“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

 

“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

Between 1948 and 1950, director John Ford made three Westerns that many regard as his “cavalry trilogy”. All three films centered on the U.S. Army Cavalry in the post-Civil War West. More importantly, all three movies were based upon short stories written by American Western author, James Warner Bellah. 

The first film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” was “FORT APACHE” released in 1948. Starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda, the movie was inspired by Bellah’s 1947 Saturday Evening Post short story called “Massacre”. Bellah used the Little Bighorn and Fetterman Fight battles as historical backdrop.

The movie began with the arrival of three characters to the U.S. Army post, Fort Apache, in the post-Civil War Arizona Territory – a rigid and egocentric Army officer named Lieutenant Owen Thursday; his daughter Philadelphia Thursday; and a recent West Point graduate named Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke, who also happened to be the son of the regiment’s first sergeant. The regiment’s first officer, Captain Kirby York, and everyone else struggle to adjust to the martinet style of Thursday. Worse, young Lieutenant O’Rourke and Philadelphia become romantically interested each other. But since O’Rourke is the son of a sergeant, the snobbish Thursday does not regard him as a “gentleman” and is against a romance between the pair. But Thursday’s command style, the budding romance and other minor events at Fort Apache take a back seat when the regiment is faced with a potential unrest from the local Apaches, due to their conflict with a corrupt Indian agent named Silas Meacham. Thursday’s command and his willingness to adapt to military command on the frontier is tested when he finds himself caught between the Meacham’s penchant for corruption and the Apaches’ anger and desire for justice.

“FORT APACHE” proved to be one of the first Hollywood films to portray a sympathetic view of Native Americans. This is surprising, considering that Bellah’s view of the Native Americans in his story is not sympathetic and rather racist. For reasons I do not know, Ford decided to change the story’s negative portrayal of the Apaches, via screenwriter Frank S. Nugent’s script. Although Ford and Nugent did not focus upon how most of the other characters regarded the Apaches, they did spotlight on at least three of them – Captain Kirby York, Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday, and Captain Sam Collingwood. Both Thursday and Collingwood seemed to share the same negative views of the Apaches, although the latter does not underestimate their combat skills. York seemed a lot more open-minded and sympathetic toward the Apaches’ desire to maintain their lives in peace without the U.S. government breathing down their backs. In the case of “FORT APACHE”, York’s views seemed to have won out . . . for the moment.

As much as I enjoyed “FORT APACHE”, I must admit that I was frustrated that it took so long for it to begin exploring its main narrative regarding the Apaches and Meachum. The movie’s first half spent most of its time on three subplots. One of them featured the clash between Thursday and the men under his command. The second featured the budding romance between Philadelphia Thursday and Second Lieutenant O’Rourke. Do not get me wrong. And the third featured scenes of the day-to-day activities of the fort’s enlisted men and non-commission officers. I must admit that I found the last subplot somewhat uninteresting and felt they dragged the movie’s narrative. I had no problems with the Philadelphia-Michael romance, since it added a bit of romance to the movie’s plot and played a major role in Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday’s characterization. And naturally the York-Thursday conflict played an important role in the film’s plot.

The ironic thing about “FORT APACHE” is that the plot line regarding the Apaches does not come to the fore until halfway into the film. Due to this plot structure, I found myself wondering about the film’s main narrative. What exactly is “FORT APACHE” about? Worse, the fact that the Apache story arc does not really come to fore until the second half, almost making the film seem schizophrenic. There were plenty of moments in the first half that led me to wonder if director John Ford had become too caught up in exploring mid-to-late 19th century military life on the frontier.

Many have claimed that “FORT APACHE” is not specifically about life at a 19th century Army post in the Old West or the U.S. government’s relations with the Apaches. It is about the conflict between the two main characters – Captain Kirby York and Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. In other words, one of the movie’s subplots might actually be its main plot. Both York and Thursday were Civil War veterans who seemed to have conflicting ideas on how to command a U.S. Army post in the 19th century West and deal with the conflict between the American white settlers and the Apaches, trying to defend their homeland. Captain York had expected to become Fort Apache’s new commander, following the departure of the previous one. Instead, the post’s command was given to Colonel Thursday, an arrogant and priggish officer with no experience with the West or Native Americans. What makes the situation even more ironic is that while York had wanted command of Fort Apache, Thursday is both disappointed and embittered that the Army had posted him to this new assignment.

The problem I have with this theory is that movie did not spend enough time on the York-Thursday conflict for me to accept it. Thursday seemed to come into conflict with a good number of other characters – especially the O’Rourke men and his old friend Captain Sam Collingwood. York and Thursday eventually clashed over the Apaches’ conflict with Silas Meacham. And considering that a great deal of the movie’s first half focused on the day-to-day life on a frontier Army post and the Philadelphia-Michael romance, I can only conclude that I found “FORT APACHE” a slightly schizophrenic film.

Despite this, I rather enjoyed “FORT APACHE”. Well . . . I enjoyed parts of the first half and definitely the second half. While I found some of Ford’s exploration of life at a 19th century Army post rather charming, I found the movie’s portrayal of the entire Apaches-Meachum conflict intriguing, surprising and very well made. Instead of the usual Hollywood “white men v. Indians” schtick, Ford explored the damaging effects of U.S. policies against Native Americans. This was especially apparent in the situation regarding Silas Meacham. Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent made it clear that both Captain York and Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday regarded Meachum as a dishonorable and corrupt man, whose greed had led to great unrest among the Apaches.

And yet . . . whereas York was willing to treat the Apaches with honor and consider getting rid of Meachum, Thursday’s rigid interpretation of Army regulations and arrogant prejudice led him to dismiss the Apaches’s protests and support Meachum’s activities because the latter was a U.S. government agent . . . and white. Worse, Thursday decided to ignore York’s warnings and use this situation as an excuse for military glory and order his regiment into battle on Cochise’s terms – a direct (and suicidal) charge into the hills. U.S. policy in the Old West at its worst. God only knows how many times a similar action had occurred throughout history. I might be wrong, but I suspect that “FORT APACHE” was the Hollywood film that opened the gates to film criticism of American imperialism in the West, especially the treatment of Native Americans.

Another aspect of “FORT APACHE” that I truly enjoyed was Archie Stout’s cinematography. What can I say? His black-and-white photography of Monument Valley, Utah and Simi Hills, California were outstanding, as shown below:

 

Thanks to Ford’s direction and Jack Murray’s editing, “FORT APACHE” maintained a lively pace that did not threatened to drag the movie. More importantly, the combination of their work produced a superb sequence that featured the regiment’s doomed assault on Cochise’s warriors. Richard Hageman’s score served the movie rather well. Yet, I must admit that I do not have any real memories of it. As for film’s costumes . . . I do not believe a particular designer was responsible for them. In fact, they looked as if they had come straight from a studio costume warehouse. I found this disappointing, especially for the movie’s female characters.

“FORT APACHE” featured some performances that I found solid and competent. Veteran actors like Dick Foran, Victor McLaglen and Jack Pennick gave amusing performances as the regiment’s aging NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Guy Kibbee was equally amusing as the post’s surgeon Captain Wilkens. Pedro Armendáriz was equally competent as the more professional Sergeant Beaufort, who was a former Confederate. Grant Withers was appropriately slimy as the corrupt Silas Meachum. Miguel Inclán gave a dignified performance as the outraged Apache chieftain Cochise. The movie also featured solid performances from Anna Lee and Irene Rich.

John Agar’s portrayal of the young Michael O’Rourke did not exactly rock my boat. But I thought he was pretty competent. I read somewhere that Ford was not that impressed by Shirley Temple as an actress. Perhaps he had never seen her in the 1947 comedy, “THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER”. Her character in that film was more worthy of her acting skills than the charming, yet bland Philadelphia Thursday. John Wayne also gave a solid performance as Captain Kirby York. But I did not find his character particularly interesting, until the movie’s last half hour.

I only found three performances interesting. One came from George O’Brien, who portrayed Thursday’s old friend, Captain Sam Collingwood. I thought O’Brien did a great job in portraying a man who found himself taken aback by an old friend’s chilly demeanor and arrogance. Ward Bond was equally impressive as Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, the senior NCO on the post who has to struggle to contain his resentment of Thursday’s class prejudices against his son. But for me, the real star of this movie was Henry Fonda as the narrow-minded and arrogant Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. I thought he gave a very brilliant and fascinating portrayal of a very complicated man. Thursday was not the one-note arrogant prig that he seemed on paper. He had his virtues. However, Fonda did an excellent job in conveying how Thursday’s flaws tend to overwhelm his flaws at the worst possible moment. I am amazed that Fonda never received an Oscar nomination for this superb performance.

How can I say this? I do believe that “FORT APACHE” had some problems. I found the movie slightly slightly schizophrenic due to its heavy emphasis on daily life on a frontier Army post in the first half. In fact, the movie’s first half is a little problematic to me. But once the movie shifted toward the conflict regarding the Apaches and a corrupt Indian agent, Ford’s direction and Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay breathed life into it. The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by John Wayne and Henry Fonda. I must admit that I feel “FORT APACHE” might be a little overrated. But I cannot deny that it is a damn good movie.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

 

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

This 1962 movie was among the last of the old-fashioned “epic” films that was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Filmed using the Cinerama widescreen process, it featured an all-star cast directed by at least three directors. 

After making the decision to use the Cinerama wide-screen process, MGM decided to produce a cinematic adaptation ofLIFE magazine’s 1959 series of articles about the history of the American West. Screenwriters James R. Webb and John Gay (uncredited) achieved this by focusing the film on two to three generations of family that migrated westward from western New York, to Southern Ohio, to California and finally to the deserts of Arizona. The story stretched out in a period of fifty (50) years from the late 1830s to the late 1880s. According to Wikipedia, the movie was set between 1839 and 1889. Yet, Webb and Gay’s script never indicated this. The movie consisted of five segments that were directed by three directors, Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall.

“The Rivers”, which was directed by Henry Hathaway, focused on the Prescott family’s journey from western New York to Southern Ohio, in an attempt to reach the Illinois country via the Erie Canal and the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins, who falls in love with eldest daughter, Eve; encounter murderous river pirates; and are caught in some dangerous rapids during their trip down the Ohio River. The last part of their journey ends in Southern Ohio, when the patriarch and matriarch of the Prescotts are drowned and Eve decides to remain there. She eventually marries Linus and her younger sister, Lilith decides to head to St. Louis.

In “The Plains”, Lilith Prescott is a dance hall entertainer in St. Louis, when she receives news of an inheritance – a California gold mine – from a former patron. In order to join a California-bound wagon train, Lilith becomes the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Agatha Clegg. She also becomes the romantic object of two men – the hard-nosed wagonmaster Roger Morgan (who has a ranch in California) and a professional gambler named Cleve Van Valen. Lilith eventually forms an attachment to Cleve. But when her inheritance turns out to be a bust upon their arrival in California, Cleve abandons her. He eventually reconciles with her on a Sacramento River steamboat and the two marry. Hathaway also directed.

John Ford directed “The Civil War”, a short segment about the experiences of Zeb Rawlins’ (Eve and Linus’ elder son) at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. Although Zeb survives, his father was killed during the battle, and his mother died before his return to the family’s Ohio farm. Zeb decides to remain in the Army after the war.

“The Railroad” was about Zeb’s experiences as an Army officer during the construction of the railroad during the late 1860s. He tries and fails to keep the peace between the construction crew led by a man named Mike King and the local Arapaho tribe. The Arapho incites a buffalo stampede through the railroad camp after King breaks another promise. And Zeb resigns from the Army. George Marshall directed.

Hathaway directed the final segment, “The Outlaws”, which featured Zeb’s last days as a law officer, as he tries to prevent a group of outlaws led by a man named Charlie Gant from stealing a shipment of gold. After he is successful, Zeb and his family join his widowed aunt Lilith on a trip to her new Arizona ranch.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won three won – Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It is also considered a favorite of director Ron Howard. I might as well be honest. I have always liked “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. If I had not, I would have never purchased the DVD set. But I cannot see how it was ever nominated for Best Picture, let alone won the Best Screenplay Oscar. It was NOT that great. To me, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was a mediocre epic that featured a small handful of excellent performances, great photography and a superb score.

The fifty year period that spanned “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” struck me as more suitable for a television miniseries, instead of a movie – even if it had a running time of 162 minutes. There was too much going on in this film and its time span of fifty years was simply too long. The 2005 miniseries, “INTO THE WEST” had a similar premise, but it had the good luck to be aired in a six-part miniseries that ran for 552 minutes. And because of the lack of balance between the story’s premise/time span and its running time, the story about the Prescott-Rawlins family seemed half-empty . . . and rushed.

The best of the five segments are the first two directed by Henry Hathaway – “The River” and “The Plains”, which featured the Prescotts treks from New York, to Ohio. Although not perfect, thanks to some plot inconsistency and historical inaccuracy. What makes these two segments superior to the other three is that are longer and if I must be frank, more substantial. I could not decide between the two segments on which was my favorite. I enjoyed viewing the family’s journey down the Ohio River and the exciting battle with the river pirates. On the other hand, both Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck’s performances made “The Plains” very enjoyable for me.

But the worst of the three segments is the third one directed by John Ford – namely “The Civil War”. I hate to say this, but John Wayne did not make an effective William T. Sherman. The recently deceased Henry Morgan did a slightly better job as Ulysses S. Grant – frankly, by saying as little as possible. As for the segment, the screenwriters and Ford did not even bother to feature any plausible battle scenes of Shiloh. Instead, the audience was subjected to a quick montage of Civil War scenes from other MGM movies – probably 1957’s “RAINTREE COUNTRY”. The only good thing about this segment was the beginning scene, when Zeb said good-bye to his mother and younger brother . . . and the last scene, when he said good-bye and handed over his share of the family farm to his brother.

I enjoyed the work of the cinematography team led by the legendary William H. Daniels very much. I noticed that a great deal of the movie was shot on location in many of the national parks in the United States. However, the Cinerama process took away some of the grandeur with the curved lens, which made it impossible for Daniels and the others to film any effective close ups. And has anyone ever notice that whenever two of the actors seemed to facing each other, their lines of sight seemed to be slightly off? It must have been hell for the actors to face off each other in a scene, while being unnaturally positioned for the camera.

There were certain aspects of “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” that made it enjoyable for me. Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, Henry Fonda, Lee J.Cobb and Eli Wallach gave the best performances, as far as I am concerned. Spencer Tracy did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. But I especially have to commend Reynolds, Baker and Peppard for damn near carrying this film. Without them, this movie would have folded like a sheet of paper. There were some performances that did not ring true to me. According to one scene that featured Linus Rawlings’ grave, Eve’s husband and Zeb’s father was born in 1810. I hate to say this, but James Stewart was too old – at the age of 53 or 54 – to be portraying a 29 year-old man. He gave an entertaining performance, but he was too damn old. Karl Malden, who portrayed Eve and Lilith’s father, struck me as a bit too hammy for my tastes. So were Robert Preston, who portrayed the gauche wagonmaster Roger Morgan; and Richard Widmark, who portrayed the railroad boss Mike King. Everyone else was . . . okay.

What was the best thing about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? The music. Period. It . . . was . . . superb. Every time I hear the first notes of Alfred Newman’s score at the beginning of the movie, I feel goosebumps. I love it that much. As much as I enjoyed John Addison’s score for “TOM JONES”, I find it mind boggling that it beat out Newman’s score for“HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I just cannot conceive this. Newman also provided 19th century music from the era for the movie and it was used beautifully . . . especially in “The Plains” segment. With Reynolds portraying a dance hall performer, she provided moviegoers with entertaining renditions of songs like “What Was Your Name in the East?”“Raise a Ruckus” and the movie’s theme song, “Home in the Meadows”.

What else can I say about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? It is an entertaining movie. I cannot deny this. It featured first rate performances by the leads Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker and George Peppard. It featured beautiful photography shot by a team of cinematographers led by William Daniels. And it featured some gorgeous music, which included a superb score written by Alfred Newman. But it is a flawed movie tainted by historical inaccuracy and a story that would have been served best in a television miniseries. I am still astounded that it managed to earn a Best Picture Academy Award.

“STAGECOACH” (1939) Review

Below is my review of the 1939 classic, “STAGECOACH”, which was directed by John Ford: 

“STAGECOACH” (1939) Review

The year 1939 is regarded by many film critics and moviegoers as the best year for Hollywood films. According to them, Hollywood was at the height of its Golden Age, and this particular year saw the release of an unusually large number of exceptional movies, many of which have been honored as memorable classics when multitudes of other films of the era have been largely forgotten. I do not harbor the same view as these critics and moviegoers. I can only view at least a handful of 1939 movies as truly worthwhile movies. However, one of those movies happened to be John Ford’s 1939 classic, ”STAGECOACH”

Written by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht, ”STAGECOACH” was an adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, ”The Stage to Lordsburg”. It told the story of a group of strangers in 1880, traveling by stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory from Tonto in the Arizona Territory to Lordsburg in New Mexico Territory. Among the group of people traveling together are:

*Dallas (Claire Trevor) – a prostitute who is being driven out of Tonto by the members of the “Law and Order League”

*”Doc” Boone (Thomas Mitchell) – an alcoholic doctor who is also being driven out of Tonto

*Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) – a pregnant, Virginia-born gentlewoman who is traveling to Dry Fork to reconcile with her Army officer husband

*Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) – a mild mannered whiskey drummer from Kansas City

*Hatfield (John Carradine) – a former Virginia Confederate-turned-gambler, who joins the stagecoach’s other passengers in order to provide protection for Mrs. Mallory

*Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) – a pompous banker who decides to leave Tonto after embezzling some of the bank’s funds

*Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) – a lawman who decides to serve as the stagecoach’s shotgun guard after learning the escape of Ringo Kid from the territorial prison.

*Buck (Andy Devine) – the slightly nervous stage driver

As the stagecoach starts to pull out, U.S. cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard (Tim Holt) informs the passengers that Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath. His small troop will provide an escort until they get to Dry Fork. Along the way, they come across the Ringo Kid, whose horse had become lame and left him afoot. Ringo had escaped from prison after learning that his family’s killers – Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) and his brothers – are in Lordsburg. Even though they are friends, Curly has no choice but to take Ringo into custody.

Although ”STAGECOACH” was an adaptation of Haycox’s short story, John Ford had claimed that the inspiration in expanding the movie beyond the barebones plot given in “The Stage to Lordsburg” was his familiarity with Guy de Maupassant’s 1880 short story set during the Franco-Prussian War called “Boule de Suif”. Many film critics never took Ford’s claim seriously. Instead, many of them believed that ”STAGECOACH” bore a stronger resemblance to Bret Harte’s 1892 short story, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”.

The director had gone through a great deal of trouble to film ”STAGECOACH”. After purchasing the rights to Haycox’s story, Ford tried to shop the project around to several Hollywood studios, but all of them turned him down because Ford insisted on using John Wayne in a key role in the film. Wayne had appeared in only one big-budget western, Raoul Walsh’s 1930 film ”THE BIG TRAIL”, which was a huge box office flop. Wayne had estimated that he appeared in about eighty “Poverty Row” westerns between 1930 and 1939. When Ford approached independent producer Walter Wanger about the project, Wanger had the same reservations about producing an “A” western and even more about one starring John Wayne. Worse, Ford had not directed a western since the silent days, the most notably 1924’s ”THE IRON HORSE”. Wanger said he would not risk his money unless Ford replaced John Wayne with Gary Cooper. Ford refused to budge about replacing Wayne. Eventually, he and Wanger compromised. Wanger put up $250,000, a little more than half of what Ford had been asking for, and Ford would give top billing to Claire Trevor, a far better-known name than John Wayne in 1939. Ford and Wanger’s gamble paid off. ”STAGECOACH” made a healthy return at the box office. Wayne’s star began to rise in Hollywood following the movie’s success. And the movie earned six Academy Award nominations, with Thomas Mitchell winning the Best Supporting Actor award.

”STAGECOACH” is not perfect. The movie has a few problems and most of them centered on the character of Lucy Mallory. One, her character is supposed to be in the last trimester of her pregnancy. Not only did Louise Platt’s Mrs. Mallory did not look pregnant, her character’s introduction featured her jumping out of the stagecoach following its arrival in Tonto. Without any help. Rather odd for a woman who is supposed to be in the late stages of her pregnancy. Both Mrs. Mallory and the whiskey drummer, Samuel Peacock, are the only two passengers who were on route at the beginning of the film. Instead of traveling westward, this particular stagecoach is traveling eastward – from Tonto in Arizona Territory to Lordsburg in the New Mexico Territory. Yet, according to Lucy Mallory, she had traveled from Virginia to meet her Army officer husband:

”I’ve travelled all the way here from Virginia and I’m determined to get to my husband. I won’t be separated any longer.”

How could Lucy Mallory travel all the way from Virginia to the Arizona and New Mexico Territories on an eastbound stagecoach?

The movie has other problems. Some of the movie’s shots featured the stagecoach traveling in the far distance . . . and one can see tracks clearly made from motorized vehicles like cars and trucks, instead of a 19th century vehicle. In the movie’s opening sequence, two scouts alerted the commander of an Army post about Geronimo’s activities in the territory. One of those scouts was a Native American:

”WHITE SCOUT: These hills are full of Apaches! They’ve burned every ranch in sight. (His finger sweeps the map; his head nods to the impassive Indian.) He had a brush with them last night. Says they’re being stirred up by Geronimo.

(The word has a striking effect on Sickels and Blanchard. Even the telegraph operator takes a step forward.)

CAPT. SICKELS: Geronimo? (He turns to the Indian, regarding him narrowly.) How do we know… (Cut to medium close-up of the Indian standing still.) …he’s not lying?

WHITE SCOUT: (off) He’s a Cheyenne. They hate Apaches worse than we do.

What we have here is a simple case of historical inaccuracy. The Apache had resided in the Southwest (present day New Mexico and Arizona) the Cheyenne resided in the Great Plains (from present Oklahoma to Montana) by the 19th century. How on earth did the Cheyenne and the Apache ever find the opportunity to develop a dislike toward one another? One last problem I had with the movie turned out to be the Ringo Kid’s showdown with the Plummer brothers in Lordsburg. I realize that it was bound to happen, due to the fact that Ringo’s conflict with the Plummers kept popping up in the movie’s dialogue. But did Ringo and the Plummers’ showdown have to take so damn long? I nearly fell asleep during the buildup leading to the gunfight. In fact, I did fall asleep and had to rewind the movie in order to watch the actual gunfight.

Now that I got my complaints out of the way, I might as well focus upon why I love ”STAGECOACH”. As I have stated in my review of the 1956 version of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”, I love travel movies. And ”STAGECOACH” is probably one of the best cinematic road trips I have ever seen on the silver and television screens. The interesting thing about this movie that the distance traveled in this movie is not as extensive as movies like ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” or ”SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT”. But I love it. Ford took his cast and production crew for the first time to Monument Valley, in the American southwest on the Arizona-Utah border, which became the setting for the road between Tonto in Arizona Territory and Lordsburg in the New Mexico Territory. Cinematographer Bert Glennon, who has worked with Ford on several other films, earned an Academy Award nomination for photography. And man did he deserve his nomination. The two following photographs are excellent examples of Glennon’s work:

 

Many film critics have complimented on the film’s use of integrating traditional 19th music and songs into the score. Yes, I have noticed the numerous old tunes used in the film. But if I must be honest, I was also impressed by Gerard Carbonara’s score. I was especially impressed by Carbonara’s work in the sequence that featured the stagecoach’s encounter with the Apaches not far from Lordsburg. The composer’s use of drums to emphasize the stagecoach’s motion and the hoof beats of the horses conveying the coach and those being ridden by the attacking Apache warriors were truly inspired.

Screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht wrote a near faithful adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s short story. Well . . . almost. They made a few changes. Like the Ringo Kid, the hero in ”Stage to Lordsburg” is involved in a feud with men he eventually dueled against by the end of the story. Unlike the Ringo Kid, the hero in the short story was not a fugitive outlaw who had been framed for murder. Nor did the short story feature a local banker who had embezzled funds from a mining company’s payroll. Personally, I rather like their extension of Haycox’s story. Not only did Nichols and Hecht – along with Ford – include a criminal element to the story, they took clichéd Western characters and gave them depth and complexity. In fact, I could easily surmise that the characters themselves served as the story’s center and driving force.

Speaking of the characters, I have to commend Ford and casting director for gathering a collection of first-rate performers for this film. One, he was wise enough to hold his ground about casting John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Now, I would not consider Ringo to be Wayne’s best role. His Ringo was a charming and easy-going young man with a streak of naivety, whose only dark side seemed to be a desire to exact vengeance and what he believe was justice for his family’s deaths. However, the role did not exactly allow the actor to display his later talent for ambiguous characters like Thomas Dunson, Tom Doniphon and Ethan Edwards. But one must remember that Ringo was his second important role (his first was in the 1930 box office failure, ”THE BIG TRAIL” and ”STAGECOACH” marked the first time that Ford directed the actor. One could easily say that Wayne finally learned to act in this movie. That was certainly apparent in the scene that featured Dallas’ presentation of Lucy Mallory’s new infant daughter. The silent exchanges between Wayne and actress Claire Trevor spoke volumes of how their two characters loved each other, without being overbearingly obvious about it.

As I had stated earlier, Claire Trevor found herself cast as the good-hearted prostitute Dallas, due to producer Walter Wanger insisting that a name slightly bigger than Wayne’s receive top credit. And I believe she deserve it, for her Dallas turned out to be the heart and soul of that stagecoach making its perilous journey. What I liked about Trevor’s performance is that she took a stock character like ”the whore-with-a-heart of gold” and gave it depth, without any of the character type’s clichés. Instead of portraying Dallas as an easy-going type with a seductive manner, she portrayed the prostitute as a reserved and desperate woman, who is not only resentful of being stuck in her profession, but of society’s unwillingness to view her as the decent human being she truly is. It is a pity that she did not receive an acting nomination for her performance, because I believe that she deserved one. But the one cast member who did receive an Academy Award nomination was Thomas Mitchell, who portrayed the affable, yet sardonic drunken doctor, Doc Boone. His character served as a well of wisdom and support for the resentful Dallas, a reminder to Hatfield of the latter’s disreputable past whenever the gambler became snobbish toward Dallas and the Ringo Kid. And yet, his penchant for alcohol came off as rather sad; considering how supportive he was toward Dallas and Ringo and the fact that when sober, he could be a first-rate doctor. Not only did Mitchell earn his Oscar nomination, he eventually won the statuette for Best Supporting Actor during a night in which ”GONE WITH THE WIND” dominated the awards show.

”STAGECOACH” also included a talented supporting cast. Louise Pratt wonderfully portrayed the haughty, yet very human Lucy Mallory who became increasingly desperate to be reunited with her husband. George Bancroft gave a solid performance as Curly Wilcox, the lawman who was determined to arrest Ringo for more humanitarian reasons – he wanted to save the younger man from being slaughtered by the Plummer brothers. Donald Meek’s portrayal of the mild-mannered Samuel Peacock seemed like one of a numerous mild characters he had portrayed over the years. Yet, thanks to two scenes in the movie, Meek managed to take Peacock’s character beyond his other characterizations. Berton Churchill made a career out of portraying stuffy or bureaucratic characters in Hollywood. His portrayal of the embezzling banker Henry Gatewood was no exception, but Ford gave him the opportunity in a private scene that revealed the banker’s silent reason to take a chance and steal that bankroll. Andy Devine was wonderfully funny as the movie’s comic relief – stage driver Buck. There is a story that Ford tried to bully Devine on the set in the same way he was bullying Wayne. But Devine reminded Ford of the latter’s box office flop ”MARY OF SCOTLAND” . . . and the director left him alone. John Carradine, in my opinion, gave the strangest performance in the film. And I meant that in a good way. He portrayed the ex-Confederate Army officer-turned-gambler, Hatfield. What is interesting about Hatfield that in offering his protection to fellow Virginian LucyMallory, he seemed determined to maintain the social hierarchy inside the stagecoach . . . while completely forgetting the disreputable reputation he had gained as a violent gambler in the West. In fact, he was so determined to protect Mrs. Mallory that he was willing to kill her in order to spare her from ”a fate worse than death” at the hands of the Apaches. But in an ironic twist, the Apaches turned out to be Mrs. Mallory’s saviors when they mortally wounded Hatfield before he could shoot the Army officer’s wife.

Some movie fans have complained that Ford had failed to explore racial bigotry in ”STAGECOACH”, as he had in some of his other films. What they failed to realize that Geronimo and the other Apaches were merely a plot device for the story, like the U.S. Army, the “Law and Order League” in Tonto and the Plummer brothers. The real story took place within the characters that journeyed from Tonto to Lordsburg, via a class struggle in which most of the characters managed to overcome upon their arrival in Lordsburg. If you really look at ”STAGECOACH” from a certain point of view, it is merely a drama or character study with a Western setting and two action sequences near the end of the film. And with Nichols and Hecht’s script, John Ford managed to make it one of his best films ever with some exceptional direction and storytelling.