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ON FILM: Director knew Wayne was ready for close-up

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 28, 2010 at 3:15 a.m.

— Last week the Criterion Collection reissued John Ford’s Stagecoach on DVD and Blu-ray in a special-edition two-disc set ($39.95). I have a lot of personal affection for the movie, and I’m very glad to be able to see it restored to the sort of condition that audiences might have enjoyed during its initial theatrical run. The digital transfer comes from 1942 negatives (the original is presumed lost) and it’s of much higher quality than any version I’ve ever seen.

But of course, we can’t see the movie those people saw; they were different people in a different time with different expectations. I didn’t see Stagecoach until I was an adult, fully cognizant of the movie’s critical reputation and its place in history.

My reasons for seeing the film had more to do with patching holes in my education than pleasure-seeking; going in I knew I was about to see was a “classic,” the movie that made John Wayne a star and revitalized the Western genre. I knew about the amazing stunt work of Yakima Canutt; I knew where Ford and Wayne were headed, and how their careers would intertwine.

But Stagecoach is not the sort of Western you might expect; it is more than anything a thoughtful ensemble examination of grace (and lack of grace) under stress. We are given a coach full of characters, some of whom are determined (for various reasons) to reach a town called Lordsburg in the New Mexico Territory. Others on the stage are riding along more or less against their will.

Ford contrasts the open spaciousness of Monument Valley (through which the stage rides no less than three times on its journey to Lordsburg) with the claustrophobia of the coach and various way stations. Again and again, Ford alternates scenes of epic enterprise, in which the characters are reduced to tiny silhouettes against the landscape, with tightly intimateshots.

The plot is simple - and beside the point. We track the progress of a stagecoach, running from Tonto in the Arizona Territory to Lordsburg. Geronimo is said to be active in the area, so the sheriff (George Bancroft) rides shotgun.

While the piece is rife with characters, none of them (except for a cadre of anti-vice townswomen and arguably the rarely seen Indians) default to caricature. Stagecoach can be read as a critique of American class divides, with the public conveyance serving as a point of intersection for a lower strata and an enervated, corrupt higher one.

The lower caste heroes of Stagecoach are Ringo, an escaped convict who means to take revenge on the man who killed his father and brother; Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute driven out of town by the women’s anti-vice league; and the alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, who won an Academy Award for the role), who’s being put out of town by the sheriff. Even the coach’s driver, Curly (Andy Devine), would rather not be making the trip.

On the other hand, the “respectable” folks on the stage are the banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill), who’s fleeing Tonto with embezzled funds; a weakling whisky drummer (Donald Meek); the intrepid Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), who’s making her way across the country to join her cavalry officer husband; and the gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), a ruined Southern aristocrat who ostensibly goes along to protect the pregnant Mrs. Mallory.

Several of these actors were established stars whose faces would have been familiar to audiences in 1939. Wayne, on the other hand, had starred in one big-budget flop (Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail in 1930) and, by his own reckoning, probably 80 or so Poverty Row cowboy pictures. He was still a relative unknown when, about 19 minutes into the movie, Ford’s camera zooms in on a lanky cowboy standing in the middle of a dusty trail, holding a saddle and twirling a carbine.

There are some very odd things about this shot. First of all, Ford rarely made use of overtly cinematic methods like a zoom. Secondly, the motion of the camera is violent, so disconcertingly rapid that for a moment it loses focus. It’s as though we’re being drawn in by the gravitational pull of the cowboy’s handsome face.

And then, there’s something a little off about this six-second close-up - something more obvious to the movie-wise audiences of the 21st century but that could have registered subliminally with moviegoers in 1939. The zoom shot takes placein the controlled conditions of a studio, not outside, in the heat and grandeur of Monument Valley. We understand Ford is taking unusual pains with this introduction of the secondbilled (behind Trevor) actor.

The studios hadn’t wanted Wayne in the movie, they preferred Gary Cooper, but Ford wouldn’t make it without him - the screenplay had been written with Wayne in mind - so he pestered producer Walter Wanger until he gave in. Wayne would get his second chance to imprint himself on the American consciousness, and Ford was determined not to let him waste it.

When we see this famous shot, we immediately know the hero has finally arrived - John Wayne is in the house. But in 1939, audiences would have wondered whether this Ringo Kid was flagging down the stage in order to rob it (perhaps he was - he seems to consider this option, giving up his Winchester only when he notices the cavalry trailing the stage).

Watching Stagecoach in the present, knowing what would become of Wayne and Ford, and a little bit about their relationship (the men were friends,but Ford was the alpha dog who mentored Wayne and advised Wayne and later dogged him about avoiding service in World War II), we can’t help but see the film as a collusive act. Ford needed Wayne to be a movie star, he needed him to develop the iconic persona so he could both exploit and undermine it (The Searchers is enriched by Wayne’s playing against his own legend; the Ringo Kid didn’t rob the stage, but Ethan Edwards probably did).

But in 1939, audiences wouldn’t have had this context, and the truth is that while Ford made Wayne a star, he did not invent the Wayne persona - that archetype wasn’t cemented until nine years later, when Howard Hawks cast Waynein Red River and invested his character with a kind of stolid dignity.

While we cannot help but receive Stagecoach as a John Wayne movie, John Wayne movies did not exist in 1939.

E-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 05/28/2010

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