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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Movie Review: STAGECOACH

Not Rated

Stagecoach is a 1939 classic Western film directed by John Ford that many have called the greatest Western movie of all time. When a group of strangers aboard a stagecoach headed for Lordsburg in the New Mexico Territory are informed that Geronimo and his group of Apaches are on the warpath. As the group makes the trek, they stumble upon a man known as the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has recently escaped prison. The stagecoach's armed guard, Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) picks him up and arrests him. Ringo soon makes friends with the other members of the stagecoach, including driver Buck (Andy Devine), drunken "Doc" Boone (Thomas Mitchell, in an Oscar-winning role), pregnant officer's wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), and local prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), with whom Ringo takes quite the affection. While staying the night at an outpost, Miss Mallory gives birth to a child, causing the members of the group to vote to stay there until she is physically ready to continue their trek. However, with Geronimo and his Indians bearing down on them, strain begins to arise in the group as they debate what their next move should be.

As is normally the case, my brief synopsis does not really do the film justice. In fact, there's a separate side story for the Ringo Kid that involves him avenging the deaths of his father and brother, and this actually plays a rather large role in Ringo's motivations throughout the film. I also neglected to mention the three other members of the party - a whiskey salesman named Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), an avid gambler named Hatfield (John Carradine), and an embezzling banker named Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill). Each character brings an important piece to this film's puzzle, either helping or harming the group along the way.

To be sure, this is not quite the best western film I've ever seen, but it does rank rather highly, easily making it into my personal top five. I still put quite a bit of stock in spaghetti westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West (my favorite western) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and I think that Mel Brooks' 1974 spoof, Blazing Saddles, edges Stagecoach out. However, once you get past those three films, I think that Stagecoach has to take the next slot. It's iconic and extremely well-known, and it's the film that truly put John Wayne on the map. Considering he's still considered one of the most beloved actors to grace the screen, I'd say that Hollywood owes quite a bit to this 1939 venture.

And speaking of 1939, I'd like to go on a quick tangent. Now, Stagecoach is only the fourth film from that year that I've been able to see, but of the four, this received the lowest grade. That's quite a testament to the year, but considering the other three films (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind), you can see where I'm coming from. All three of those films rank in my top 100 greatest films of all time, so Stagecoach has truly entered some very select company.

But I digress. We're not here to talk movie history - we're here to discuss this particular film. We do get a solid story, albeit one that's a little bit predictable when compared to today's standards. However, back in 1939, it must have been rather revolutionary. Aside from the story, we get a string of extremely well-written characters that are acted to near perfection. As I previously mentioned, Mitchell garnered an Oscar statuette for his portrayal of the drunken doctor, and the great performances merely start there. I'll be the first to say that I haven't seen a ton of John Wayne fare, but from the films I have seen, I'd have to say his performance in Stagecoach has to rank right near the top. There's no doubt why his screen presence in this one skyrocketed him to super-stardom. We also get some solid performances from the likes of Andy Devine, who provides the comic relief, and from Claire Trevor as our "leading" lady, although there's really not straight lead in this story.

One of the best parts of the film is it's musical scoring, which also garnered an Oscar win. The music fits perfectly within the constructs of the film, and I think it set the standard for the sweeping scores audiences would hear for the next few decades with the release of western after western. It's hard to find a western that doesn't have a great set of music, and you can probably hearken it all back to Stagecoach.

Now, I know quite a few people in today's society that aren't very big on watching old-time, black-and-white flicks, and that's really a shame considering some of the best movies come from those generations past. I say this to you now: if you're one of those people, I think that Stagecoach will be every bit as satisfying as some of the more modern films you love, and it's certainly head and shoulders above much of the drivel that we see released every week. So, do yourself a favor and pop this one into the DVD player. It's definitely worth it.

Movie Review Summary:
Grade: A-
Current All-Time Rank: Best - #177
2 Thumbs Up

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