Except for some oddities about it, "Stagecoach" would warrant all 10 stars. Fortunately, those don't detract from excellent acting all around in a movie with a great plot. The story in this film is engaging and keeps one interested with new and different twists. None of these is surprising – except for the pleasant one at the end. But, those keep one interested watching a bunch of folks traveling on a stagecoach.
Many reviews discuss the plot, and the film billing tells what the story is about. So, after these overall accolades about plot and cast, I'll note the oddities that lower the film production down a notch.
I think of "Stagecoach" as the "Casablanca" of Westerns. By that, I mean that it has a little bit of everything for the time and place. And, it just seems to capture the atmosphere of the place and time in history. The film has a great cast with an engaging story. "Casablanca" had intrigue, World War II Vichy occupation and threats by Nazis, POWs on the run and others fleeing Germany, the fringe area just outside the cordon of the Nazis, black market, resistance, open market and regular business in an open city, night clubs with night life, and romance. "Stagecoach" has the Old West, Indian uprising, a pregnant woman traveling to be with her U.S Calvary husband, a saloon gal leaving town at the behest of the local prudence society, a clandestine bank robbery, an alcoholic doctor forced to change residences, an escaped criminal, a long stagecoach ride, and romance.
Thomas Mitchell won best supporting actor for his role as Doc Boone. By now, most movie fans would know that "Stagecoach" was John Wayne's break-out film, as the Ringo Kid. "Duke" had made more movies before this than many movie stars make in a lifetime. He had more than 80 films under his belt, dating back to 1926. He had achieved some recognition for Westerns and sports films, but he mostly was stuck in the second-tier of movie makers before this. That all changed after 1939. He still made Westerns, but most were major studio productions with sound plots, sets and casts. And, he branched out with some drama, comedy and then war films.
The rest of the cast is superb. It includes a later Oscar winner, Claire Trevor as Dallas, and Oscar nominee, George Bancroft, as Marshal Curley Wilcox. Others are some of the top supporting actors of the day – especially in, but not limited to, Westerns. Andy Devine is Buck, the stage driver. John Carradine is Hatfield, the professional gambler and former Civil War officer. Donald Meek is the traveling liquor salesman, whom Doc eagerly takes under wing. Tim Holt plays a cavalry officer, and other familiar faces have supporting roles.
"Stagecoach" also won the Oscar for best musical score, and it had five other nominations, including best picture and best director. And that was in a year in which Hollywood produced more than a dozen truly great films, including "Gone With the Wind" that took home eight Oscars. "Stagecoach" and "The Wizard of Oz" each won two Oscars. These and any of the others of the 10 nominated for best picture would beat out most other films nominated since 2000, and many nominated in the last third of the 20th century.
But, "Stagecoach" had some odd or nagging things about it as well. The first thing that struck me as very odd was Curley carrying a double barrel shotgun. Yes, he was riding "shotgun" on the stage, but they expected trouble with the Indians. His shotgun wouldn't be effective much beyond 75 yards and he is shooting at Indians clearly 100 to 200 yards away. And hitting them. For better reality, he should have had a rifle.
Another oddity was the Indians. They all seemed to be older guys – many quite a bit older. It was usually the braves, the younger men, who went on the warpath. Then, when they arrive in Lordsburg, the stage first lets the women and wounded off. Then it keeps going down the street and when it stops, Dallas is already there. That seemed to be a continuity problem that was very obvious.
John Ford supposedly discovered Monument Valley in Arizona and it became "the" place to film Westerns over the next couple of decades – at least for Ford. That area along the Arizona-Utah border is striking. It became a sort of icon of the territory of the West. In reality, most of the West is nothing like it – or has bits and pieces of what looks like Monument Valley among prairies, mountains, dry and lush valleys, etc. But Monument Valley is high country desert – with the desert climate to go with it. Only sagebrush grows there. The valley is just under 30 square miles and it lies entirely within the Navajo Indian Reservation. This movie shows the buttes of Monument Valley from just about every angle. It's hard to imagine anyone settling or living in a place like that, and indeed, no one did. So, when the stage pulls into a thriving town of Lordsburg, it's a stretch of the imagination.
But for that little bit of unreality, "Stagecoach" is a fantastic film and one that generations to come should enjoy.