In 1939, John Ford released Stagecoach, a learned and perceptive cinematic work of art that not only introduced John Wayne as a major player in Hollywood but one that also made the western something more than a mere backdrop for pulp-ish adventure stories. Indeed, the movie shows that the western can serve as the perfect setting for a high-cultured morality play, mythic in its significance and its import. Themes of justice, belonging (and alienation), and redemption permeate the movie at every level.
Not surprisingly, given the title of the movie, Stagecoach follows the journey of a single stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona, to Lordsburg, Arizona, with three stops along the way: a way station; a small Mexican settlement; and a ferry. Always in the back ground looms the picturesque and stark Monument Valley.
The movie opens in Tonto, Arizona, a lively and prosperous western settlement that is attempting to drive out its town physician, Dr. Boone, and its prostitute, Dallas. A grey dull group of stern and puritanical women, the “Ladies of the Law and Order League,” are on the verge of forming a mob, forcing Boone and Dallas to leave the town as quickly as possible, with a distorted version of “Shall We Meet Down by the River” offering the moody and quirky soundtrack to the moment. Boone confides in his friend and ally, Dallas, noting that they are both the “victims of social prejudice.”
Meanwhile, news has arrived that the Apache leader Geronimo has once again jumped the reservation and is declaring war throughout Arizona Territory. A quick shot of the town banker, Mr. Gatewood, reveals that he is stealing money from his own bank, as he assures two employees, “What’s good for the banks is good for the country.”
The stagecoach, just about to leave town, despite the threats from the Apache, represents American society in every aspect. The local Marshall, Curly, rides shotgun, protecting the stagecoach’s driver, Buck, and their passengers. The passengers include, of course, Boone and Dallas (forced to leave, regardless of danger), a whiskey drummer from Kansas City, Kansas (Mr. Peacock, though everyone refers to him as the Reverend), and, critically, the seemingly-ill wife of an army officer and a high-class lady from Virginia (Mrs. Mallory). As the stagecoach departs, a notorious southern gambler, Mr. Hatfield, attaches himself as “protection for the lady,” and, just as the stagecoach is about to exit town, Gatewood—now illegally in possession of the bank’s money—joins in a getaway attempt, knowing that the telegraph lines have been cut by the Apaches.
En route, Ringo “Henry” Kidd (John Wayne) hitches a ride, having broken out of prison to avenge the killings of his father and brother in Lordsburg. Whatever his crimes, the Kidd is clearly appreciated for his honesty and his good skills.
Taken together, though, one must marvel at this little moving society: a lawman, a goof (the driver), an escaped criminal, a drunken physician, a prostitute, a salesman, a gambler, a criminal banker, and a Southern lady. Sides quickly form, with the Southern lady, the gambler, and the banker allied against the physician and the prostitute. Stuck in the middle of this is the salesman, whom everyone dismisses as a nobody. Yet, critically for the entire story and plot of the movie, the Kidd sees no distinction between the two women, considering them both ladies and worthy of all respect. In his profound innocence and goodness, this escaped convict sees only the human person, not the trappings of social class or sin.
At first stop on the trail, no relief troops are to be found, and the cavalry that has accompanied them thus far has orders to depart. Unprotected, the members of the stagecoach decide to vote on whether they should push onto Lordsburg or return to Tonto. After some discussion about the options of the trip, every member gets a vote.
At this vote, though, several things occur that will have serious implications for the rest of the story. First, the Kidd, once again in his innocence, holds a seat for Dallas and even addresses her as “ma’am.” When the gambler Hatfield votes, however, he superstitiously pulls out a card from a deck, the Ace of Spades, the symbol of death.
Voting to continue to Lordsburg, the stagecoach’s second stop as at a small Mexican settlement. Chris, the owner, a devout Catholic, is married to an Apache woman, and, it turns out, Mrs. Mallory was not ill at all, but on the verge of giving birth. The stagecoach ride has jarred the baby, and with the crucial help of Dallas and a sobered-up Boone, she successfully delivers a baby girl.
The Kidd is so impressed with Dallas’s calm and her knowledge, that he sees her now, not just as a lady, but fully as a woman. As he watches her hold the baby, he falls in love. When the Kidd admits his feelings and asks Dallas to marry him, though, she becomes confused and frustrated, assuming that the Kidd really has no idea that she is a prostitute and, therefore, unredeemable.
As Dallas continues to nurse Mrs. Mallory back to full strength, the party once again has to decide whether to continue to Lordsburg or return to Tonto. When Dallas and the Kidd talk again, she begs him to return to Tonto, knowing that he will face nothing but violence and, almost certainly, his own death while taking revenge in Lordsburg. Famously, the Kidd responds in a line that Wayne would carry with him (and his reputation) to his dying days: “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”
When they spot Apache war signals, they realize they have no choice. They must get to Lordsburg as quickly as possible.
The stagecoach finds that the third stop between Tonto and Lordsburg, the ferry, has already been attacked and destroyed by the Apache, and it’s only a matter of time before the Apache strike them. When the stagecoach enters a huge, open expanse in Monument Valley, the Apache attack, and a massive firefight erupts. An arrow wounds Peacock, the salesman, and a bullet kills Hatfield. Just as the members of the the stagecoach run out of ammo, the cavalry arrives.
The plot and the plot strands of Stagecoach all resolve, rather brilliantly, when the stagecoach finally makes it to Lordsburg. Once there, Dallas presents the baby to the town, and the ladies nod to her in appreciation. Peacock invites her to visit his family in Kansas City, and Mrs. Mallory expresses her gratitude. Dallas has become, almost, acceptable in society.
The town law shows up at the stagecoach, but, rather than arrest the Kidd, as expected, they arrest the banker, Gatewood, noting that he foolishly did not expect the telegraph lines to be fixed. The Kidd, it seems has been forgiven. With three bullets for his rifle, the Kidd fights and honorably kills the three brothers who had murdered his father and his brother.
The movie concludes with Curly and Boone sending the Kidd and Dallas off to their future, to be married, and to live out their lives on the Kidd’s inherited ranch. Redemption and justice reign at every level. As the Kidd and Dallas drive off, Boone offers the last words of the movie: “We have saved them from the blessings of civilization.”
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The featured image is a still from Stagecoach (1939).