If STAGECOACH isn't the greatest Western ever made, it's certainly the most influential. Although there were a few attempts at "serious" Westerns throughout the 1930s, the genre was mostly defined by b-films whose target audience was young boys. With STAGECOACH, director John Ford proved the Western's viability for wide-ranging social drama, character study, and allegory. Something of a GRAND HOTEL on wheels, STAGECOACH examines the lives of nine passengers as they journey through dangerous Indian territory. The characters seem stock Western types at first -- the convict, the lawman, the gambler, the drunken doctor, the prostitute, etc. -- but each of them emerges as a three-dimensional figure with a complex backstory. Ford probably overdid things in his effort to be taken seriously, in that the screenplay by Dudley Nichols is full of long-winded and pretentious speeches, but perhaps that was a necessary evil in a genre-defining film.
As much as anything, STAGECOACH is remembered as the picture that made John Wayne a major star after a decade of toiling in b-Westerns. Ford provides Wayne with a dramatic zoom-in closeup for his first appearance, a seemingly prescient moment that announced to the world: "Folks, meet the icon of the genre." STAGECOACH is also heralded for its action sequences (most staged by and featuring legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt), but some of my favorite moments are the quiet ones, such as the dimly lit scene in which Wayne and Claire Trevor discuss marriage in pragmatic terms that mask their true emotions. With such scenes, Ford and Wayne make it clear that the Western hero had evolved permanently beyond the rope-twirling guitar-strummers who chased bad guys named Blackie. Another major work from Hollywood's greatest year. - JL