This is where it all started. John Ford's smash hit and enduring masterpiece Stagecoach revolutionized the western, elevating it from B movie to the A-list. The quintessential tale of a group of strangers thrown together into extraordinary circumstances--traveling a dangerous route from Arizona to New Mexico--Stagecoach features outstanding performances from Hollywood stalwarts Claire Trevor, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, and, of course, John Wayne, in his first starring role for Ford, as the daredevil outlaw the Ringo Kid. Superbly shot and tightly edited, Stagecoach (Ford's first trip to Monument Valley) is Hollywood storytelling at its finest.
Stagecoach is the Platonic ideal of what a movie should be and do, and Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray release showcases its virtues with love and care. That begins with the digital restoration of a landmark film most of us have seen only via substandard prints and videos. Transferred from a 1942 nitrate dupe negative, the new disc restores director John Ford and cameraman Bert Glennon's images to their proper richness, clarity, and depth. The results aren't pristine--dirt and damage remain visible at times, noticeably during the opening credits--but mostly it's as though a cloud had lifted with the first break of sun over Monument Valley. Excellent feature-length audio commentary is supplied by film scholar Jim Kitses (Horizons West), who right up front challenges the notion that Stagecoach lacks the nuance and complexity of later Ford masterworks. He also regrets that the picture is now known primarily as the vehicle that made John Wayne an A-list star. It did that (and Kitses means no disrespect to the Duke!), but more essentially it's a triumph of the ensemble film, in which every character and performance is carefully developed and even more artfully enlarged by interplay with the others. Kitses also fervently contends that the film's protagonist is not Wayne's Ringo Kid but Dallas, the prostitute played by Claire Trevor. (Ford told Trevor that her performance was so good, so fully woven into the texture of the film, she wouldn't receive the credit she deserved. He was right.)
Two devout Fordians make personal contributions to the Criterion disk: Peter Bogdanovich with amusing character portraits of Ford and John Wayne, and Tag Gallagher with a video essay, "Dreaming of Jeannie." Gallagher sketches Stagecoach's aptness as a reflection of post-Depression America and then, with acute sensitivity to the particulars of Ford's style, analyzes key passages. He illuminates the director's genius for exploring inner reality through spatial dynamics, and persuasively demonstrates that "Ford wants us to empathize with people, not to ally against them … to see without intolerance." Ford himself is heard from in a 72-minute interview conducted at his home in 1968 by BBC interviewer Philip Jenkinson; this is fascinating, though less for information and insights imparted than as a chapter in Ford's career-long history of being cantankerous with interviewers. His grandson and biographer Dan Ford presents a quarter-hour of home movies of the director with trusted colleagues aboard his yacht Araner, a home-away-from-home and means of escape from Hollywood … yet often Dudley Nichols would be turning out script pages somewhere on board. Stagecoach made Monument Valley "John Ford country," so it's right that the set should include a short history of the Goulding family, who operated a trading post there, and their relationship with Ford and the Navajo. There are also a (rather disappointing) tribute to Yakima Canutt, the fabled stuntman who played such a big part in executing the movie's famous chase across the salt flats; a 1949 radio dramatization of Stagecoach with Wayne and Trevor re-creating their roles; a theatrical trailer; and a print essay by David Cairns.
And yet the most exciting component apart from the Stagecoach restoration itself is something else by John Ford: a 54-minute silent comedy-Western from 1917, Bucking Broadway. This was made the year Ford started directing (at age 23), yet the work is both fresh with discovery and remarkably assured. Already it has the look of a Ford picture, as in an early sequence of horsemen gathering, surging up hillsides, crossing a creek, and then (anticipating the first shot of Stagecoach!) breaking into view from behind a roll of land we didn't even realize was there. The playing is relaxed, natural; there's hardly anything "silent movie" about it except that you can't hear their voices. Ford even kids about sentimentality (something he would often be charged with in later years) with a scene of crusty cowpokes getting blubbery over the song "Home Sweet Home." And in the final reel, as hero Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey) arrives in New York City on a mission to rescue his girl, one shot is sublime: the off-center framing of the Westerner, with saddle thrown over his shoulder, striding into the tall, baronial lobby of a Broadway hotel as concierge and bellhops look warily on. Picture-man John Ford had arrived, ready for work. --Richard T. Jameson