Stagecoach – the bell cow of Western movies

John Ford 1946

They showed it at the Bob Hope Theater, not the Ritz or the Fox from the old days, and as part of the Classic Cinema Series in Stockton, the town that the TV show “Big Valley” made famous. But it was John Ford’s Stagecoach that opened the door to Westerns on the big screen and later the small one. Stagecoach was the first successful western after the advent of the talkies. It seems that movie makers had a problem tracking the sound in westerns and it took a genius like Ford to solve the problem.

But there were more firsts for this great flick. Stagecoach launched John Wayne into the hearts of the movie watching public and Wayne never looked back, and many of his early successes came in films by John Ford.

John Wayne in The Searchers by John Ford

The movie is an adaptation of a short story by Ernest Haycox, “The Stage to Lordsburg,” that appeared in Collier’s Magazine in 1937. Some will argue that another story by Guy de Maupassant, “Boule de Suif,” also influenced Ford, but others say it is far more likely that in was Bret Harte’s 1892 tale, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” that was the inspiration for much of the screenplay as filmed.

Indians attacking a stagecoach

It might seem ridiculous today but Ford had a problem raising money to shoot the movie. David O. Selznick originally agreed to produce it but had doubts over the casting of Wayne and kept putting off the start of production. Ford pulled out of the deal and went to Walter Wanger who also had doubts about the cast. Wanger wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich instead of Wayne and Claire Trevor. Ford refused to budge. Eventually they compromised. Wanger put up $250,000, about half of what Ford wanted, and Ford agreed to give top billing to Claire Trevor, a far bigger name than John Wayne. The rest, as they say, is movie history.



  1. Thanks for the post–I think of Ford’s Stagecoach as underpinning all modern westerns, much like looking at modern art and still sensing the Renaissance artists’ defining vocabulary. It reads a little stagy now, but only barely. I can’t think of another western I return to so many times. Destry Rides Again was also 1939, I think–too bad it’s overshadowed, as it’s also a wonderful filmic tale.

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