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Stagecoach

by Peter Bogdanovich
September 26, 2010 4:22 AM
10 Comments
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In mid-1968, I was out at John Wayne’s home in Newport Beach, California, preparing a filmed interview with Wayne for a documentary which the American Film Institute had asked me to make on John Ford. As the Duke was walking me back to my car, he took a shortcut, leading me through the sizeable garage. Entering, I was greeted by a virtual sea of 35mm motion picture canisters—-large, octagonal specially-built metal cases to hold the heavy 2000-foot reels of film—-two or three reels per canister; this is how movies have always been shipped and stored. Suddenly, here before me, were 35mm prints of an awful lot of John Wayne movies: mostly brand-new-looking cases, boldly marked “RED RIVER,” “THE QUIET MAN,” “SANDS OF IWO JIMA,” “RIO BRAVO,” “SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON,” etc.

For a movie buff, it was a heady moment. I said something like, “Jesus Christ, Duke, do you have 35mm prints of all your pictures!?” He said, “No, but just about. It’s been part of my regular deal for a long time—the studio’s gotta give me a print off the original negative.” A light went on in my head. I looked around and saw quite near me a canister marked “STAGECOACH.” Knowing the original negative of that classic film—-the one which turned Wayne into a major star—-had been lost or destroyed, I got excited: “Is that print of Stagecoach from the original negative?” Wayne said, “I believe it is—don’t even think it’s ever been run.”

Well, this was golden news for film lovers because, as I told Wayne, his print—-which did turn out to be a mint copy—-could be used to create a new negative, producing a better result than anything in existence. I knew that if he would actually contribute his Stagecoach print to a non-profit institution like the AFI, he would get a very good tax write-off. After a new negative had been made, a new copy could then be sent to him. Duke was enthusiastic, especially about the tax break. Indeed, what I outlined in the garage did happen, and just that accidentally is how Stagecoach got saved.

Of course, Stagecoach (available on a new Criterion DVD, with a video introduction I did), was the first time Ford or anyone ever shot in the extraordinarily mythic landscape of Monument Valley. It was also the first time in the sound era that a Western was considered in a serious, adult light, discussed as a work of art. The New York Film Critics voted Ford best director of the year for Stagecoach and Oscars were won by Thomas Mitchell for his superb supporting performance as the alcoholic doctor, and by the rousing folk-song score. It was as well no doubt the first Western inspired by a Guy de Maupassant story (“Boule-de-suif”: “Ball of Fat”), and the one film Orson Welles ran forty times (each screening with different craftsmen) while he was preparing Citizen Kane. In fact, Welles used Stagecoach as a kind of handbook in the production of a well-made popular yet poetic drama. Although it has been officially redone twice, stolen from and imitated innumerable times, Stagecoach still holds up on its own today: the first talking western from John Ford, our foremost poet of filmed Americana. Ford also had released that same year both the stirring Drums Along the Mohawk and the moving Young Mr. Lincoln, each starring Henry Fonda. Who says the old studio system was so bad?

In the documentary we shot (Directed by John Ford, 1971; totally revised, expanded and recut, 2006), I naturally asked Wayne about the making of Stagecoach and he made an especially revealing remark, almost in passing. The anecdote he was telling had to do with Ford’s humiliating him in front of the crew (not a rare occurrence) but this began with the director letting the actor see rushes of Stagecoach for the first time and then quizzing him about what he thought of various players’ work, the photography, direction, all of which Wayne was overwhelmed by. When Ford asked him what he thought of his own performance, Wayne just shrugged and said (repeating it to me), “Oh, well, I’m just playing you—-you know what that is...”

When a movie actor says something of that kind, he means that in the picture he is essentially doing precisely, and only, what the director has asked for, told or shown him. Indeed, Wayne’s performance in Stagecoach is very carefully realized and Ford keeps the actor’s laconic character in the forefront throughout by repeatedly cutting to his silent reactions. Right from Wayne’s entrance, Ford is consciously creating a star player. All the other nine leads in the exceptional ensemble cast (among them, Claire Trevor and John Carradine) receive solid but visually casual introductions into the story. Not Wayne’s Ringo Kid. His arrival is announced by a shot uncharacteristic of Ford: The camera moves from a full figure of Wayne standing at the side of a road, dollying quickly into a large close-up, the biggest in the film thus far.

The producer (the estimable Walter Wanger) and the studio (United Artists) had wanted Ford to cast Gary Cooper in the part, or somebody with a bigger name than Wayne, who was known only in bread-and-butter B-westerns. Ford refused anyone but Wayne and his first shot of the actor clearly announces to the executives: “You want Cooper? You got Wayne—-get used to it!” With this film as the beginning (and a great many other Ford-Wayne collaborations to follow), John Wayne would go on to become the most popular and long-lived male star in picture history. Over thirty years after his death, he is still within the top five in the public’s affection.


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10 Comments

  • Amber | May 24, 2012 11:26 PMReply

    Reason I'm asking about the film is because I may have found an original film reel.

  • Amber | May 24, 2012 10:48 PMReply

    Is there a way to contact Peter Bogdanovich? I have a couple of questions regarding Stagecoach John Wayne film. I've read many articles of the original film was lost, but a new negative was created from John Wayne's copy. Does that mean a new film reel was created? Is there no film reel that exists?

  • Mike Ray | October 29, 2010 1:04 AMReply

    Peter, thank you for being the movie historian for the masses. No one that I know of has a better feel for movie history than you. When ever you speak, I want to hear. Bravo

  • Rick K. | September 29, 2010 11:34 AMReply

    I believe the new Criterion DVD/Blu-ray was not from Wayne’s print, but from source which turned up more recently, with slightly better density/clarity. I never had the opportunity to see STAGECOACH in 35mm, only 16mm and video over the years, so the new Blu-ray was something of a revelation. Apparently the original negative is long gone, the print used was a 40’s reissue, but considering that compromise, the imagery is stunning, and one can well understand what prompted Welles to use it as a tool in creating KANE, even though the two films are about as different in milieu as you can get! Little did Welles realize that, two years after STAGECOACH, he was creating a NEW textbook for film. I look forward to a KANE Blu-ray, hopefully next year!

  • Mr. Napier | September 29, 2010 2:31 AMReply

    Well Peter, they really need to do something with The Quiet Man. If there's an original negative, get on the phone with Criterion and make a Blu-ray happen. Their always mum when I ask about this title.

  • Mickey Fisher | September 27, 2010 4:52 AMReply

    Whenever I read of your talking to Wayne, Ford, Hawks, or any of the greats, I feel as if I am walking through history. Thank you for sharing these anecdotes with us.

  • Tom Roberts | September 27, 2010 1:58 AMReply

    The ripples from a stone thrown into a pool continue to expand long after the splash has ended. That is how I see STAGECOACH. It has been the take-off point for how many films or stories about "the journey," or the model for tales about a group of disassociated people thrown together where we slowly learn the back story of each and find how they are not who we first perceived them to be.

    Thank you for sharing your story Peter. Very interesting.

  • adelutza | September 26, 2010 8:21 AMReply

    I loveStagecoach . It always seemed to me more like a story taken from Agatha Christie that happened to be placed in that time and place than a western. However you look at it, it is a masterpiece.

  • D Cairns | September 26, 2010 8:20 AMReply

    Had the honour of contributing an essay to that Criterion disc, accompanying your video introduction. Does this make us collaborators?

  • James Reasoner | September 26, 2010 7:12 AMReply

    Great post, Peter. Is it all right if I get extremely jealous when I read about you walking through John Wayne's garage with him?

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