A stagecoach is soon to leave from Tonto, New Mexico and head to a wilderness settlement in Lordsburg, but the destination seems distant for now. The coach has nine passengers, each quite unique, both in situation and in motivation. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a beautiful woman in search of a fresh start, while Lucy (Louise Platt) is pregnant and seeks to be at her husband’s side, despite her current condition. A slick talking card shark named Hatfield (John Carradine) claims to be riding to protect Lucy, but his presence doesn’t elicit much trust. Then there’s Gatewood (Berton Churchill), who seems to be in a rush to leave town, whiskey salesman Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), the ever tipsy Dr. Boone (Thomas Mitchell), and the kind, but simple driver Buck (Andy Devine). But perhaps the highest profile riders are Sheriff Wilcox (George Bancroft) and his prisoner the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). Ringo is a master shooter with a bad reputation, not to mention he is fresh from a jail break. As time passes and the coach travels, those on it begin to learn more about each other. Tempers flare, tensions mount, and secrets are revealed. Those who once seemed noble might be less than such, while some with poor pasts could prove to be true heroes.
I am not a fan of westerns, but Stagecoach is a rare exception. Not only is Stagecoach my favorite western, I’d rank it as one of my favorite films, regardless of genre. I think what makes this such a great movie is the focus on the characters and what makes them tick. As the bulk of the film takes place within a stagecoach, we have ample time to learn about these folks as the ride moves on. The pace is a little slow, but ideal for this kind of flick, as enough time is taken to explore the characters and build toward later events. I wouldn’t call this a character study per se, as we’re not taken deep within these folks, just enough to see the true colors of their personas. Those on the coach are varied and all have secrets, though not all the secrets are bad ones. There is also some action at times and with director John Ford around, you know those scenes are well handled. But even there, it is more about how the characters react and behave in the action sequences, than the action itself. The cast is superb and John Wayne, whose work I normally don’t think much of, is simply incredible here. You can tell why he became such a icon, his performance is spot on here and to me, this is his finest work. Warner’s new treatment boasts a host of supplements, so if you own the previous release, an upgrade is more than worthwhile. This is a great movie and a true classic, do not miss Stagecoach.
Video: How does it look?
“Stagecoach” has had a few previous incarnations on standard DVD and now Criterion has worked their magic on the transfer. First off, “Stagecoach” has never looked, hmmm how shall we say…”good”. I’m sorry, great movie but it just hasn’t looked that good and with the film being 70 years old, it’s highly unlikely that there’s an untouched copy of the original print lying around somewhere. Well Criterion, in their tireless effort to present films looking their best, has found a pretty good print, meticulously (and manually) removed as much dirt and grain from the negative as they could and the result is nothing short of spectacular. Well, let me rephrase that. It’s an improvement over the previous versions of “Stagecoach”, but it still leaves a little to be desired if you’re comparing it to other films. It’s a testament to Criterion and admittedly it does look far superior to the previous Warner edition from 2006. If you’re a fan of the film, this is by far the best it’s ever looked on any format.
Audio: How does it sound?
In regards to audio, well let’s just say that back in 1939, I’m sure they weren’t thinking how this would sound on Blu-ray in the year 2010. Suffice it to say that the original mono track sounds fairly good and again is an improvement over the previous two-disc edition Warner put out a few years ago. There is a slight hiss associated with some older movies and dialogue is, by and large, fairly clean though there is a bit of distortion in a few scenes. Naturally with only one channel being used, there’s not a lot of room for range but if you want to give your speakers a workout, this isn’t the movie to do it. For what it’s worth, “Stagecoach” sounds as good as it ever has and Criterion has once again done a fantastic job with their restoration.
Supplements: What are the extras?
If you’re a fan of the film and are high on supplements, well I’ve got some bad news for you; you’ll probably have to keep your old two-disc edition from Warner as Criterion has an entirely new set of supplements for us to digest. We start off with a brand new commentary track by historian Jim Kitses and his exuberance for the film is very noticeable. Kitses knows the film inside and out and it shows, it’s a great track and one not to be missed. Next up is “Bucking Broadway” which runs nearly an hour and is an early John Ford film. A new score by composer Donald Sosin has been included and the movie has been given a facelift as well. Moving along we have an interview with John Ford (circa 1968) by Philip Jenkinson who prods the director and gets plenty of information out of him in regards to the Westerns he directed, Mr. Wayne and even the violence in the films. Running at just over an hour, it’s a great interview. We get a few words by director/film lover Peter Bogdanovich (who seems to be more of a fan of films than a director anymore) on “Stagecoach.”
“Dreaming of Jeanie” is an essay of sorts as he gives his thoughts on the visual style of John Ford and how he utilizes it in “Stagecoach.” As most know, this was Ford’s first foray into Monument Valley and how Ford used that in this film. We also get a sampling of home movies by John Ford by Ford’s grandson (and biographer) Dan. He discusses his grandfather’s relations with the immortal John Wayne and some others who he worked with for years and years. “True West” gives us Buzz Bissinger’s take on how he brought Monument Valley into the picture and how it shaped future Western films. Lastly we have “Yakima Canutt” and this segment features the legendary stuntman and how his work really set the pace for Hollywood. We get an audio adaptation of “Stagecoach” (broadcast on January 9, 1949) with John Wayne and Claire Trevor who reprise their roles from the film. A theatrical trailer is also included.