Review: Stagecoach (1939)

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While the western hardly began with Stagecoach, one could go out on a very slight limb and say it became a more fully realized version of itself in the hands of John Ford; it all but grew in stature as a genre. This progression cropped out of the prevailing assumption of the day and age that the western was low-grade rubbish meant for no-name actors and meager productions. But Ford proved they could be ripe with so many more possibilities because he had greater ambitions from the outset.

We have John Wayne making a second go of stardom as the Ringo Kid, in what would prove a career bolstering performance, after some 70 films he’d already played in. He, of course, reemerged on the screen in a bold tracking shot and subsequent closeup that has all but impressed itself upon anyone who has ever witnessed the film. In this moment, Ford all but thrusts Wayne into the limelight as his star, for better or for worse, and Duke obliges thereafter.

Ford’s first excursion to Monument Valley proved to be love at first sight as he became so enraptured with the location — and why not — he would film there countless times in the future. It became synonymous with his finest work; he used it as the perfectly mapped canvass on which to express himself. One could argue that no director ever had a better setting,  more synonymous with his vision and sensibilities.

Forget the landscape and situation for a moment. Stagecoach might be one of the premier chamber pieces ever captured. Semantics aside, the picture relies heavily on a cast of characters filled out by archetypes and yet each actor involved is able to lend such credence to each individual role. We readily accept them as a whole ensemble almost seamlessly.

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Apaches stirred up by Geronimo are an excuse for the impending threat looming over the title vehicle. Because it’s true that the stage must make its journey at some point, though the slightly chubby, whiny-voiced driver, Buck (Andy Devine), is hesitant about such a perilous road ahead. Riding shotgun for him is the no-nonsense Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who vetoes the other man’s blubbering.

However, if they were to go it alone with only some payload or mail delivery, Stagecoach would be robbed of some of its richness. Two of the first travelers to join them are both casualties of social prejudice and the snooty, self-righteous prigs of the Law and Order League. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ostracized woman of the street and then the scorned Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is constantly living in a state of drunkenness.

Contrasting with the other woman is a lady of high repute, Ms. Mallory (Louise Platt), who is pregnant and yet resolves to meet her husband at his cavalry outpost. Her presence coaxes a gentleman gambler (John Carradine) to come aboard as he holds some innate sense of duty in protecting someone of her breeding.

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We also have the impeccably named Donald Meek as Mr. Peaccock who is constantly having his name mispronounced while his samples of whiskey are continually finding their way into the Doc’s possession. He’s a calming force just as the entitled banker, Mr. Gatewood, protests just about everything.

If the types sound familiar it’s because you can draw a line between many of them and their progeny for years to come. But the beauty of the character dynamics is the evolution they undergo. We are not simply blessed by starkly different individuals brushing up against each other in close confines. In other words, of crucial importance is how they act toward one another and ultimately how they change over the course of this joint heroes journey.

Claire Trevor, fittingly, later remembered Ford’s chiding of Wayne, “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Watch the film and you understand his direction in actual practice. So much is said in unspoken looks and behaviors. Trevor seems especially adept in speaking with her eyes because everything she wants to say and can’t say comes through this very avenue. And whether John Ford would agree or not, The Duke’s eyes are equally telling.

Interiors are exquisitely framed and lit in such a way allowing the actors to be so expressive while space and staging are used to accentuate those same aspects. Take for example one sequence around a dinner table where two camps find themselves moving to opposite corners. You have the outcasts and the purportedly upstanding citizens opposite one another. Not a word is spoken but it is all played out through mere body language and positioning.

However, Whether the film completely realizes it or not there are other societal casualties, namely the Mexicans shown on the screen as well as the Native Americans themselves. Chris (prolific Mexican-American actor Chris Pin-Martin) at least has a voice but not much else. Meanwhile, it does feel as if the Indians are used essentially for a plotting device. There is no depth present in this regard.

However, the pursuit undertaken by the Apaches is filmed marvelously by Ford. In one particularly memorable long take, the stage lumbers into the distance followed by first four and then an entire wave of riders on horseback. It fluidly suggests immense menace and pace which never quite leaves the sequence.

They are reinforced by a couple shots that feel as if the stagecoach and the horses after it are all but trampling the camera. The sense of volatility is accentuated by the legendary stunt work of Yakima Canutt performing death-defying feats on horseback and hanging from the stagecoach. In the era before readily available CGI, it’s the kind of movie magic still capable of stopping a modern viewer cold.

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But the picture does not end there. The city offers other issues that must be resolved. Namely, Ringo’s final showdown with the men who killed his father and kid brother. Also, he must find out what Dallas really is or at least what she is perceived to be.

However, instead of milking the reveals for pure melodramatics, Ford does one better, creating an atmosphere of pure beauty. But within that same framework is a cringe-inducing tension. Pulling his camera away from moments to dwell on reactions as much as actions and movements as much as dialogue. Some of his actors are even given close-ups all the better for studying every expression of their faces.

Because we can write up all that happens in Stagecoach in a matter of sentences. That’s not the engrossing or remarkable part of the picture at all. It’s precisely the way Ford has cast it as only he could. It’s exciting and moving and genuinely light-hearted but it chooses when a certain mood is called for, succeeding in evoking each at the given time like the most visceral vessels of entertainment manage to do.

Thankfully we had many more outings between Ford and Wayne. The director might have given his friend hell on the set but there’s no debating the fact they crafted some of the most iconic westerns together. The collaboration was imperative. Stagecoach rides on the laurels of many people, not least among them Pappy and Duke.

5/5 Stars

Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Red_Badge_of_Courage_1951.jpgStephen Crane’s seminal Civil War novel was made to be gripping film material and although my knowledge of the particulars is limited John Huston’s story while streamlined and truncated feels like a fairly faithful adaptation that even takes some effort to pull passages directly from the original text.

Even with the film getting butchered by the producers and chopped down to only 70 minutes from its original 2 hour running time, there’s still a gripping power to this war story. The narration feels a bit forced (despite being delivered by James Whitmore) but beyond that Huston’s film has an undeniable resonance for the atmosphere it develops and the very palpable inner turmoil of its central character as portrayed by famed real-life war hero Audie Murphy.

It suggests the other side of what it is to be a soldier. The fear, the reluctance that wears on the individual, and it begs the question, who are the real heroes if not men who did their duty despite the very fears that shackled them? Portrayed in this film are men and boys who were thrust into conflict and they were forced to respond accordingly. Not necessarily because they wanted to but out of very necessity.

In the end, the realization is that maybe fear is alright and acknowledging it is oftentimes the very sign of a brave individual. Someone who knows their limitations and still manages to push beyond them to do extraordinary things. Because as FDR so famously noted, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It can be debilitating, stifling our resolve to take action. Thus, it’s our response that’s paramount.

Barely 20 during the war Murphy isn’t all that much older here and it feels remarkably fitting for him to play the naive Youth getting his first welcoming to war faced with this very conundrum. He wants the glory of war. He wants that red badge of courage. But he’s too afraid to take it. The utter irony is how battle-tested Murphy was by that point in time–but of course, he became a hero at a very young age and that doesn’t necessarily mean it came easily or without a cost.

Huston also examines the disillusionment in the utter absurdity and idiocy of war sometimes. Though it had already been 6 years since the end of WW II with men such as Audie Murphy and Bill Maudlin involved it’s easy to get the sense that this was a rumination on that particular war’s effect. Huston as well had been involved in documenting the life of soldiers and Maudlin made a name for himself as one of the great wartime cartoonists originating the iconic duo of Willie and Joe. Murphy’s accolades spoke for themselves as one of the most highly decorated soldiers of his day but he also undoubtedly suffered from the trauma of PTSD.

The dialogue is ripe with colloquialisms and the images seem generally authentic with photorealistic visuals to match a fairly dismal outlook. It does not shy away from the reality. Figures constantly moving through the frame mechanistically. Claustrophic closeups, tights angels, billows of smoke and relentless gunfire make the battle sequences truly immersive. And the soldiers are played by actors of all shapes and sizes including Murphy, Mauldin, Royal Dano, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicut, and even Andy Devine.

If it had not been for the studio’s meddling we might be calling Red Badge of Courage one of the great American war movies. As it stands today, cut down from its original running time and slightly removed from John Huston’s original ambitions, it’s still a highly moving picture. Because moments of greatness shine through no matter the muddling factors. So despite its minor status and a runtime that suggests lesser fare, Red Badge of Courage is really Class A material through and through. Huston did not call it one of his best movies for nothing.

3.5/5 Stars

Have a wonderful Memorial Day and here’s to all the humble heroes in our armed forces.

Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

a44af-themanwhoshotNothing’s too good for the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance!!! But who is he exactly? How did it happen? Where is he now?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps one of the moodiest and most atmospheric westerns of all time. In a sense, it is almost like a Noir Western with its often stark cinematography (especially during the climatic moments), and it is told through a long flashback that encapsulates nearly the entire narrative. Both qualities are typical film-noir.

John Ford had numerous classic westerns, but this one is possibly one of the darkest in tone. The film has a typically great John Ford cast (like My Darling Clementine or The Searchers). Of course, it would not be one of his westerns without John Wayne, then add James Stewart, Vera Miles, and of course Lee Marvin. Then the secondary cast is rounded out by such great character actors as Edmund O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, and Denver Pyle among others.

This film is also steeped in politics. It becomes more obvious the more you watch that there is this underlining conflict between democracy and a different system of representation. Could this be a critique of Communism also packed into a western? Probably.

One of the moments that really stood out this time around was the flashback within the flashback when Doniphan (Wayne)  reveals his point of view to Ransom Stoddard (Stewart). He was, in fact, the man who shot Liberty Valance. We knew it at heart but finally we have the proof and all of sudden his behavior seems justified and he becomes the tragic hero of the film.

It is an unjust ending and yet it plays out the way it was meant to — maybe not the way it should have. The lawyer got the girl, the fame, and the spot in Congress, because he is a hero for something he did not actually accomplish. Tom instead is the one who fades into the past. It struck me that this is one of the few films I can remember where Wayne actually dies, the other would be the Shootist. Except here he is dead before the story has even began. The legend of John Wayne himself lends nicely to this legendary man in the film who we only know through the recollections of others. As the newsman noted, when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.

4.5/5 Stars

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Starring both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, with Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and direction by John Ford, this is certainly a moody western. Stewart, now a successful politician returns to a small town with his wife to pay his respects to an old friend. In the ensuing flashback he retells his story beginning as a young lawyer who had a run in with Liberty Valance (Marvin). After he got well he strove to bring justice and education to the land. Despite their differences, Stewart finds a friend in Wayne who has his eye on Miles. However, everything eventually goes awry when Stewart agrees to face Valance out in the street. He appears to be a goner because he is wounded, but miraculously a shot hits Valance and he falls dead. Stewart now a hero gets the girl and agrees to represent the town. Wayne fades into the background also a hero. The supporting cast includes Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, and John Carradine. With two great icons and a great director, this western is certainly a classic. Although it did not end up making it into the film, Gene Pitney’s western ballad deserves to be acknowledged nonetheless.

4.5/5 Stars

Stagecoach (1939)

Directed by John Ford and starring a young John Wayne, this classic western opens with various people boarding a stagecoach for various reasons. The passengers include a drunken doctor, a prostitute, a soft-spoken whiskey salesman, a gambling southern gentleman, an impatient banker, and the wife of a cavalry officer. Driving up top is Buck and the Marshall rides with his eyes open for the wanted Ringo Kid (Wayne) and the threat of Apaches. Despite their differences and the imminent danger, these people are forced to push on toward their destination together. They face unexpected challenges including hostile Apaches, but they finally do reach the town of Lordsburg. After the arrival, Ringo must figure out his relationship with Dallas while also facing the foes that are waiting for him. He does what he has to and ultimately his friends show their true colors. This film is a great character study with very good scenery, stunts, and action. As Wayne’s first big role, it is easy to see how he became a star after this performance. He was supported nicely by the likes of Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, and John Carradine. Without them and other like them this classic would lose the character depth that makes it work so well.

5/5 Stars