On the Road to American Destiny: John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’

It’s June 1880, and a stagecoach with eight people is traversing through the Arizona desert, headed to Lordsburg, New Mexico. The sight of the stagecoach appears so insignificant juxtaposed against the vastness of the American West, and its passengers are aware of dangers that could await them—one of them being the Apaches and their leader, Geronimo. 

They have finally settled into a rhythm on the journey when suddenly, the horses are spooked by a shotgun blast. It’s not the Apaches or Geronimo. It’s a white man, Ringo Kid, who is wanted for breaking out of prison and is on his own personal vendetta to avenge the murder of his father and brother. He, too, is headed to Lordsburg and seeks a spot in the stagecoach because his horse is lame. Ringo is portrayed by none other than John Wayne, and the director John Ford introduces him here to the world with a famous close-up shot that began Wayne’s journey into stardom.

Like all John Ford westerns, “Stagecoach” (1939) is an integral part of Ford’s exploration of the American legend of the West. His films are gripping stories about people and their relation to the land, both claimed and unclaimed. The characters are often not only human beings with personal histories and deeply drawn characters, but also archetypes that transcend the particularities of their time and place. This is especially true of “Stagecoach.” 

Although they embody the variety of the essential characteristics of American collective consciousness, the nine people inhabiting the small space of this moving vehicle remind us of the distinctions drawn out regarding social status and personality differences common in all great classic literature. There is Dallas, a kind prostitute who has been shamed and driven out of town; Doc Boone, a doctor more set on draining every bottle of booze in the territory than on healing people; Lucy Mallory, an upper class woman, traveling to join her cavalryman husband; Mr. Peacock, a whiskey salesman who is “befriended” by Doc Boone for obvious reasons; Hatfield, a gentleman with a mysterious past, who seems to on the stagecoach for no purpose other than to protect Lucy Mallory and for reasons yet unknown; Buck, the affable but none-too-smart stagecoach driver; Marshal Curley Wilcox with an objective to catch Ringo Kid but whose good nature and humor eventually cause him to release the outlaw; and of course, Ringo Kid, “the good bad man,” as Peter Bogdanovich calls him. 

Tensions mount on the coach. Doc Boone gets more drunk with each passing mile. Dallas’ company is rejected by almost everyone, but Ringo takes a liking to her. As the journey progresses, Ringo proposes marriage to her, which she wants to reject on the basis of her past. But Ringo doesn’t want to hear it; he’s accepting and doesn’t give a damn about her “profession” or her past. 

Lucy Mallory is worried that her husband, who is part of the U.S. Cavalry, is badly wounded by the Apaches. She herself is not free of mystery. She seems to be sick and woozy, and only later in the film is it revealed that she is pregnant, as she gives birth during the journey. This is one of the aspects of John Ford’s vision: placing everyday, yet monumental events within the context of larger history. Things are left unsaid or they are implied. For example, nobody actually calls Dallas a prostitute but it’s understood that she was one. The Civil War has ended but Ford doesn’t take some large, theoretical approach to exploring the question. Instead, these realities are taken in passing through the authentic voices of authentic people. Tension between the Union and Confederate soldiers still exists, yet they’re trying to integrate into this big American idea and experiment in unity. 

Each frame of “Stagecoach” is perfectly drawn out. In many ways, Ford was a painter with the camera. He understood light and shadow and many of his shots are aesthetic representations of the interior lives of his characters. He exalted the image more than the spoken word, and this is seen especially in the many scenes with John Wayne, who called himself more of a re-actor than an actor. 

In one of these scenes, Doc Boone reminisces about Ringo and his brother, and how he knew them when they were children. “What happened to that boy [Ringo’s brother]?” Doc Boone asks. Wayne’s face becomes grave as he speaks plainly: “He was murdered.” The camera remains on Wayne’s face in an extended shot, and his face demands that we pay attention to the pain he’s feeling, as well as the rage and revenge that is bubbling up in him.

Ford’s unparalleled talent for gripping storytelling as well as composition has made him the subject of praise for many film directors. The great filmmaker Orson Welles credited John Ford with “teaching” him how to make movies. In a collection of  conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles (1992), Welles recalls Ford visiting the set of “Citizen Kane” (1941). 

“Did Ford know you’d be studying Stagecoach?,” asks Bogdanovich.

“Why should he?” answers Welles. “It wasn’t what you’d call a big public event—I’d just be running it a lot.”

You could say that again. In fact, Welles loved “Stagecoach” so much that he watched it “after dinner every night for about a month.” He didn’t really know much about filmmaking when he began to work on “Citizen Kane,” and it was “Stagecoach” that turned out to be the film for Welles to learn everything he wanted to know about movie making. 

“I couldn’t push my way onto other people’s sets,” he told Bogdanovich. “Everybody’d stop and be polite and I’d just be in the way. But if I couldn’t watch, how could I learn? . . . I’d learned whatever I knew in the projection room—from Ford . . . it was like going to school.” 

Ford’s influence is manifest. The fact that he made such an impression on one of the greats—Orson Welles—is testament to his ability as a director but also as a storyteller. He captured an America that both exists and doesn’t exist, or at the very least, one that aims to exist. He is the great artist whose work continues to keep the American story alive, with all its beauty, grit, and sorrow. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore” is something we often say, and this certainly rings true with Ford. His films live on not only as the images of the distant past but also as America’s present and its uneasy and uncertain future.

About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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