National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Character Studies In the Old West

Stagecoach has more on its mind than just who can shoot a six-gun

BY John Prizer

May 3-9, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/3/98 at 2:00 PM


Westerns are not a genre usually associated with spiritual values. Violent shootouts are the norm, and revenge is a frequent and much admired motive.

Stagecoach is the exception. When the movie was released in 1939, westerns were primarily low—budget items aimed at the bottom half of double bills. But its mixture of exciting action and penetrating character studies won two Oscars (best supporting actor, Thomas Mitchell, and best score, Richard Hageman) and established the genre for the first time as a possible vehicle for intelligent drama and important themes—it also made John Wayne a star.

Six passengers board a stage in a frontier New Mexico town in the 1870s. Two are respectable citizens; four are not. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant

Virginia gentlewoman traveling to join her Calvary—officer husband, and Gatewood (Berton Churchill), the local banker, see themselves as socially and morally superior to those around them.

Dallas (Claire Trevor), a dance—hall girl, has been run out of town for her loose conduct by the law—and—order committee. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), an alcoholic physician, has been evicted from his office and living quarters for failing to pay the rent. The other passengers who are outcasts are: Peacock (Donald Meek), a mild—mannered whiskey salesman, and Hatfield (John Carradine), a notorious gambler, who tries to make himself Lucy's guardian because of their common southern heritage.

The U.S. cavalry accompanies the coach, as Geronimo's apaches are terrorizing the countryside. The local sheriff, Curly (George Bancroft), rides shotgun for additional muscle. En route, he arrests the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just escaped from the local penitentiary and puts him inside along with the others.

The soldiers are ordered to leave the coach and search for Geronimo. The passengers vote to continue without their protection. The cramped quarters and ever—present physical danger provoke squabbles and name—calling, forcing each person to reveal his or her true self. The conflicts become so intense Peacock begs his fellow travelers “to have a little Christian charity one for another.”

Four—time Oscar—winning director, John Ford (The Grapes or Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, and The Informer), and screenwriter Dudley Nichols (The Informer) skillfully adapt Ernest Haycox's magazine short—story to dramatize the difference between each passenger's status in the community and his or her interior moral qualities. In almost every case, our initial expectations are reversed. The filmmakers want us to take a hard look at what Doc Boone calls “that foul disease called social prejudice.”

During a stopover at dinner, Hatfield refuses to let a gentlewoman like Lucy be seated next to an outcast like Dallas.

At the next stop, Lucy gives birth. Doc Boone sobers up for the first time in a decade and makes the delivery, and Dallas stays up all night to nurse the woman who had previously snubbed her. Doc and the dance—hall girl are shown to be persons of virtue who redeem themselves in the sight of most of the other passengers. Although, Gatewood continues to treat them haughtily. This self—proclaimed paragon of respectability, who has proudly declared that “what's good for banking is good for the country,” is revealed to be a thief who's trying to run away with his depositors’ funds.

Ford, who directed many of our best westerns (My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers, etc.), makes sure that his audience is treated to some action—packed thrills at the end. There's an exciting chase sequence where the Apaches attack the coach, and the Ringo Kid duels with the thugs who killed his father and brother. But the filmmakers use the drama primarily to open their viewers’ eyes to the power of forgiveness and redemption. Those characters who do overcome evil achieve their victory by wrestling with their souls, not by firing a six—gun.

Next week: Fellini's La Strada

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.