Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Stagecoach (Fox, 1966)

.

No worse than some other Westerns of 1966, I guess

.

It was always going to be risky remaking Stagecoach. Remaking any very famous Western, come to that. You’re going to attract some flak. Comparisons, invidious or not, are going to be made.

 

Still, it’s the third Maltese Falcon that we all love and remember and no one blames a theatrical company for putting on another performance of Hamlet. A theater director has a right to her or his interpretation, so why not a movie one? And Stagecoach was a kind of Western Hamlet, by which I mean that in many people’s eyes it is the example of the genre. So Fox had a perfect right to remake it. CBS did Stagecoach yet again, for TV, in 1986. In ’66 there was a remake of The Plainsman too.
.
.
Hamlet?
 
.
And the 1966 Stagecoach did have some plus points. Bing Crosby was entertaining in the Thomas Mitchell drunken doctor part (it was his last movie role). Slim Pickens was at least as good as Andy Devine as stage driver, if not better, and Van Heflin was stocky and solid in the George Bancroft marshal/shotgun-messenger role. Furthermore, there’s very good William H Clothier photography and it’s in color. They have shifted the setting of the story from New Mexico to Wyoming, so they filmed it in Colorado. If you see what I mean. Anyway, there’s nice mountain scenery.
.
.

No magic
 
.
But (you could feel a ‘but’ coming, I bet) although Gordon Douglas was many things, he wasn’t John Ford. Douglas occasionally did something good – I am thinking of Rio Conchos and Barquero, successful commercially, and I like especially The Nevadan and Fort Dobbs. The Fiend who Walked the West was well done too. But it is also true that many of his oaters were pretty routine stuff churned out maybe on-time and on-budget but without much inspiration – as Douglas himself owned to.
.
.
The cast
 
.
And then we had Ann-Margret as Dallas and Alex Cord as Ringo. Well, I want to be as polite as I can here but… They both just say their words and there is no magic between them. Mike Connors was also unconvincing as the Southern gambler Hatfield and Red Buttons as the whiskey drummer Peacock was not a success. Robert Cummings as Gatewood? He was a wisecracking, amiable TV personality and doesn’t carry off the sly, crooked banker at all. No, I’m afraid the cast just wasn’t up to it. Because it was such a straight remake, even re-using some of the dialogue, you are bound to think of their predecessors when they speak.
.
.
Ann-Margret has been dubbed “the female Elvis Presley”. In fact I remember her most for Viva Las Vegas, where both her talents were put to good use. But she was no Elvis. Elvis had been really convincing in Flaming Star. Sixties starlets of limited thespian abilities should really have kept clear of stagecoaches. As for Mr Cord, he’d done a couple of TV Westerns but was, honestly, utterly unmemorable. So with three exceptions, the casting let the film down, quite badly.
.
.
Bing
 
.
Douglas really went to town (but not Lordsburg) on the Indian attack. Crazy Horse had more braves than there were at the whole of Little Big Horn and he seemed able to suffer Gettysburg level losses. Lucky that the stagecoach passengers had an inexhaustible supply of ammunition. They had a thousand rounds each about their persons and were all crack shots, able to shoot a man on a galloping horse at 100 yards from a careening stage. With a revolver.

 

The shoot-out (in Cheyenne) has also been opened out into a grandstand gunfight in a saloon but actually it is less exciting and dramatic than the original.

 

If you don’t compare it with John Ford’s, Stagecoach was no worse than many Westerns of 1966. That was the year of the first spaghettis and The Rare Breed, after all, which were about as low as you could sink. But it wasn’t much better either. 1966 was also the year of The Professionals, A Big Hand for the Little Lady and Alvarez Kelly, and while they were hardly the greatest ever examples of the genre, they weren’t bad either. The new Stagecoach was a sort of Sixties disaster movie set in the West. It was better than the 1986 one anyway (a country singer showcase). But if you really wanted a good stagecoach movie to follow on from Ford, then you should have waited till the year after, 1967, and paid for a ticket to Fox’s much better Hombre.
.
.
Norman
 
.
The best thing about the film is that Norman Rockwell, who also played a townsman, painted some wonderful portraits of the actors which are shown over the end credits and were used on some of the posters. Mr Heflin, in particular, should have been thrilled and I hope he had the original in pride of place in his house.

.

The cast, by Norman
.

14 Responses

  1. You say: "Douglas really went to town (but not Lordsburg) on the Indian attack. Crazy Horse had more braves than there were at the whole of Little Big Horn and he seemed able to suffer Gettysburg level losses. Lucky that the stagecoach passengers had an inexhaustible supply of ammunition. They had a thousand rounds each about their persons and were all crack shots, able to shoot a man on a galloping horse at 100 yards from a careening stage. With a revolver."

    This reminds me of reading or hearing somewhere that it looked like the whole Bolivian army was in the finale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But to me it looked like just a single troop of cavalry about 50 men. I just watched this version of Stagecoach about a week ago and it looked like there were sometimes dozens of Sioux warriors in a single image. I didn't see any evidence that there was more than a hundred warriors in the war party. There were probably an estimated (by different people) 900 to 9,000 warriors at the Little Bighorn. As for casualties, try counting the number you see fall the next time you watch a Indian fight in the movies and you will probably count only a few dozen, much fewer than at Gettysburg.

    You might have commented about the short time span between Crazy Horse becoming famous to white people and dreaded by them and his death. Basically Crazy Horse was only known to the general public during the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 and then he was dead.

    According to Wikipedia this Stagecoach happens in 1880. You could have joked about a zombie Crazy Horse or mentioned that there were no Sioux uprisings or wars in 1880.

    1. It was just an impression. Directors and cinematographers are often clever at 'maximizing' their extras.
      Also, I am prone to exaggeration (and flippancy).

  2. Having recorded this ages ago I put off watching it, the notion of remaking Stagecoach (which I consider pretty much perfect) being so off-putting, But I’ve finally taken the plunge, ready to give it a fair chance. Wikipedia states that Quentin Tarantino believes it “can stand proudly alongside the John Ford version”!? Gaving watched the thing… oh dear… Quent is being (at best) provocatively perverse. Because this really is a rather poor show.

    I’m sure you’re right it’s more mediocre than terrible i.e. a viewer unfamiliar with the original wouldn’t necessarily demand their money back. But if you do know the original it’s painful to sit through. Though they evidently used the original script as their template they rather cackhandedly attempt to ‘open out’ some of the storylines and characters, but you’re right the fatal weakness is the casting. Slim Pickens doing Slim Pickens is always good value, and Heflin’s performance I think rather fine, bringing a quiet stature to the role: more than the film deserves. Crosby is memorable but, I find, rather mannered and, especially in the earlier parts, a tad hammy. Everyone else is charisma-free, and middling-to-poor in the acting department. Except for Cummings who is far worse than poor.

    Generally I find Douglas a likeable director: lets face it basically a hack (you report here and in your enjoyable overview of his career that he had full self-awareness about that), but a talented hack, who now and then would do something surprisingly excellent. But Stagecoach was not a good day in the office. He handles the two action set-pieces rather well but if you’re not invested in the characters and story by the time the action comes then it’s too late.

    The one respect in which a 1960s remake had a real chance of improving on the 1939 version would be by building in a more intelligent and respectful view of the Indians, but it doesn’t even do that.

    Well, at least I can finally tick it off the list!

    1. I agree with pretty well all you say here, and I think “talented hack” is quite a good definition of Gordon Douglas!

  3. I saw this magnificent motion picture when it opened at the classic Chicago Theater in 1966; an instant favorite, for me, from the first frame of the Fox Logo, and right into the main title, with a Jerry Goldsmiths’ MUSIC score SO GOOD that it beckoned me to stay to watch it again! What a thrill on the huge CinemaScope screen it was for me, for presentation alone! Why down on Bob Cummings-who’s comic timing brings hilarious results with humor relief at the right spots?, His banter towards Pickens and Buttons works so well with the editing/timing perfect there– and indeed throughout the entire film. Many of you here may not be familiar with Cummings, who comes from ”way-back Hollywood”, as does Bing Crosby in his last film-as ”Doc”, (another beautifully timed performance). Please don’t compare this to the original! Director Gordon Douglas quote to John Ford recalling that directors’ first version in 1939: ”wouldn’t have had to remade it if you had done it right in the first place!” (I must admit I thought Alex Cord got a big, sour, chaw -in-cheek response from me, with a lousy performance for a leading role, but I got over it!). This was one of the last of the ”CinemaScope Pictures” in that series, which began in 1953, and ended in 1967; Fox then dropped the second half of that special logo and returned to the original one from where hence it came. From then on, Fox used PANAVISION (as in HOMBRE-1967) for Anamorphic Wide-screen titles. STAGECOACH-’66 still holds with repeat viewings as great entertainment from the last golden age of the movies; from that point on American movies were off in directions that reflected big changes, for better or for worse–and for sure, lots of changes.

  4. I have just watched this too – it’s showing on one of the Freeview channels in the UK and there’s a high quality print on YouTube. I think part of the problem is that someone decided that EVERYTHING had to be opened out – everything from providing Curly with ambiguous motivation so in the end his character doesn’t make sense to trying to create Luke Plummer as a rounded character starting in the last 10 minutes of the movie. The Ford version has a sense of forward momentum which it doesn’t lose through the whole movie – but the effect of all the focus on detail in the remake is to get bogged down. The movie comes to a dead stop in the overlong staging post sequence and it doesn’t get going again.

  5. Wow! A lot of comments on this one – let me add my 2 cents. Ford’s Stagecoach is my favorite Western of all time so a remake borders on sacrilege for me (yes I’m exaggerating). I liked this version when I first saw it on TV, but then I was 13 and hadn’t seen the original. Unlike a lot of people (mostly under 60) – I don’t necessarily consider color a plus and think that the b&w photography of Ford’s is beautiful. I agree with you on the cast Jeff – especially the weakness of the 2 leads. The wonderful Thomas Mitchell ((whom you mistakenly refer to as “Millard” Jeff) won an Oscar for his portrayal as the drunken sheriff in the original (although sometimes I think that his award was more of a recognition of the compilation of his amazing 1939 work than just this one film), but Crosby’s OK I guess. You nailed it on the Indian attack and seemingly unlimited ammo! Thanks for showing Rockwell’s wonderful cast depictions. I found that his rendering of Buttons’ character absolutely hilarious!

    1. Yes, Thomas, not Millard, of course. Thanks. Though doc, not sheriff. He did ‘drunk’ quite a lot (being a reformed alcoholic, he knew how).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *