Stagecoach (1939 film)

Stagecoach is a 1939 American Western film directed by John Ford and starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne in his breakthrough role. The screenplay by Dudley Nichols is an adaptation of "The Stage to Lordsburg", a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox. The film follows a group of strangers riding on a stagecoach through dangerous Apache territory.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Produced byWalter Wanger
Screenplay by
Based on"The Stage to Lordsburg" (1937)
by Ernest Haycox
Music by
CinematographyBert Glennon
Edited by
Walter Wanger Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • February 2, 1939 (1939-02-02) (Los Angeles)[1]
  • March 3, 1939 (1939-03-03) (U.S.)[1]
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,103,757[2]

Stagecoach was the first of many Westerns that Ford shot using Monument Valley, in the American Southwest on the ArizonaUtah border, as a location, many of which also starred John Wayne. Scenes from Stagecoach, including a sequence introducing John Wayne's character the Ringo Kid, blended shots of Monument Valley with shots filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, RKO Encino Movie Ranch, and other locations. Similar geographic incongruencies are evident throughout the film, up to the closing scene of Ringo (Wayne) and Dallas (Trevor) departing Lordsburg, in southwestern New Mexico, by way of Monument Valley.

The film has long been recognized as an important work that transcends the Western genre. Philosopher Robert B. Pippin has observed that both the collection of characters and their journey "are archetypal rather than merely individual" and that the film is a "mythic representation of the American aspiration toward a form of politically meaningful equality."[3] In 1995, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry. Still, Stagecoach has not avoided controversy. Like most Westerns of the era, its depiction of Native Americans as simplistic savages has been criticized as clear evidence of racism.[4]


In June 1880, a group of strangers board the stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona Territory, to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Among them are Dallas, a prostitute driven out of town by the "Law and Order League"; the alcoholic Doc Boone; pregnant Lucy Mallory, who is travelling to join her cavalry officer husband; and whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock, whose samples Doc Boone takes charge of and starts drinking.

When the stage driver, Buck, looks for his shotgun guard, Marshal Curley Wilcox tells him that the guard is off searching for a fugitive. The Ringo Kid has broken out of prison after hearing that his father and brother had been murdered by Luke Plummer. Buck tells Curley that Ringo is heading for Lordsburg and, knowing that Ringo has vowed vengeance, Curley decides to ride along as guard.

As the stage sets out, U.S. Cavalry Lieutenant Blanchard announces that Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath; his small troop will provide an escort to Dry Fork. Upon seeing her distress, gambler and Southern gentleman Hatfield offers his protection to Mrs. Mallory and climbs on. At the edge of town, another passenger flags down the stage: an assertive banker Henry Gatewood, who is absconding with money embezzled from his bank.

Further along the road, the stage comes across the Ringo Kid, stranded after his horse has gone lame. Even though they are friends, Curley has to take Ringo into custody and crowds him too into the coach. But when they reach Dry Fork, the expected cavalry detachment has gone on to Apache Wells. Buck wants to turn back, but most of the party vote to proceed. At lunch before departing, the group is taken aback when Ringo invites Dallas to sit at the main table. Hatfield offers Mrs. Mallory his silver folding cup, rather than have her drink from the canteen directly. She recognizes the family crest on the cup and asks Hatfield whether he was ever in Virginia. He says that he served in the Confederate Army under her father's command.

On arriving at Apache Wells, Mrs. Mallory learns that her husband had been wounded in battle. When she faints and goes into labor, Doc Boone has to sober up and deliver the baby with Dallas assisting. Later that night, Ringo asks Dallas to marry him and live on a ranch he owns in Mexico. Afraid to reveal her past, she does not answer immediately. The next morning, she accepts, but does not want to leave Mrs. Mallory and the new baby, so she tells Ringo to go on alone to his ranch, where she will meet him later. As Ringo is escaping he sees smoke signals heralding an Apache attack and returns into custody.

The stage reaches Lee's Ferry, which Apaches have destroyed. Curley uncuffs Ringo to help lash logs to the stagecoach and float it across the river. Just when they think that danger has passed, the Apaches attack and a long chase scene follows, where some of the party are injured fighting off their pursuers. Just as they run out of ammunition and Hatfield is getting ready to save Mrs Mallory from capture by killing her with his last bullet, the 6th U.S. Cavalry rides to the rescue.

At Lordsburg, Gatewood is arrested by the local sheriff and Mrs. Mallory learns that her husband's wound is not serious. She thanks Dallas, who gives Mrs. Mallory her shawl. Dallas then begs Ringo not to confront the Plummers, but he is determined to settle matters and as they walk through town he sees the brothel to which she is returning. Luke Plummer, who is playing poker in one of the saloons, hears of Ringo’s arrival and gets his brothers to join him. Ringo survives the three-against-one shootout that follows and then surrenders to Curley, expecting to go back to prison. As Ringo boards a wagon, Curley invites Dallas to ride with them to the edge of town, but when she does so Curley and Doc shout to stampede the horses, letting Ringo ‘escape’ over the Mexican border.





The screenplay is an adaptation by Dudley Nichols of "The Stage to Lordsburg," a short story by Ernest Haycox. The rights to "Lordsburg" were bought by John Ford soon after it was published in Collier's magazine on April 10, 1937.[6] According to Thomas Schatz, Ford claimed that his inspiration in expanding Stagecoach beyond the bare-bones plot given in "The Stage to Lordsburg" was his familiarity with another short story, "Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant,[7] although Schatz believes "this scarcely holds up to scrutiny".[8] Ford's statement also seems to be the basis for the claim that Haycox himself relied upon Guy de Maupassant's story. However, there appears to be no concrete evidence for Haycox actually being familiar with the earlier story, especially as he was documented as going out of his way to avoid reading the work of others that might unconsciously influence his writing, and he focused his personal reading in the area of history.[6]

Before production, Ford shopped the project around to several Hollywood studios, all of which turned him down because big budget Westerns were out of vogue, and because Ford insisted on using John Wayne in a key role in the film. Independent producer David O. Selznick finally agreed to produce it, but was frustrated by Ford's indecision about when shooting would begin, and had his own doubts over the casting. Ford withdrew the film from Selznick's company and approached independent producer Walter Wanger about the project. Wanger had the same reservations about producing an "A" western and even more about one starring John Wayne. Ford had not directed a western since the silent days.[9] Wanger said he would not risk his money unless Ford replaced John Wayne with Gary Cooper and brought in Marlene Dietrich to play Dallas.[10]

Ford refused to budge; it would be Wayne or no one. Eventually they compromised, with Wanger putting up $250,000, a little more than half of what Ford had been seeking, and Ford would give top billing to Claire Trevor, better known than John Wayne at the time.[11]


The members of the production crew were billeted in Kayenta, in Northeastern Arizona, in an old CCC camp. Conditions were spartan, production hours long, and weather conditions at this 5700 foot elevation were extreme with constant strong winds and low temperatures. Nonetheless, director John Ford was satisfied with the crew's location work. For this location, filming took place near Goulding's Trading Post on the Utah border, about 25 miles from Kayenta.[12] Western town scenes were filmed on the RKO Encino Movie Ranch, designed by Academy Award winner Art Director Max Ree.


Following the film's release on March 2, 1939, Ford's faith in John Wayne was rewarded as the film met with immediate critical and trade paper success.[13] Cast member Louise Platt, in a letter recounting the experience of the film's production, quoted Ford on saying of Wayne's future in film: "He'll be the biggest star ever because he is the perfect 'everyman'".[14]

Stagecoach has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made. Orson Welles argued that it was a perfect textbook of film-making and claimed to have watched it more than 40 times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane.[15] The film made a profit of $297,690.[2]

Awards and honors

Academy Awards



Re-releases and restoration

The film was originally released through United Artists, but under the terms of its seven-year-rights rule, the company surrendered distribution rights to producer Walter Wanger in 1946. Many independent companies were responsible for this film in the years since. The film's copyright (originally by Walter Wanger Productions) was renewed by 20th Century Fox, who produced a later 1966 remake of Stagecoach. The copyright has since been reassigned to Wanger Productions through the late producer's family under the Caidin Trust/Caidin Film Company, the ancillary rights holder. However, distribution rights are now held by Shout! Factory, which in 2014 acquired Jumer Productions/Westchester Films (which in turn had bought the Caidin Film holdings after the folding of former distributor Castle Hill Productions). Warner Bros. Pictures handles sales and additional distribution.

The original negative of Stagecoach was either lost or destroyed. John Wayne had one positive print that had never been through a projector gate. In 1970, he permitted it to be used to produce a new negative, and that is the film seen today at film festivals.[19] UCLA fully restored the film in 1996 from surviving elements and premiered it on cable's American Movie Classics network. The previous DVD releases by Warner Home Video did not contain the restored print, but rather a video print held in the Castle Hill/Caidin Trust library. A digitally restored Blu-ray/DVD version was released in May 2010 via The Criterion Collection.





See also


  1. "Stagecoach: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved February 9, 2017.
  2. Matthew Bernstein, Walter Wagner: Hollywood Independent, Minnesota Press, 2000 p439
  3. Pippins, Robert (2010). Hollywood Westerns and American Myth. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 3, 5. ISBN 9780300172065.
  4. Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, CT: Praeger. p. 60. ISBN 9780275983963.
  5. Film time: 20:40 John Wayne says: "Right name's Henry"
  6. Ernest Haycox, Jr. (2001). "Ernest Haycox (1899–1950)". Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission. Retrieved February 6, 2012.
  7. Thomas Schatz (2003). Stagecoach and Hollywood's A-Western Renaissance (PDF). John Ford's Stagecoach edited by Barry Keigh Grant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 21–47. ISBN 0-521-79331-9. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |work= (help)
  8. Schatz, p. 27.
  9. Nick Clooney (November 2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. New York: Atria Books. p. 194. ISBN 0-7434-1043-2.
  10. Clooney, pp. 196-197.
  11. Clooney, p. 197.
  12. Crew Letter from Kayenta, Arizona, December 1938,
  13. Stagecoach, by Edward Buscombe, British Film Institute, 1992, pp. 76–82.
  14. Letter, Louie Platt to Ned Scott Archive, July 7, 2002, pp. 39, 40
  15. Welles, Orson and Bogdanovich, Peter, This is Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1998, pp. 28–29. "After dinner every night for about a month, I'd run Stagecoach.... It was like going to school."
  16. Clooney, p. 203.
  17. American Film Institute (June 17, 2008). "AFI Crowns Top 10 Films in 10 Classic Genres". Retrieved June 18, 2008.
  18. "Top 10 Western". American Film Institute. Retrieved May 10, 2014.
  19. Clooney, p. 191.
  20. "'Stagecoach' Is Star Time Play On WHP Tonight". Harrisburg Telegraph. November 30, 1946. p. 17. Retrieved September 12, 2015 via

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