Film Notes

Film Notes #2: Stagecoach (1939)

The 30-day film watching experiment continues with John Ford’s classic 1939 western.

For newcomers, the deal is that I must watch a film every day and make notes about it, with the following rules:

  1. I’ve already seen it
  2. I must make notes whilst I’m watching it.
  3. Pauses are allowed but the viewing must all be one session.
  4. It can’t be a cinema release.

The point is to capture my instant thoughts about a movie and my overall film diet for 30 days, as well as post interesting links to the film in question.

Here are my notes on Stagecoach (1939) which I watched on a DVD on Tuesday 13th March.

  • John Ford’s first sound western.
  • Apparently Orson Welles watched this 40 times whilst making CITIZEN KANE (1941).
  • Nominated for Best Picture in 1939.
  • Motley crew of people get on a stagecoach and journey across Apache territory.
  • Typical Ford use of real locations, especially Monument Valley.
  • Costumes are fantastic.
  • Acting a little (ahem) “of its time”.
  • John Wayne looks so young – our popular image of him is as an older man.
  • Banking commentary at 33 mins! (Occupy Wall Street by way of Monument Valley… )
  • The pompous banker is played by Henry Gatewood and the screenplay has the foresight to include the detail that he’s just embezzled some some assets.
  • Interesting camera positioning within a confined space – compare to THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974) and CHILDREN OF MEN (2006).
  • Ford must have planned out his shots carefully.
  • According to Steven Spielberg, Ford never shot coverage, so the studio couldn’t edit in their preferred takes.
  • At one point (47 mins) a character actually says the words: “well I’ll be dog gone”.
  • Cast actually blend well together, newcomers to the film might be surprised it’s not an all Wayne affair.
  • Claire Trevor, John Carradine and Thomas Mitchell all excellent.
  • Claire Trevor’s character is a prostitute so notorious that local women have conspired to oust her from the town.
  • Quite a bit of smoking goes on e.g. Curley lighting his cigarette from the lamp and the Doc smoking his cigar.
  • Racial attitudes are more interesting than expected.
  • Although the Apaches are hostile, there is one scene in the Mexican fort which suggests racial tolerance where they talk of the wife’s Apache people.
  • The idea of an anti-hero prisoner on board may have influenced ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) and other films.
  • Climactic chase is actually exciting!
  • Replace the horses with helicopters and the chase is reminiscent of the helicopter attack on the village in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
  • Did RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) reference the Apache sliding under the coach in the scene where Indy slides beneath the truck?
  • The climax of MAD MAX 2 (1981) was also possibly influenced by this chase.
  • Blending of rear projection and location shooting is actually pretty good.
  • Foley of water splashing in the Doc’s face is one of the more notable sound effects.
  • The cavalry charge is signified by the bugle, an important sound effect that is blended in with the score.
  • Interesting that the Wayne character is a prisoner – somewhat against type.
  • Denouement sequence interesting as we see a criminal propose marriage to a prostitute. So much for 1930s morality!
  • Misleading ‘switch’ in who got shot in the final scene reminiscent of the climax of MINORITY REPORT (2002).
  • Closing dialogue (“Doc, I’ll buy you a drink”) is a bit like CASABLANCA (1942).
  • Claire Trevor is billed above John Wayne in the end credits.
  • Holds up very well as a classic Western.
  • I definitely need to get the Criterion Blu-ray of this – it has a load of interesting extras.

Documentaries Interesting

The American West of John Ford

A 1971 documentary on the westerns of John Ford provides a fascinating insight into the director and his work.

Filled with clips from his work, it also contains interviews with colleagues such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Andy Devine.

It was filmed just two years before he died in 1973 and the tone is somewhat elegiac, as the Western was dying as a genre along with the old studio system.

I love the formal way in which Wayne, Stewart and Fonda address the camera and share stories with their old director (Wayne calls Ford “Pappy”) along with expensive helicopter shots of the landscape he made famous.

Also note that it is screened in the 16:9 aspect ratio, which seems unusual for the TV of the time but was presumably so they could capture the widescreen images of his films.

> Find out more about John Ford at Wikipedia and MUBi
> Senses of Cinema essay on John Ford

Interesting Random TV

John Ford BBC interview from 1968

By the late 1960s John Ford was firmly established as one of the great directors of his era, for films such as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

The following BBC interview from 1968 is a fascinating snapshot of Ford in his later years (he would die in 1973).

Years of heavy drinking had clearly taken their toll and the opening question sets the tone:

Interviewer: What sort of childhood did you have? Where you interested in movies way back?

Ford: Not really. Not interested in them now, actually.

Also note the heavy smoking, Ford’s belligerent attitude, awkward zooms, random transitions to black and white and the obligatory posh English interviewer.

It is almost a short film itself.

> John Ford at the IMDb
> Essay on John Ford at Senses of Cinema