupulous banker, and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), an outlaw who has escaped jail in order to find the men responsible for the death of his father and brother. At the beginning of the trip they are warned of the increasing threat of Apaches and, at one point, even vote on whether to press on or turn around once they lose their U.S. Calvary support.

Ford does a nice job introducing all of the characters while Dudley Nichols’ screenplay, coupled with the talented cast, does just enough to flesh out the characters beyond their stereotypes. Shot in Monument Valley, Ford uses the vastness of this foreboding terrain to really open things up and provide the genre with one of its most iconic settings. However, the Apache are presented as a one-dimensional threat, fulfilling the genre convention as the anonymous enemy. One of the film’s highlights is the Apache raid on the stagecoach as our heroes fight for their lives and features an impressive stunt involving a man being dragged underneath the stagecoach that would be recreated in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) albeit with a truck. Stagecoach is one of the finest examples of the classic western as it presents all of the tried and true conventions of the genre and gives them a mythological status.

Special Features:

This special edition is jam-packed with goodies for fans of the film and of the western genre, starting off with an audio commentary on the first disc by film historian and western scholar Jim Kitses. He challenges the conventional view that Stagecoach lacks the depth and command of craft of Ford’s later films. Kitses does a fantastic job of explaining how Ford’s camerawork and the use of invisible editing set up differences in class and established genre conventions. When not offering expert analysis, he provides biographical information on various cast members in this eloquent and informative track.

Also included on this disc is a trailer.

Disc two starts off with “Bucking Broadway,” a 54-minute silent film from 1917 that stars John Ford favourite Harry Carey as a cowboy whose true love is taken away by a big city type. It features many of the themes and conventions that Ford would explore again and again in later films.

There is a 1968 interview with Ford by British journalist and television presenter Philip Jenkinson. Running over an hour, the filmmaker talks about his childhood, how he got his start as a director, working with John Wayne, and, of course, Stagecoach. Ford comes across as a no-nonsense man and plain-spoken, refusing to romanticize his past despite the interviewer’s best attempts.

Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich offers his thoughts on Stagecoach and praises the strong script and solid ensemble cast. He analyzes Wayne’s performance and how he reacts to the things that happen around him. Bogdanovich also offers his impressions of Ford and Wayne, having met both of them.

“Dreaming of Jeanie” is a video essay that examines Ford’s visual style in Stagecoach. It analyzes several of the film’s themes through clips and illustrates how Ford used camera movement, framing and background details to show the traits of the various characters.

“John Ford Home Movies” is an interview with the director’s grandson and biographer Dan Ford. He talks about his grandfather’s home movies that show the man at his most relaxed, complete with clips from the actual films. We see the likes of John Wayne and Henry Fonda lounging around with Ford on his boat.
“True West” is an unexpected treat featuring author Buzz Bissinger talking about the 1920s trading post operator Harry Goulding and his role in telling filmmakers like Ford about Monument Valley. The land belonged to the Navajos but he staked out a claim thanks to his friendship with them. Bissinger talks about how Goulding met Ford and persuaded him to make Stagecoach in Monument Valley.

Another outstanding extra is a featurette about legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt who performed many of the amazing stunts in the film. He went on to become an important figure in the stuntman industry. Fellow industry legend Vic Armstrong offers his thoughts and impressions of the man and talks about just how groundbreaking Canutt was back in the day.

Finally, there is “Screen Director’s Playhouse,” a radio adaptation of Stagecoach that aired on January 9, 1949 and starred John Wayne and Claire Trevor, reprising their film roles.


  1. Gah!

    I picked it up when Warner's put out their big Archival version. Its good Warner's always is, but man, that's a Criterion John Ford movie.

  2. Yeah, the Criterion edition is packed with goodies and according to DVDBeaver, their transfer is better than the Warner Bros. one. Go figure.

  3. I want one! Thanks for posting this.

  4. Sounds like an excellent package. I'm looking forward to checking this out again, I haven't seen it in years!

  5. Wow, you have your copy already J.D.? Needless to say this "Grand Hotel" of westerns is one of the true classics of the cinema, and without question one of Ford's masterpieces, and a film that can be endlessly discussed as long as movies are valued. The Criterion release of course, is one of their prestide moments, and I thank you for this impassioned assessment.

    BTW, today Criterion announced a stunning Von Sternberg box for August as well as an Elipse on Kurosawa's first films.

  6. Obviously a landmark in film, despite what now may seen like a like group of cliche characters, remains a masterpiece. I own a previously dvd release but will have to get this criterion edition. Good job R.D.

  7. J.D.

    Your reviews of Stagecoach and Little Big Man inspired me to break out my Deadwood collection. I'm into that series as we speak.

    Thoughtful commentary as always and I never put the Raiders Of The Lost Ark moment together with Stagecoach, but that is exactly right. Keep up the outstanding work.

  8. A fine look at this, J.D. You have to give the great folk at Criterion credit for the work and treatment they do films. How many times do fans wish for these guys to get hold of a favorite of theirs and give it the kind of attention Criterion is known for. I dare say, Stagecoach set the tone for westerns for decades (both good and bad). The film (and Ford) revolutionized the genre. Great job, my friend.

    p.s., that stunt you highlight here was performed by the legendary Yakima Canutt. Not only was he one of the all-time best stuntmen, but was one of the leading stunt coordinators in movies. He was the second unit director on BEN-HUR, EL CID, WHERE EAGLES DARE and others. I'm so glad you called out his fabled stagecoach stunt, J.D. Thanks.

  9. What I loved when I re-watched it last year is how much the portrayal of Gatewood (remembering that the movie was made as the U.S. was coming out of the Great Depression) reflects the feelings toward the chicanery the Wall Street titans pulled today that sent our economy into the ditch.

  10. Hokahey:

    You are more than welcome, my friend!

    Sean Gill:

    Yeah, I hadn't watched it in ages either. I forgot to add that the Criterion edition also comes with a copy of the original short story that the film is based on, which is a really nice touch.

    Sam Juliano:

    Glad you enjoyed the review, Sam. Yeah, this is certainly one of Ford's finest moments... and John Wayne's, too! He's so good in this film and you can see why it transformed him into a bonafide movie star.

    Yeah, those upcoming Criterion DVDs sound good! I am really excited for their upcoming edition of THE THIN RED LINE and also, next month MYSTERY TRAIN.


    It sure is a masterpiece and, as I said in my review, I think the actors and the script help move the character beyond their cliched archetypes. Not to mention, people forget that this film helped est. those cliches. Oh well...

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Ah, DEADWOOD! What a great show.

    I had forgotten that RAIDERS lifted that stunt from STAGECOACH but it just shows that the real deal - i.e. an actual stuntman doing the stunt - is so much better than CGI.


    "How many times do fans wish for these guys to get hold of a favorite of theirs and give it the kind of attention Criterion is known for."

    Agreed! There are so many films I love that they have given the deluxe treatment to - NAKED LUNCH, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, etc. Amazing.

    I had no idea about Yakima Canutt and the featurette on him reinforces what makes the Criterion editions so good - that they highlight fascinating bits of film arcana.

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend.

    Edward Copeland:

    Yeah, Gatewood the banker certainly reflected attitudes of the public having just made it through the Great Depression and, as you so wisely point out, is certainly applicable today!


    Hey there! Glad to see you back! I left a comment on your blog. Nice to see you blogging again.

  11. J.D., be sure to check out Dave Kehr's fine look at the Ford classic and the little seen 1966 remake that recently came out in DVD by Twilight Time. It was directed by Gordon Douglas, with Alex Cord in the John Wayne role. It's a great article comparing the two. Thanks.