John Wayne had been attempting to become a movie star for some time and, just his luck, he was friends with director John Ford. Ford had been making short films since 1917 and feature films since the 1920s of all different types. It just happened that he would eventually become best known of his westerns, both due to his love of filming around Monument Valley and other parts of Arizona, but also due to John Wayne. For many, Stagecoach was their introduction to Wayne.
In truth Wayne had already had a starring role 9 years prior in The Big Trail, a movie directed by Raoul Walsh about a group of pioneers and their perilous trip out west. Although well-regarded in hindsight, The Big Trail was an expensive flop, costing two million dollars (nearly 33 million in today's money) to make on location in Zion National Park in Utah. On-location filming was difficult in 1930 and using Wayne was a risk. When it didn't pay off he got much of the blame and, even by 1939, the studio was not to enthusiastic about Wayne being the lead in Stagecoach. Despite that Ford thought Wayne was ready and, this time, it worked.
Stagecoach driver Buck (Andy Devine) arrives in Tonto, Arizona carrying payroll from Wells Fargo and to pick up a new load of passengers for the trip to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Among those traveling are Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), who is going to be with her soldier husband and two people being run out of town: the alcoholic Dr. Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and a lady named Dallas (Claire Trevor). Joining them is gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), who has taken a liking to Lucy, and Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), who is riding shotgun both as protection and in hope of capturing an escaped prisoner known as the Ringo Kid who he knows is heading to Lordsburg to take care of unfinished business. To Boone's delight they are also joined by Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), a whiskey salesman. One last passenger is banker Ellsworth Gatewood (Berton Churchill), who has embezzled the payroll that arrived and is hoping to make it Lordsburg before the telegraph wires are in operation again.
The main obstacle is Geronimo and his army of Apaches who have been attacking stagecoaches and towns along the route and have temporarily pushed the U.S. Army out of the area. The Army will only escort the coach for a certain distance and, during the first leg, they run into Ringo (John Wayne), who becomes a passenger when Curley puts him under arrest. Despite warnings, and Buck's reluctance, the stage continues on. As the danger increases the group finds themselves more and more reliant on each other to survive.
Making a movie in the American Southwest was no easier in 1939 than it was in 1930, with no paved roads existing going into Monument Valley, where a majority of the exteriors were filmed. The rest were filmed in the Sonoran Desert and California, where the major climactic chase was filmed on Lucerne Dry Lake. For someone who knows the geography it is weird seeing the coach travel through Monument Valley, then next to the Superstition Mountains and then suddenly back up in Monument Valley is a bit shocking, but then again the route given is fictional. There was no Tonto (there is a Tonto Basin, also known as Punkin Center, but it didn't exist yet) and Lee's Ferry is not too far from where some of the actual filming was done. Lordsburg itself is in the southwestern portion of New Mexico, so going through Monument Valley would have been quite a detour to begin with.
However, that is all about as important as actually getting to Canterbury was for Chaucer. Rather the idea is that different people, from different walks of life, would be thrown together to survive a situation they were ill-prepared for. Also, and surprisingly with the Hays Code in effect, showing that certain characters who are viewed as outside of polite society are morally superior in many ways to their supposed betters. The movie did run into trouble with this, as Dallas's profession is never said outright and, necessarily for the story, Ringo was made an anti-hero. Ford, though, was big enough even at the time to bend the rules a bit.
The film itself is an adaptation of a short story by Ernest Haycox, but Ford specifically used it to reintroduce Wayne, and he does so in one of the grandest ways possible - a photographically wonderful shot of him standing on the road, accompanied by a zoom in. By all accounts Ford bullied Wayne throughout, but the latter used it to hone his craft and put forth the best performance he could, while the former made sure to capture him at his best. It helps that, even though the romance is rushed in the typical old-school Hollywood fashion, that Claire Trevor (who was top billed on the movie poster) has an easy chemistry with Wayne and is a fine actor herself. The point throughout is that there is more to every character than meets the eye (except for Peacock, where it's a running joke that no one remembers his name), so of course the outlaw and the prostitute necessarily are more sympathetically portrayed than those of high society.
One person that needs to be given praise is a man named Yakima Canutt. He may not be one of the named stars of the show, but although Stagecoach hinges on the performances of the main cast and is blessed with great direction and story telling, Mr. Canutt is the one who plays the Apache that is pulled under the stage during the final chase as well as the double for Wayne when it comes to jumping on the backs of the horses to bring it back under control. He officially became the stunt coordinator after devising a way to, in reality, get the stage across a river by attaching it to hollow logs. These stunts would have been difficult to film now - even if insurance would have allowed them - and were even more difficult then. Many of the shots of the coach against a background screen were not to be cheap, but simply because the technology to be able to move cameras around to where the action could be filmed the way Ford wanted didn't exist at the time.
Stagecoach is definitely a movie of its time, but Ford was innovative enough to influence Orson Welles in the making of Citizen Kane, which itself helped move films from feeling like they were filmed stage plays and more of what we understand them to be now. This movie went a long way to do that, even if it seems to the set-up would still work as a stage play. What it did do was what Ford intended: made Wayne a star, and made Ford a lot of money. Wayne would play a lot of other roles, and would even do many non-western film with Ford, but the two would always be associated with the heyday of Hollywood western films.
Time: 96 minutes
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, John Carradine, George Bancroft, Berton Churchill, Donald Meek
Director: John Ford