Very rarely does one shot of a movie change the entire landscape of the industry. That’s what happens though early in John Ford’s Stagecoach. As the titular vehicle is in the early stages of its journey it stops as a sudden figure signals for them. What happens next will change the landscape of cinema forever.
How John Ford introduces the ‘Ringo Kid’ is very interesting. First we have a wide shot of an imposing figure yelling at the other protagonists. He flips his gun to reload showcasing he is very adept at getting the thing primed for any situation. While he does this Ford suddenly starts to zoom to an extreme close up to the Ringo Kid’s face. Ford makes the choice to have this process be out of focus. Not as a mistake on his part, but to prepare the audience who this hulking figure is. The camera finally focuses in its close up of the Ringo Kid, who suddenly seems surprised at one of the characters riding in the stagecoach. It is a nice, subtle choice to have that happen as you can tell through this man’s eyes he was not prepared for this specific encounter.
In that short span of time (five seconds as a matter of fact) we get one of the best introductions to a character in film. In those five seconds the career of this man by the name of John Wayne is reintroduced to cinemagoers. By the time the final reel spins the careers of both Johns will change forever.
If John Ford did not get his way with John Wayne as the Ringo kid then the Western genre probably wouldn’t take a stranglehold in pop culture from the 1940s to early 1960s. Would we have other classics from the likes of Ford, Howard Hawks, and Sergio Leone? Without John Wayne finding his perfect niche as an actor would others follow in his wake such as Clint Eastwood, Glenn Ford, or James Coburn? Heck, contemporary filmmakers today like the Coen Brothers could not make a film like No Country For Old Men without Stagecoach.
This might not be the first film to do so overall but Stagecoach set the stage for the typical characters found in a Western. You got the alcoholic (bonus points if he is a doctor), the coward (played hilariously by Andy Devine), the con salesman, the no-nonsense lawman, and the mysterious female protagonist. It might be filled with the typical tropes but each are played phenomenally well by each actor. It is hard though to not look at John Wayne and see what is to come. He would refined himself again and again as years go on but considering how unsure he was taking the job it is amazing what he does here.
Then you have the typical flair Ford puts into his films. You wouldn’t know it but Ford took a long hiatus from Westerns before taking this on. He seemed to have no issue switching from silent to sound and honestly who needs it when you have such breathtaking landscapes. This was the first time he would use Monument Valley as his setting (regardless of historical accuracy) and I can’t think of another pair of filmmaker & setting that goes this perfectly well. By the time Ford was done those mountains and long stretches of desert would end up having more character than the actual actors walking across them! By the time we get to the fantastically paced Native American attack it is hard to decide what to look at more: the scenery or the stuntman literally risking their lives for the sake of a shot.
I know a lot of people think The Searchers is the best Ford/Wayne pairing and I can’t say I fully disagree. There are more than enough sequences and shots that could make it as one of, if not, the best western film period. But I love Stagecoach for how much these two got it right in their first outing in sound. The acting by Wayne is spectacular, Ford’s direction is top notch, and the cinematography in general rivals that of The Searchers. (The only “knock” I guess would be that it is in black and white but if that is an issue to you then you’re watching old films wrong.) Most people wouldn’t rank their favorite films in regard to historical significance but I certainly do when it comes to this. The fact that this came out with such heavy hitters for the year (seriously look up what came out in 1939 and be amazed) and it is still my favorite is a testament to what the two Johns had in store for the next several decades.