Remember when John Wayne was hot?
With him is a prostitute, an alcoholic doctor, a whiskey peddler, a soldier’s wife, a Confederate gambler, and a banker. That’s pretty much a capsule representing The West, all of whom are stuck with each other in the titular “Stagecoach.”
I wanna focus on the female characters in this movie. There’s Mrs. Mallory, a woman who I decided to like because of her complexity, but boy was it hard to like her. Her determination is admirable as she goes on a suicide mission to see her husband deep in the West where the Americans and the Apache are in war. Also, the film shows her worry about her husband while upping the bitchy treatment towards Dallas the prostitute (Claire Trevor). Some of us may excuse her condescending attitude to Southern breeding, but she already decided to ride the coach with Dallas. Would it hurt if she was two places away from her on the dining table? Besides, I’ve always preferred the whore over the virgin because the former juggles love, compulsion and loyalty while the latter is disgruntled like Mallory is sometimes. What made me turn around to liking her is seeing these two separate emotions and states of mind switch within seconds and still the same person, a woman having to deal with a volatile environment while learning more about herself.
Dallas is a more straightforward character, deeply affected by societal rejection. Besides, if the Ringo kid (John Wayne) likes her we must follow suit. The film also drops the bomb that she’s an orphan, something that she and Ringo have in common. Like Mallory, she gets a little bitchy towards Ringo because she doesn’t deserve him, she’ll just end up breaking her own heart.
I don’t even know why I’m questioning if they’re great characters or not, since they both have one problem atop another and both use meanness as a crutch. Maybe having those problems are a surefire way for us to like them despite their flaws. Or perhaps we get to know their past as a way of compression and to balance out the growing up that they have to do in a short time. Does having one problem after another equal nuance? Sure. Happens to male characters all the time. They’re the best written women in the John Ford movies or even better than half of the female characters written then and now.
I also wanna talk about how the movie looks. It’s visually uneventful and even badly acted in the beginning, and the burned stagecoach stop could have had more gravitas, but we get a zoom towards Ringo and it’s one good shot and moment after another. Documentary-like shots of the horses dipping across a river, Hatfield the Southerner (John Carradine) pointing the gun at Mallory’s head in slow motion, the light on Ringo and Dallas capturing the romance and the fear. Orson Welles apparently said that all he needed to follow the shot schemes at “Stagecoach” for “Citizen Kane,” but I saw the John Ford film as a precedent for “Touch of Evil,” the chiaroscuro and speed in both films capturing the chaos and violence of the time.