Movie Man: Watch John Wayne become a star in 'Stagecoach'

Will Pfeifer

I confess. I’ve got some embarrassing omissions on my movie checklist — undeniable classics that, for one reason or another, I’ve never seen. “Lawrence of Arabia,” for example. Just about everything Chaplin ever did. And, sad to say, almost every Western ever made. But now, at least in that last category, I can cross off a big one.

“Stagecoach” is one of those movies that frequently finds its way onto the “all-time greatest” lists, and for good reason: It was directed by John Ford, it stars John Wayne (in fact, it made him a star), it was released during the classic year of 1939, and it’s generally credited with turning the Western from a low-budget genre to an American art form. But while all of that is true, that’s not why I’m suggesting you watch it. You should watch it because it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

The setup is perfect for spinning a thrilling yarn: A mismatched group of travelers, including a liquor salesman, a drunken doctor, a prostitute, a dignified lady, a banker, a Southern scoundrel and a prison escapee ride, across the ol’ West, trying to get to Lordsburg before Geronimo and his Apaches get them.

If you stick “Stagecoach” into your player expecting nonstop action, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a character piece, and if these folks seem cliched at the beginning of the film, Ford, his screenwriters and his actors manage to flesh them out nicely by the time the credits roll. Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, George Bancroft and Claire Trevor (who gets top billing) are old pros, but its John Wayne who steals the show as The Ringo Kid, an escaped convict headed for justice. Impossibly young and surprisingly laid back, Wayne gives a carefree, relaxed performance nothing like the rock-steady icon he’d later become. But even here, before John Wayne became JOHN WAYNE, you can see why the guy was a star.

And, when the action does finally arrive in the form of an Apache attack, it’s thrilling. The stagecoach speeds ahead, desperately trying to outrun the braves on horseback, and the arrows and bullets fly in all directions. Best of all, the Ringo Kid has to climb out onto the team of horses to retrieve the reins — resulting in legendary stuntman Yakima Cunutt performing one of the greatest feats in film history. (He follows it by being dragged under the stagecoach in a scene that should remind you of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — which was filmed more than four decades later.

The brand-new Criterion release of “Stagecoach” (on DVD and Blu-ray) includes a tribute to Cunutt, along with plenty of other extras — a commentary track, a John Ford silent film and even the original short story that inspired “Stagecoach.” It’s a great presentation of an even greater movie.

Will Pfeifer writes about DVDs for the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star. Contact him at or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at man/.


A couple of John Wayne’s more offbeat movie roles (and one he almost played):

“Baby Face” (1933): The Duke plays a bit part in this wild drama about a woman (Barbara Stan­wyck) who literally sleeps her way to the top of a bank. John Wayne is startlingly young and almost unrecognizable playing a clerk, but as soon as he speaks, there’s no missing that one-of-a-kind voice.

“The Green Berets” (1968): Wayne offers his take on the then-raging Vietnam War, and it’s a doozie. Completely pro-war (the Defense Department helped get it produced), it focuses on a lefty reporter who learns to love the bombs. Watch for “Star Trek” star George Takei in a supporting role, and don’t miss the final scene, where the sun sets in the east.

“Blazing Saddles” (1974): No, John Wayne didn’t star in Mel Brook’s legendary Western farce — but he almost did. Brooks originally wanted The Waco Kid to be a much older man, and sent Wayne a copy of the script. Wayne reportedly thought it was hilarious, but didn’t want to wreck his iconic reputation. So Gene Wilder played the part instead.


Two weeks ago, I asked for help in locating a copy of “Terror on Tour,” the obscure 1980 horror movie that features rockers The Names. Well, you readers did not let me down, and I now have a copy to watch.

Thanks to everyone who responded (especially to Names drummer Chip Greenman, who sent me the DVD.) I’ll bring you a review of “Terror on Tour” in an upcoming column. Stay tuned!

Got a movie question? Write to and put “Fire at Will” in the subject line. Please include your full name, city and daytime phone number (which won’t be published.)


Some DVDs out Tuesday:

“Alice in Wonderland”: Tim Burton’s take on the Lewis Carroll classic includes a turn by Johnny Depp as (who else?) the Mad Hatter.

“American Pickers”: Nothing like watching a couple of guys rummaging through other people’s trash. It’s “Hoarders” in reverse.

“Disney Parks: The Secrets, Stories and Magic Behind the Scenes”: I wonder if they’ll mention Club 33, the secret Disney bar where they actually serve booze.

“Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!”: Title of the week, obviously.

“Mister Ed: Season Three”: You’ll add this to your collection, of course, of course.

“The Paleface”: One of Bob Hope’s funniest comedies — check it out if you’ve never seen it.

“Rescue Me: Complete Fifth Season”: Dennis Leary’s comedy/drama about New York firefighters is one of the best shows on TV.

“White Hunter, Black Heart”: Legendary director Clint Eastwood plays a fictional version of legendary director John Huston in this offbeat take on the making of “The African Queen.”

“The Wolfman”: Benicio Del Toro shows off his canines in this update of the classic horror film.

And CDs:

Clay Aiken, “Tried & True”: Remember when Clay was on “American Idol”? That was a long, long time ago.

Sleigh Bells, “Treats”: You know what band name fits perfectly with a June release date? Sleigh Bells, of course.

Dimitri From Paris, “Get Down with the Philly Sound”: The Philly sound? In Paris? Shouldn’t it be in, oh, I don’t know, Philadelphia?

Cameron Carpenter, “Cameron Live!”: Not to be confused with “Carpenters Live!” That’s a whole other group.