Ford Defines the Western in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Ford’s Stagecoach combined realistic characterizations, dramatic special effects, and impressive location filming to define the Western as both popular culture and serious art form.

Summary of Event

The camera seemed to jump forward toward the young cowboy standing by the roadside. The cowboy held a Winchester rifle in one hand and a saddle in the other, and his rugged face suddenly filled the screen with a compelling mixture of confidence and vulnerability. In this single shot, less than ten seconds in duration, director John Ford notified his audience and film critics that Stagecoach was no ordinary Western and that John Wayne was no ordinary film personality. [kw]Ford Defines the Western in Stagecoach (1939) [kw]Western in Stagecoach, Ford Defines the (1939) [kw]Stagecoach, Ford Defines the Western in (1939) Stagecoach (film) Motion pictures;Stagecoach Western genre;films Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];John Ford[Ford] [g]United States;1939: Ford Defines the Western in Stagecoach[09900] [c]Motion pictures;1939: Ford Defines the Western in Stagecoach[09900] [c]Entertainment;1939: Ford Defines the Western in Stagecoach[09900] Ford, John Wayne, John Mitchell, Thomas Canutt, Yakima Wanger, Walter

The film’s content involved much more than cowboys, Apaches, chases, and shoot-outs. Dudley Nichols’s Nichols, Dudley screenplay was based on Ernest Haycox’s Haycox, Ernest short story “The Last Stage to Lordsburg,” "Last Stage to Lordsburg, The" (Haycox)[Last Stage to Lordsburg] which appeared originally in Collier’s magazine. Nichols placed the emphasis on both pathos and humor to underline the human feelings and personal struggles of his protagonists. An outlaw with a conscience and a prostitute with a yearning for respectability established a poignant ambiguity in the film’s two main characters. Nichols’s screenplay and Ford’s direction stressed the interaction of nine people thrown together in a perilous journey from the frontier town of Tonto to Lordsburg. In their cramped quarters, the passengers were divided into two classes. The elite consisted of the pompous, overbearing banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the suave southern gentleman-gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), and the pregnant wife of an army officer, Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt). Of a lower social standing than this trio were the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), the outlaw Ringo (John Wayne) in custody of Sheriff Wilcox (George Bancroft), the bumbling whiskey drummer Peacock (Donald Meek), and the buffoonish, verbose stage driver Buck (Andy Devine). Thomas Mitchell won an Academy Award for his performance as an alcoholic doctor, Doc Boone, fallen from the grace of professional respectability because of his drinking.

The story line had a strong populist bent. By the end of the film, the self-righteous Gatewood was arrested for embezzlement, Hatfield died in an Apache attack, and Lucy Mallory discovered her indebtedness to her social inferiors, as Doc Boone, Dallas, and Ringo helped her through childbirth. The wrongly accused Ringo revealed his physical prowess, strength of character, and sense of justice as he saved the stagecoach from the Apaches and then, with the blessing of Sheriff Wilcox, wreaked vengeance on the wastrel Plummer brothers, the murderers of his father and brother. The film thus upended the social pyramid. Right-minded Ringo and good-hearted Dallas, their characters redeemed, rode off together on a buckboard to his ranch in Mexico, while Gatewood went to jail.

In a time of autocratic studio bosses and meddlesome producers, Ford was fortunate to have Walter Wanger finance the film as an independent production through United Artists. Wanger allowed Ford considerable latitude as director, and Ford used this opportunity well. The visual imagery was impressive, as Ford captured the large vistas of Monument Valley with sweeping camera angles and deep-focus shots. In the confinements of the stagecoach and the way station, the camera helped to establish class distinctions through the physical and emotional distance between the characters. Except for the use of Monument Valley, however, none of these devices was original with Stagecoach. Therefore, many film critics and historians in recent decades have seen Ford’s work as less innovative than the contemporary critical and public response indicated. Within these limits, however, it must be noted that Stagecoach was an exceptional achievement in a specific set of circumstances. Ford’s accomplishment was to bring so many new techniques into one film, which was, after all, a Western—a genre that had become a cliché-ridden, low-budget, mass-produced Hollywood staple during the years of the Great Depression. Ford’s directorial virtuosity surprised and stimulated audiences and critics, who had come to expect little artistry in Westerns.

Ford had a good ear for folk and popular music and worked well with Richard Hageman, Hageman, Richard whose Academy Award-winning score offered carefully selected tunes drawn from American rural traditions. The film’s songs varied from Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” to honky-tonk tunes typical of frontier saloons and bordellos. Hageman’s music helped establish the film’s sympathy for Dallas and Ringo and appealed to a broad public taste for symphonic versions of familiar tunes.

Stagecoach launched John Wayne to more than stardom; he became the archetypal Western hero whose film persona assumed mythic proportions in popular culture. Wayne had broken into motion pictures in 1926 as a stunt man and had made a series of generally unimpressive Westerns and other action-adventure films. By the mid-1930’s, he had steady work as the lead in cowboy films for Monogram and Republic, two of Hollywood’s minor studios. Fortunately for Wayne, he made a favorable impression on Ford, who sensed the lanky ex-collegiate football player’s potential as a dominant screen personality. Wayne and Ford worked well together on Stagecoach. Even a casual viewer of the film will be aware that the actor’s laconic voice and commanding presence somehow combined with a sincerity and an occasional suggestion of vulnerability to create a powerful personal image. Ford’s camera captured all these qualities in Wayne’s depiction of Johnny Ringo.

Few directors in motion-picture history have had the leeway granted to director Ford by producer Wanger, and even fewer have been able to translate an opportunity for creative expression into such a large financial and artistic success. The story itself was a reflection of Ford’s sympathy for the common people, a perspective also brought to the screen in his films The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Ford’s personal touch was especially visible in Stagecoach, a major event in his career and in the history of Hollywood Westerns.


Stagecoach rescued the Western from the wilderness of quickly made, often hackneyed B-films and the pristine Arcadia of music and dance inhabited by the singing cowboy. These two types of films had their strengths and their loyal fans, but the mix of cinematic creativity and social realism in Stagecoach set a standard for quality and box-office appeal that even the most profit-oriented studio could not ignore.

Ford’s work was so different from other films of the time, however, that few producers and directors attempted to copy Stagecoach. Instead, they began to explore the genre with feature attractions as vehicles for established stars, proven directors, and the new technology of Technicolor. As film historian William K. Everson has observed, “Its enormous popularity was understandable. . . . What was surprising was that none of its immediate offspring even attempted to duplicate its artistic standards, but were content to be big ’shows.’” Examples abounded in the early 1940’s. Director Raoul Walsh reunited Wayne and Trevor in Dark Command (1940) for Republic Pictures. William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940) starred Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan for United Artists, and Fritz Lang’s Western Union (1941) featured Robert Young, Randolph Scott, and Technicolor for Twentieth Century-Fox.

Ford’s use of Monument Valley prodded other directors to film on location in the broad expanses of the American West. Among the many following in Ford’s footsteps were Raoul Walsh, who placed Errol Flynn on the rolling plains to film George Custer’s fatal blunders in They Died with Their Boots On (1941). King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) presented the spectacle of a massive cattle drive, and George Stevens captured the grandeur of the Grand Tetons in Shane (1953).

Stuntman and second-unit director Yakima Canutt made a major contribution to Stagecoach in the film’s exciting chase sequence, which also gave a major boost to his own career. Canutt was already a Hollywood veteran in 1939, but Stagecoach put his services in great demand. Westerns and other types of films as well began to use more complex and difficult stunts that called for the skills and experience of Canutt. He continued to be active as a stuntman into the 1940’s and worked as a stunt director for many years thereafter. His later films included Ben-Hur (1959) and El Cid (1961).

In Stagecoach, Ford elicited a strong performance from John Wayne, at the time a little-known performer. From the release of Stagecoach when he was thirty-two until his death in 1979, Wayne projected the image of the iron-willed, two-fisted man of action with an unerring sense of justice. The hero of the common folk in Stagecoach, he starred as an army officer in Ford’s cavalry trilogy and made a deep imprint on the public mind with his roles as courageous soldiers in several films about World War II. Because of his immense popularity over four decades, Wayne had a larger symbolic importance than most Hollywood stars. Known as a political conservative in his last years, Wayne also had another side to his image: the champion of the underdog, especially in his first major characterization as Johnny Ringo and in later Westerns such as True Grit (1969), The Cowboys (1972), and The Shootist (1976).

Stagecoach made John Ford the master of the mature Western. His direction of My Darling Clementine in 1946 brought the shootout at the O.K. Corral to the screen in impressive fashion, but he enjoyed even greater success with his cavalry trilogy Fort Apache (1948), Fort Apache (film) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (film) and Rio Grande (1950). Rio Grande (film) John Wayne appeared as the central character in all three films. In comparison with Wayne’s roles in the B-Westerns of the 1930’s, these characters were far from one-dimensional cowboys. In particular, Rio Grande explored the troubled relationship between professional commitment to military discipline and the importance of wife and family. In the end, the brutality of the frontier was decisive; the dominant male patriarch discovered that he needed his wife and that his son could stand on his own.

While critics and historians continue to debate the precise place of Stagecoach in the evolution of serious cinema, the film itself remains a durable and impressive contribution to American motion-picture history. Ford successfully combined popular culture with high culture through his creative use of camera, visual imagery, and character. Other directors such as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Kihado Okamoto, as well as numerous film commentators, such as William K. Everson and Andrew Sarris, have testified to the lasting importance of Stagecoach as a serious achievement in motion-picture history. Stagecoach (film) Motion pictures;Stagecoach Western genre;films Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];John Ford[Ford]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buscombe, Edward. Stagecoach. London: BFI, 1996. Brief monograph on Ford’s film, including close formal reading of key scenes. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edgerton, Gary. “A Reappraisal of John Wayne.” Films in Review 37 (May, 1986): 282-289. Emphasizes Wayne’s instinctive appeal to American audiences as the embodiment of the nineteenth century ideal of rugged honesty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Everson, William K. A Pictorial History of the Western Film. New York: Citadel Press, 1969. Well-written general survey with carefully chosen illustrations from film stills and posters. Chapters 10 and 11 are especially helpful in assessing the Hollywood background for Stagecoach and the film’s impact on the motion-picture industry of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson. The Western: from Silents to the Seventies. Rev. ed. New York: Grossman, 1973. Greater factual detail and analytic depth than the Everson work cited above, with more text and fewer illustrations. Chapters 9 through 13 cover the period from 1920 to 1950, ranging from the big studio productions to the action B-Westerns and singing cowboy films that were typical of the 1930’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Thorough academic treatment of Ford and his work. Clearly written, although with some technical language. Contains an analysis of Stagecoach; Gallagher also discusses the film throughout the text in comparison with other Ford films. Covers Ford’s private life as well as his Hollywood career. Careful research reflected in extensive and informative footnotes and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, Barry Keith, ed. John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Collection of essays on Stagecoach comprises work by major film scholars—including Leland Poague, Gaylyn Studlar, and William Rothman—as well as three newspaper reviews of the film from 1939. Bibliography, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parks, Rita. The Western Hero in Film and Television: Mass Media Mythology. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982. Broad, interpretive analysis of the cowboy hero that provides the literary and sociological setting for Stagecoach in American popular culture—from the frontier folk tales of the nineteenth century to the Hollywood films of the interwar years to the television Westerns of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Place, J. A. The Western Films of John Ford. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1974. Useful compendium of Ford’s Westerns, with descriptive commentary and representative illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarris, Andrew. The John Ford Movie Mystery. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Incisive, stimulating overview of Ford’s contributions as director and as social and political commentator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stowell, Peter. John Ford. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Sophisticated assessment of Ford’s films within the context of American culture and history. Chapter 2 deals with Stagecoach in the development of the American frontier myth, and chapter 6 explores Ford’s use of narrative structure in that film and in The Searchers (1956).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zolotow, Maurice. Shooting Star: A Biography of John Wayne. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. Detailed, pioneering biography based on interviews and some private archives. Nicely written; includes anecdotes and insights into Wayne’s personality. Much material on the Wayne-Ford relationship, including the production of Stagecoach.

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