Until the action-packed last thirty minutes, Stagecoach is a class drama. A group of strangers and acquaintances are in a stagecoach, traveling West, post-Civil War. It takes fifteen minutes at the start of the film to get them in the coach, with some of the time spent on establishing the characters (and why they’re traveling), but there’s also the danger setup. Infamous Apache leader Geronimo has escaped the reservation with a war party and all the settlers are worried.
Luckily for the stagecoach passengers, Army calvary lieutenant Tim Holt and his men will be escorting them part of the way, then another unit will take over their safety. Everything’s going to be fine, even if coach driver Andy Devine (in a wonderful comedic performance) is very worried about it.
Riding shotgun with Devine is marshal George Bancroft. He’s got to find John Wayne—who also escaped and is on the run, him from a penitentiary—before John Wayne goes off to try and revenge kill Tom Tyler because Tom Tyler is a bigger badass. Just wait until you see Tyler’s hat. Bancroft knew Wayne’s dad and he’s sympathetic to Wayne’s plight but the law’s the law. And Tyler’s the bigger badass.
The passengers are an appropriately mixed bunch and where the class drama is going to arise. Claire Trevor and Thomas Mitchell are both being run out of town by the temperance league. Trevor for being a woman of ill-repute and Mitchell for being a drunkard of a town doctor. Trevor and Mitchell’s friendship is one of Stagecoach’s bedrocks; they’re great together. We also get the initial hints at Mitchell’s potential through his empathy towards Trevor.
Then there’s fidgety, obnoxious banker Berton Churchill (who’s got an amazing “why businessmen should be president” rant no different or more intelligent than modern ones), whiskey salesman Donald Meek, soldier’s wife Louise Platt, and professional gambler John Carradine. Platt’s going to meet her husband and Carradine’s along as her escort; he’s a Southern traitor who served under her father. There’s a great argument between Carradine and Mitchell over how to talk about the war.
All of the class differences are going to flare up once the stagecoach comes across Wayne, who’s looking for a ride, not knowing Bancroft would be riding shotgun. See, Wayne takes an immediate liking to Trevor, who Churchill, Platt, and Carradine have been treating like shit and Churchill and Carradine are terrified of Wayne so they can’t really be mean to her anymore. It leaves Platt in a lurch too, but she’s just following the societal norms and is a little naive about the world.
Of course, Trevor and Mitchell just assume Wayne’s naive about the world too and doesn’t really understand Trevor’s circumstances. But Wayne’s a simple guy; he’s going to kill the guys who wronged him and his family and go down to his ranch across the border… and he daydreams about Trevor joining him.
As much as he can daydream as things start going bad to worse for the cast; they can never find the right soldiers and it seems like the war party is ahead of them, burning down settlements.
They have an extended stopover at Chris-Pin Martin’s stagecoach stopover place, where everyone’s kind of got to get over themselves in a crisis—the war party’s close, very drunk Mitchell’s got to play doctor, and Wayne’s got to decide if he’s going to escape a distracted Bancroft.
Pretty much every performance is great, particularly Mitchell and Bancroft, but Carradine’s also got some excellent moments—with some intense character reveals—ditto Meek, who starts displaying a lot of depth fairly early on and it gradually increases quite well. Devine’s scene stealer funny (to the point you almost wonder if director Ford told anyone else he’d be interrupting them to take over); Trevor and Wayne’s arc is lovely and where Ford expends the most effort outside the action. He spends a lot of time getting the performances right (Wayne’s got one delivery where you wonder who came up with it because it’s so perfect and so unlike his subsequent work, even with Ford). And Trevor’s bigger arc, which requires her to stay quiet and react more than anything else, is quite good. The romance arc makes Wayne’s character and performance work; Trevor would’ve been fine on her own, but the romance just adds to it. Bert Glennon’s photography of that very gentle romance is, like Ford’s direction, only beat by the exceptional action sequences.
Platt and Churchill are both fine. They just don’t have the arcs the other characters get so there’s only so much they’re going to be able to do.
Technically, Stagecoach’s stunning. Ford’s direction, Glennon’s photography, Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer’s editing, which nimbly scales from silent resentment reaction shots to the stunt-heavy, grandiose action. The film’s frequently breathtaking, full of these wonderful gradual, patient sequences from Ford where he lets the action unfold for the camera instead of moving the camera until it finds the action.
Stagecoach is exquisite.