It is the iconic Monument valley, with it’s barren, immortal landscape of buttes and plateaus that is forever fixed in the memory of moviegoers as to what the Old West looks like. This vision is accredited to John Ford—who used the scenic valley as a backdrop for most of his western films, following its debut in his 1939 film Stagecoach. Ford’s Stagecoach brought the western to the forefront of American cinema, and placed precedence to how most films would be made from there on out in the genre. At the same time, Ford introduced the legendary John Wayne, who would go down in history as an international icon—a prototype of charisma and masculinity. Together, the bond of Ford and Wayne—“Pappy” and “the Duke”—paved the way for the western, and created a duo that would dominate the silver screen for decades, revolutionizing film forever.
Stagecoach was Ford’s breakthrough talkie western, and showed the world what kind of filmmaker he was. Using minimal cutting—allowing the on-screen action to flow smoothly—combined with superb casting, Ford made Stagecoach a film that was easy to invest into emotionally. Each character aboard the stagecoach suited a cliché—the drunk, the prostitute, the gambler, the banker, etc.—but their actions dismissed the stereotype, teaching the audience—and those riding the stagecoach—a lesson on redemption and social prejudice: don’t judge a book by its cover.
As the strangers pass through the dangerous Apache territory, piled tightly together in the stagecoach, it is a time of revelations. Romance manifests between two of the outcasts—Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who is wanted for murder, and Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute who is ostracized by her townspeople. Together, Ringo and Dallas become the main focus, as they progressively build a bond. Ringo’s chivalry is something Dallas is not used to, and the two gradually become more intimate, delivering one of the most powerful moments in the film: Amongst the dark of the night, Ringo proposes to Dallas; she responds that he doesn’t even know her—suggesting her secret past as a prostitute—but Ringo shamelessly replies: “I know all I wanna know.”
The underlying fear of the killer Apache, Geronimo, is ever present along the journey of the stagecoach but the laughs stay rolling, creating many climactic moments. Whether it’s Marshall Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) arguing with the goofy stagecoach driver Buck (Andy DeVine), or the drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) pampering his beloved new companion Mr. Peacock (Donald Meek), a whiskey salesman, the humor doesn’t miss a beat.
Just when it seems the danger has passed the stagecoach, and Doc Boone toasts to all of the passenger’s health; suddenly an arrow strikes Mr. Peacock’s chest! The Apache’s attack, and the chase scene that follows is one for the books. Ford didn’t hold back, and the action sequence makes that clear. Horses collapse at full speed, throwing their Apache riders into the desert’s clay; Ringo Kid—played by a stuntman for this sequence—jumps from horse to horse, to steer the reins of the stagecoach after Buck is shot; and an Apache leaps from his horse, onto another horse that is driving the stagecoach, gets shot from behind, and then slides between the rows of horses and the stagecoach wheels as they pass over him going more than 30 mph! The scene is incredible—and spine chilling to say the least. The stunts were obviously life threatening, making it pure realism. The sound of Bugles ends the violence as the U.S. Calvary arrives to save the day.
Ford uses the triangle of drama to tell the story, as we see yet another climax during the descending action, when the stagecoach arrives at Lordsburg. Mr. Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the banker, is arrested for being a crook, and Ringo seeks vengeance against the Plummer brothers who killed his father and brother. It is a subplot with great suspense, as the town awaits the final shootout. Curley allows Ringo his gun, which he loads up with three bullets that he had saved for the occasion. Escorting Dallas to a brothel, now fully aware of her past, Ringo tells her to await his arrival and then confronts the three Plummer brothers on Main Street in the town—the dark of the night making them into silhouettes. Peeking from the shadows, the tall, masculine Ringo dives into the dirt, shooting his three shots. It appears that Ringo has been killed, as Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) walks into the saloon, but then—as the “dead mans hand” he was dealt in a poker game prior to the shootout predicts—Luke collapses on the floor to his death. Ringo has settled his revenge, and rejoices with Dallas. Ford makes for a charming ending when Curley arrives with the cart to take Ringo away to jail—only to allow Dallas to ride off with Ringo, happily ever after. Curley offers to buy Doc Boone a drink, to which he replies, “Just one”—a perfect statement for the drunk, which ends in laughter. The final scene shows Ringo and Dallas riding off to begin their new life—the majestic Monument Valley backgrounds a quintessential Ford wide shot.