John Ford bought the rights to Stagecoach from Colliers magazine in 1937 (an adaptation of a short story called The Stage to Lordsburg) and made a pitch to almost every studio in Hollywood to have it made. Unfortunately, no one was interested in doing another forgettable western, especially with a B movie actor by the name of John Wayne, as the films main protagonist. Ford eventually found an ally in Walter Wanger, an independent producer, at United Artist, who agreed to finance the film on a tight budget and have Wayne as its star.

Most of the picture was filmed on a studio backlot, except for four days on location in Monument Valley, on the border between Utah and Arizona. Notably it would be the first time in film history that Monument Valley would appear on screen with its picturesque landscape of towering sandstone buttes. Importantly, Ford’s trademark long shot and his ability to turn the inhospitable, rugged and vast Utah valley into something beautiful is absolute genius.

It is at Monument Valley that we are also treated to some of the most stunning cinematography ever filmed in the early days of motion pictures. For instance, the stagecoach chase sequence near the film’s climatic end, always comes to mind. With a camera set up on a vehicle and shot at high speed, except for most of the stagecoach interior shots, it was as real as it gets for everyone that was involved in the chase scene. For instance, the actor playing a Native American who jumps from his horse onto the lead horses of the stagecoach in an attempt to stop it is breathtaking. As the scene plays out and just before he can manages to take control of the stagecoach he is shot. He tumbles between the horses and falls beneath the stagecoach, which effortlessly seems to pass over him.

As Ford had hoped the precarious stunt fortunately goes off without a hitch. Just goes to show, no CGI, just guts and bravado and arguably a bit of stupidity!! On the subject of ‘guts and bravado’, Yakima Canutt, the stuntman involved in the dangerous slide underneath the horse-drawn carriage once said:  “You have to run the horses fast, so they’ll run straight. If they run slow, they move around a lot. When you turn loose to go under the coach, you’ve got to bring your arms over your chest and stomach. You’ve got to hold your elbows close to your body, or that front axle will knock them off.” Moreover, it is said that following the conclusion of the stunt, Canutt apparently got up and ran to Ford to make sure the sequence was caught on film. Even if they hadn’t capture it, Ford was adamant that he would not shoot the dangerous stunt again.

While the whole chase sequence, some eight minutes in length has been sometimes accused of being overly long, it nonetheless plays out almost perfectly intercutting between the action on the carriage and the chasing Apaches on horseback. Interestingly, Ford was once asked why, in the climactic stagecoach chase scene, didn’t the Native Americans simply shoot the horses to stop the stagecoach. Ford apparently simply replied, “Because that would have been the end of the movie.”

Photo credit: The promotional still from Stagecoach (1939), published on the frot cover of National Board of Reviews Magazine is in the public domain.

Posted by Robert Horvat

Robert Horvat is a Melbourne based blogger. He believes that the world is round and that art is one of our most important treasures. He has seen far too many classic films and believes coffee runs through his veins. As a student of history, he favours ancient and medieval history. Music pretty much rules his life and inspires his moods. Favourite artists include The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garbage and Lana Del Rey.

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