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Archive for August 1st, 2009

John Wayne wasn’t a star. He had made 79 films mainly B movies when one iconic shot in one iconic film made him a star in 1939.

The scene:

The stagecoach is coming towards us at speed, cut to the following cavalry crossing a river a short distance behind. The stagecoach draws to a stop at the sound of a gunshot. Cut to John Wayne spinning his Winchester rifle to reload it (you think Schwarzenegger invented that trick in Terminator 2!) the camera zooms in too fast for the focus puller to keep up, the shot drops out of focus, he catches up and we get a close-up of a 32 year old (he looks younger ) John Wayne in one of his most iconic images almost as famous as the doorway silhouette from the searchers.

John Wayne was the star of Stagecoach (1939) and is remembered as such but he was paid a lot less than his co-stars. Claire Trevor was actually given top billing and Wayne was far from the first choice for the part (with all except John Ford). Producer Walter Wagner’s preference was Gary Cooper but director John Ford got his way as he so often did mainly because Cooper was too expensive. When David O Selznick considered making the film he also wanted Gary Cooper along with Marlene Dietrich as Dallas (the role played by Claire Trevor). Ultimately Selznick didn’t make the film dismissing it as Fords “uncommercial pet”. On viewing Wayne was an inspired choice as The Ringo Kid, in fact Ford forced the performance out of him by bullying him throughout the production. This helped coax an emotion filled performance out of him as well as distracting him from the fact he was surrounded by big stars. 

 Monument Valleystagecoach bStagecoach

 

 

 

 

 

The significance of this film and Wayne’s performance should not be underestimated. Westerns where out of fashion at the time and as mentioned Wayne was forging career in B movies. These days John Ford is known for his westerns but this was actually only his second western and his first “talkie” western following the silent Three Bad Men in 1926. Had it not succeeded he may not have revisited his two most iconic stars, John Wayne and Monument Valley (also seen here for the first time) and the genre may not have been revived to give us all the classic westerns of the last seventy years. Take a look at IMDB’s top rated westerns and you will see only Laurel and Hardy’s comedy western Way Out West (1937) pre-dates Stagecoach.

So this film created John Wayne as a movie star, reinvented the western and put John Ford on a career path that made him as bigger legend as his star John Wayne. All this is true but you can forget all of it and enjoy the film as a great and classic film.

* * * * *

Other Ford/Wayne westerns not to be missed:

  • The “cavalry trilogy”: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950)
  • The Searchers (1956)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  • How the west Was Won (1962) (The Civil War)*

*How the west Was Won was the only time Ford tackled the civil war although the birth of the nation after the war of independence and the settling of the west and the frontier after the war is a constant subtext in his films. 

 

A note on this article: Whilst the opinions in this article are my own a lot of the facts come from “John Ford; Hollywood’s Old Master” By Ronald L. Davies. ISBN 0-8061-2708-2.

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