Sweeping and powerful drama of the American frontier, “Stagecoach” displays potentialities that can easily drive it through as one of the surprise big grossers of the year. Without strong marquee names, picture nevertheless presents wide range of exploitation to attract, and will carry far through word-of-mouth after it gets rolling.
Directorially, production is John Ford in peak form, sustaining interest and suspense throughout, and presenting exceptional characterizations. Picture is a display of photographic grandeur.
Story takes an incident from the pages of the early west to weave a tightly knit drama packed with suspense and entertainment. It’s the adventures of a group aboard a stagecoach between two frontier settlements during the sudden uprising of the Apaches. Situation is a “Grand Hotel” on wheels. There’s Claire Trevor, dance hall gal forced to leave town; driver, Andy Devine; gambler, John Carradine; inebriated frontier medic, Thomas Mitchell; marshall, George Bancroft; wife of an army officer en route to his post, Louise Platt; whiskey salesman, Donald Meek, and absconding banker, Berton Churchill. John Wayne, recently escaped from prison, is picked up on the road shortly after the start.
Cavalry troop conveys the stagecoach to the first stop, and from there on it’s a mad run through the mountains and deserts to avoid the injuns. At hacienda of Chirs Martin, group is delayed for arrival of the baby; Wayne falls in love with Miss Trevor; Carradine is extremely chivalrous to the mother and baby; Mitchell sobers to make delivery, and Churchill antagonizes everyone with his officious attitude. When Wayne discovers Indian signal fires burning, group pile aboard quickly to dash for safety of the town. Seemingly safe across the river, the Apaches attack the stagecoach during a mad dash across a dry lake, but the cavalry arrives to rout the savages. After Wayne has avenged the deaths of his father and brother in the town, he leaves with Miss Trevor for his ranch across the border.
In maintaining a tensely dramatic pace all the way, Ford still injects numerous comedy situations, and throughout sketches his characters with sincerity and humaneness. It’s absorbing drama without the general theatrics usual to picturizations of the early west. There’s no individual heavy–suspense is maintained at a high peak by continual threat of Indian attack along the route. The running fight between the stage coach passengers and the Apaches has been given thrilling and realistic presentation by Ford. In contrast, his direction of the hacienda sequences, during the arrival of the baby, is an extremely tender episode.
Photography by Bert Glennon throughout is exceptional. Music score also does much to add to the value.
1939: Best Score, Supp. Actor (Thomas Mitchell).
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, B&W Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing