On its release in 1939, John Ford’s Stagecoach proved the Western genre could be more than just Saturday matinee kid’s fare, more than two-fisted adventure serial, more than black-and-white representations of good and evil. The Western could, in fact, be adult-themed and complex, rich with characters painted in all shades of gray, and yet still two-fisted as all hell. Stagecoach laid the foundation not just for future John Wayne pictures, but for all Westerns to come -- the films of Sergio Leone, Peckinpah, even Wild Bill Wellman all borrowed heavily from Stagecoach.
The film elevated John Wayne’s status from B-movie actor to Hollywood star. The prevailing conventional wisdom is that John Wayne was not a great actor, but a great persona. The truth is, as evidenced in Stagecoach, that before he became a caricature of his stylish swagger and drawl, The Duke was a terrific actor, completely naturalistic with his delivery and wonderfully underplayed.
Elements of the film are, of course, dated. The comedy doesn’t quite seem right, the representation of Indians and Mexicans is less than polite, and the vocal cadences, especially with the women, are peculiarly unnatural. Still, Ford’s actors have a subtlety to their performances that few actors today possess.
Nominated for a handful of Oscars, Stagecoach won only for Best Score and Best Supporting Actor (for Thomas Mitchell’s comic performance as alcoholic Doc Boone), however, the film made the National Board of Review’s 10 Best Films as well as the 10 Best for The New York Film Critics Circle. It has been widely recognized as one of the greatest American films, selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry and the AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies list.