Stagecoach (1939)

Claire Trevor and John Wayne
Claire Trevor and John Wayne

'Stagecoach' is a classic Western film made in 1939, directed by John Ford, and starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne. It was one of the most influential movies ever made and it changed forever the way the Western genre is viewed. Previously Westerns had always been seen as cheap, low quality 'B' movies but after 'Stagecoach' they were elevated to a serious genre, able to explore rich and complex social themes. As well as being universally praised by the critics, the film was also a major box-office success.

In 1939, an outstanding year for movies, the competition for Academy recognition was more ferocious than ever. 'Gone with the Wind' picked up most plaudits but 'Stagecoach' was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two, for Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell) and Best Score (for its compilation of 17 American folk tunes of the 1880s). John Ford's reputation as a top director was considerably enhanced. It was his first sound Western and he went on to make many more on location in Monument Valley, Utah, many of which also starred John Wayne.


The film follows a group of nine travellers riding on a stagecoach through hostile Indian territory. It is cleverly structured with a basically simple plot, allowing important themes such as social prejudice, alcoholism, and greed to be explored whilst not losing the fast paced narrative and characterisations of the main story. The characters and background of each traveller vary widely and the film explores how they interact and develop in confined and stressful situations. After introducing the occupants of the coach we meet the hero of the movie, the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne.

During their journey all the travellers are placed in a position of danger, in which their true characters are tested, so in addition to the physical journey they also undertake a journey of self-awareness and discovery. As well as the psychological dramas, the film contains plenty of traditional Western action and, before the film ends, the Ringo Kid has risked his life fighting the Indians, when he could easily have run away, and his bravery helps him win the girl, as he and Dallas, played by Claire Trevor, fall in love. The sheriff sends the couple away to start a new life together and refuses to arrest him due to his brave actions. And so a happy ending ensues.


The movie was based on a short story entitled 'Stage to Lordsburg' by American author, Ernest Haycox, which was originally published in 'Collier' magazine in April, 1937. The basic thread of the story closely resembles a short story by French author, Guy de Maupassant, called 'Boule de suif', a fact which John Ford himself acknowledged. He purchased the film rights to the story for $2,500 and he and his long time writing partner, Dudley Nichols, co-wrote the adaptation for the big screen.

Ford managed to persuade independent producer Walter Wanger to finance the movie and a budget of $392,000 was allocated although the film eventually cost over $500,000.


Although Monument Valley, Utah, is now well known and has been a filming location since 1925, 'Stagecoach' marked its first use by John Ford. He went on to make a further six movies in the valley. Other locations used in the movie include Fremont Pass at Newhall, Chatsworth, California and Kayenta Mesa, Arizona, and Muroc Dry Lake near Victorville.


The highest paid member of the cast was Claire Trevor, then a far bigger star than John Wayne.She and Wayne were paired as a romantic couple twice more after 'Stagecoach.

Ford employed more than 200 local Navajo Indians to play Apache warriors in the movie and endeared himself greatly to them by paying them full union wages.

Main Cast

John Wayne ... Ringo Kid
Claire Trevor ... Dallas
Andy Devine ... Buck
Thomas Mitchell ... Doc Boone
John Carradine ... Hatfield
Louise Platt ... Lucy Mallory
George Bancroft ... Curley
Donald Meek ... Peacock
Berton Churchill ... Gatewood
Tim Holt ... Lieutenant
Tom Tyler ... Luke Plummer


Director ... John Ford
Producer ... Walter Wanger
Screenplay ... Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht
Original Story ... from 'The Stage to Lordsburg', by Ernest Haycox
Cinematography ... Bert Glennon
Running Time ... 96 minutes

Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Supporting Actor ... Thomas Mitchell
Best Music, Score ... Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken
Five Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Walter Wanger
Best Director ... John Ford
Best Art Direction ... Alexander Toluboff
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White ... Bert Glennon
Best Film Editing ... Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer