The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


The western genre is all but dead, it has been for most of 30-plus years if not more. It is the genre I've always been drawn to, making it that much harder to say that it is in fact, dead. Over three decades though, the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s though, the success of the western was astronomical, both in film and later on television. What was the first truly great western though? From one of Hollywood's strongest years as a whole, here's 1939's Stagecoach.

In Tonto, Arizona in 1880, a stagecoach is preparing to hit the trail, making several stops along the way before reaching its ultimate destination, the town of Lordsburg in the New Mexico territory. The trip will be anything but easy though, rumors of Apache chief Geronimo on the warpath burning ranches and killing everyone they ride across. With a full load of passengers, including a prostitute, Dallas (Claire Trevor), being kicked out of town, as well as a drunken doctor, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), in a similar situation, the stagecoach leaves the town into the wilderness. Before they can even reach their first stop, they pick up another passenger, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), an outlaw who's escaped from prison and is looking for some revenge on certain people in Lordsburg. Can Ringo make it? Can the stagecoach make it through or will they run into an Apache war party?

In Hollywood history, it's hard to dispute a stronger year than 1939 with Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and today's review, Stagecoach just some of the classics released that year. From director John Ford (a man with a few decent movies to his name), this is the first true classic western. What sets this western apart? Well, for starters, it is a straightforward, brutally well-told story. It is crisp, fast-moving without being rushed, and packs a whole lot of excitement, development and action in a quick 96-minute running time. You take for granted what a movie like this can be. It won't blow you away, and the formula has been attempted countless times in the years since, but the original is still the best. From the debut of Monument Valley as the backdrop for more than a few Ford/Wayne westerns to the story and the characters, we've got a real classic on our hands.

Above all else -- including its status as a great western -- is that this Ford-directed western helped propel John Wayne, the Duke himself, into stardom. Relegated to B-westerns/serials for almost 10 years after The Big Trail bombed, Wayne does not disappoint here. In his first starring role in a so-called 'A-film' in almost a decade, he shows off that natural, easygoing charm that audiences would come to love about Wayne. He never looked like he was forcing anything, just going with it. His entrance is a classic in itself, a sequence that screams "Look at me, big things are on the horizon!" as Ford's camera zooms in on the Ringo Kid as the stagecoach approaches. Wayne would deliver better performances but the 31-year old actor is a scene-stealer here. Hollywood, say hello again to John Wayne. He isn't going anywhere for quite awhile.

Trivia time. Wayne actually wasn't the top-credited actor in Stagecoach, that honor going to Claire Trevor at the head of a very solid ensemble cast. Ford is very subtle in giving Trevor's Dallas' background, i.e. that she's a prostitute. It was 1939, and that sorta thing was frowned upon in film. I love the character and more than that, I love her chemistry with Wayne's Ringo. These are two people living almost as outcasts, drawn together in a hellish situation. Just two solid performances as is Mitchell -- who won Best Supporting Actor -- in a part that treads that fine line between overacting and just chewing the scenery some. As for the rest of the passengers look for Buck (Andy Devine), the worrisome driver,  Hatfield (John Carradine), a gambler with a reputation, traveling to look out for the very pregnant Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) who's traveling west to meet her husband, Curley (George Bancroft), the sheriff riding shotgun for Buck, Peacock (Donald Meek), a whiskey salesman, and Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker running away with his own money.

Ford was a director of characters, visuals and straightforward stories (for the most part). His films aren't necessarily known for their action scenes. If anything, his bigger set pieces are often underplayed. That's the case here showcasing a shootout between the Ringo Kid and three rivals. Ford actually cuts away from the action right as the guns go off, and instead we see other characters' reactions around town to the shootout. It's an inspired, gutsy choice that is frustrating but stylistically, it works. As for the more visual aspect, an Indian war party roaring after the stagecoach across the smooth desert sand is amazing to watch, featuring some of the most impressive stunts I've ever seen. It's the both of best worlds.

Just a great movie. Monument Valley is absolutely stunning, visually setting the rhythm of the film as a tiny stagecoach travels across the wide expanses of the American west. What awaits them? In that wilderness, anything could. An uncredited musical score from Gerard Carbonara is perfectly suited to the story as well in a film that doesn't have a weakness. It influenced just about every western that came along after it, not to mention other films from countless other genres. It is a classic for a reason for any number of reasons to Ford's directing to the appearance of Monument Valley to the iconic, star-making performance from star John Wayne. All movie fans should see this one.

Stagecoach (1939): ****/****

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