The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The weakest of the three Stagecoach versions but still just about watchable
 

 

John Ford’s Stagecoach, though it was, in
my view, far from the best ever Western, is certainly one of the most famous
and many people would put it right up there with the greats. It was not the
first adult Western, as has been claimed, or even the first adult talkie
Western but it was an intelligent ensemble piece, (loosely) based on a decent
short story (Ernest Haycox’s Stage to Lordsburg
and indirectly and vaguely, through Haycox, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif). It did not introduce John Wayne (Raoul Walsh did
that in Fox’s The Big Trail in 1930) but
it did bring him back to fame after the previous decade languishing in B-oaters
and it showcased him alright, and made him a star.
 
The real Ringo, 1939
 
Though over-talky, with too few location shots and
occasionally slow, the movie did have an actionful climax with Canutt stunts.
It is not truly great but it is a very fine film.

A remake
was inevitable. Fox did it in color in 1966 with, on top of the stage, Slim Pickens replacing Andy Devine at the reins alongside stocky Van Heflin in the
shotgun messenger/marshal role first taken by George Bancroft. Despite solid
(not to say stolid) direction by Gordon Douglas, and William Clothier
photography of nice locations (the story was transposed to Wyoming), it
suffered from, inside, Ann Margret as Dallas and Alex Cord as Ringo.
 
A pale imitation (sketched by Rockwell, though), 1966
 
They simply
didn’t cut it. Bing Crosby was alright in the Thomas Mitchell drunken doctor
role but Mike Connors as the southern gambler Hatfield and Red Button as the
whiskey drummer Peacock were too weak. The movie is watchable and no worse than
many 1966 Westerns but really that’s about all you can say.

Country-singer
Westerns became quite a fashion in the 1980s and in ’86 Johnny Cash, Willie
Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson had a go at Stagecoach. The movie opens to the inimitable Willie warbling and
he did all the music (I thought I detected an embryonic Borderline in there at one point). Kris gets the Ringo part, though
in deference to his 50 years he declines to be known as the Ringo Kid,
preferring just Ringo or his more prosaic moniker, Bill Williams.
 
The Ringo Kid in 1986, aged 50
 
Ah, the magic
of the Ringo name! Johnny Ringo (John Peters Ringo, 1850 – 1882) was in fact a
rather staid, depressive character who probably committed suicide, but on the
Hollywood screen (and the small one) he was all that a dashing gunslinger could
be. Gregory Peck, Richard Boone, John Ireland and Jim Davis, among many others,
gave us their Ringo and pretty ornery and good with a gun they were too. Well,
Kris is OK in his version, I guess.

As an
actor, though, Willie Nelson made a great singer. In this one he is Doc
Holliday, on his way to Tombstone. Yup, he’s the dentist who delivers the baby
(though hardly a drunk). What was Doc H doing in Stagecoach? Don’t ask.
 
Willie as Doc. Yes, well.
 
The story starts in the oriental Saloon in Tonto and
they are going to Tombstone, through Geronimo territory. The usual suspects
assemble as passengers, or almost. The prostitute Dallas is there, played by
Elizabeth Ashley, Nancy Sue in The Great
Scout and Cathouse Thursday
, who is modestly described in IMDb’s biography
as “divinely outgoing in personality” but who, in this picture, isn’t. The
crooked banker Gatewood also takes his place, impersonated this time by Anthony
Franciosa (Rodriguez from Rio Conchos).
The pregnant Army wife Mrs. Mallory also makes an appearance (Mary Crosby). The drummer
Peacock is Londoner Anthony Newley. The worst actor, though, even worse than Willie, is
Waylon Jennings as Hatfield. It’s really quite painful to watch.
 
Waylon as the Southern gambler Hatfield. Oh dear.
 
Up on the box, John Schneider from Dr. Quinn,
Medicine Woman
is the Overland stage driver and beside him as the Tonto marshal
taking a turn as guard is the best actor of the cast, Johnny Cash. Cash was in a lot of TV
Western shows and had also been surprisingly effective as a tired gunslinger on the
big screen opposite Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight in 1971. Cash’s marshal is tougher than the original and much less
sympathetic to Ringo.
 
Schneider at the reins and Cash pretty good as Messenger
 
There’s
little subtlety. It’s not an art film. The scene where Gatewood refuses to eat
with the whore, for example, is bungled by very experienced TV Western director
Ted Post, who should have done better. The characters are more modern and
cynical than in 1939 (or 1966), and the Dallas/Ringo relationship is especially
hard-bitten and knowing. Just occasionally some attempt is made with the
writing to lift it, such as when Willie appears to quote Saki in declaring that
“There’s nothing a child hates more than a good example.” The teleplay was
written by James Lee Barrett, who had worked on The Undefeated, Shenandoah
and The Cheyenne Social Club. All in
all, though, it’s a made-for-TV movie, with all that that implies.

The
drummer leaves with the Army when they get to Apache Wells and it is Gatewood
who is shot with an Indian arrow. At the end it is the four singers who walk
down to fight it out with the evil Plummers. The bartenders take the mirror
down before the gunfight, in time-honored fashion (they were already doing this in Ford’s 1917 Straight Shooting and I suspect that wasn’t the first time). It all climaxes with a
classic Ringo/Luke Plummer quick-draw pistol showdown.
 
The Highwaypersons, mid-1980s
 
It’s the chemistry between the members of The Highwaymen (the supergroup was founded the year before, and this movie functions as a sort of commercial for it) that fuels this film rather than thespian skill, and, as Rolling Stone said, “Stagecoach cracks its whip by focusing on country star power, not necessarily acting ability.” Never mind, it’s still quite fun, in a B-Western kinda way.
 
 

6 Responses

  1. I forgot about Johnny Cash being in this movie (although I remember him in every other show he has appeared in). Willie Nelson's Doc Holliday pretty much drove everything else out of my mind.

    Richard B.

    1. I consider that Cash was actually quite good as a Western actor. He communicated that taciturn grit essential to the Western hero or anti-hero. He was certainly the best of the four. I never rated Kristofferson highly. His Billy was a weakness of Peckinpah's telling of that tale (too old for one thing), though other actors lifted the movie greatly. K. was dire in Heaven's Gate.
      Jeff

  2. You are much kinder than I could ever be regarding this film. I don't understand why Doc Holliday is in it, when Hatfield is already the Holliday-stand-in. And Nelson as Doc is just ridiculous — sigh.

    Glad to have you back blogging, though. You were missed!

    1. Thanks. good to be back.
      Funny the fascination that the murderous dentist has received. You can forgive Willie a lot, though. I mean he's Willie Nelson after all.
      Jeff

  3. Easy on my man Waylon now! Ok ,yeah, it was painful. Not his gig. There was also a Jesse James movie with Kris as Jesse and Johnny Cash as Frank with Willie turning in a cameo as Jo Shelby. Love all those guys but… man, that was silly.

    Jim Cornelius
    http://www.frontierpartisans.com

    1. Yes, silly was really the word.
      Nothing against Waylon (or Willie or Kris or Johnny). I enjoy their music. But they weren't always Oscarable on the screen…
      Jeff

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