The adventure is in the journey -- not the destination.
The 1939 film Stagecoach remains one of the most influential Westerns of all time and launched John Wayne on his way to stardom. Wayne, born Marion Morrison, had already worked as a prop man, done stunt work and starred in a number of lower budget films when director John Ford decided to cast him in the role of Ringo Kid. Although the studio balked in favor of a more notable Hollywood name, Ford persisted in his decision and as they say, a star was born.
The script, based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, follows a group of passengers traveling by stagecoach from Tonto to Lordsburg during an Indian uprising. Despite the danger, most of them have reason to take the risk.
Two of the riders have been cast out of town by a ladies’ organization bent on cleaning up the community’s image.
Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell who won an Oscar for his role) has also been asked to leave by the Law and Order League. His love of drink has cost him his medical credibility. Despite being thrown out, Doc couldn’t be happier to make the acquaintance of fellow passenger Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek). The reticent whiskey seller is on a road trip to hawk his wares. Doc takes a special interest in Sam’s sample case and offers to keep it in his care.
Dallas (Claire Trevor) appears to be a woman of ill repute, though no one is so bold as to say the word “prostitute”. She’s quite a contrast to Lucy Mallory (Lucy Platt), the delicate wife of a military officer who is on her way to reconnect with her husband. And at the last minute, a slick gambler of Southern origin (John Carradine) that smitten by Lucy, hops on the stagecoach to accompany her.
The late boarding passenger is bank manager Ellsworth Gatewood (Berton Churchill). Taking a satchel full of the bank’s funds, he chooses to escape the heavy-hand of the Law and Order League as well—or more specifically his wife who heads up the reform group.
Along the way, the stage picks up Ringo Kid. Recently escaped from jail, he is on his way to Lordsburg to kill the men who framed him. Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) rides shotgun for the stage’s driver Buck (Andy Devine). The Marshal plans to take Ringo in but in the meantime he’s glad to have another good hand with a gun.
Although the group travels through the wide expanse of the west, Stagecoach, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat that released five years later, corrals the cast into the confines of the horse-drawn vehicle and exposes their individual foibles and strengths. Credited with innovative cinematography, a spectacular setting and thoughtful character development, the film is considered by some to be a textbook example of filmmaking. Orson Wells, reportedly watched it 40 times before making his movie Citizen Kane, and he listed Stagecoach as one of his top ten films.
Exploring the intricacies of human interactions and the judgments freely cast on others, Stagecoach not only hurled John Wayne into the spotlight, but more importantly the film forever influenced the way Hollywood made movies.