This is where it all started. John Ford’s smash hit and enduring masterpiece Stagecoach revolutionized the western, elevating it from B movie to the A-list and establishing the genre as we know it today. The quintessential tale of a group of strangers thrown together into extraordinary circumstances, Stagecoach features outstanding performances from Hollywood stalwarts Claire Trevor, John Carradine, and Thomas Mitchell, and, of course, John Wayne, in his first starring role for Ford, as the daredevil outlaw the Ringo Kid. Superbly shot and tightly edited, Stagecoach (Ford’s first trip to Monument Valley) is Hollywood storytelling at its finest.
John Ford’s Stagecoach makes a striking debut on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, the film presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this dual-layer disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p.
Criterion’s new high-definition digital transfer, taken from a source different from what was used for the previous Warner Bros. DVDs—a nitrate duplicate negative being the source for the Criterion Blu-rays and DVD editions—marks a significant improvement over those editions, which were somewhat fuzzy, the 2-disc edition also looking to have been severely contrast-boosted. The image here is far sharper when the material allows it, boosting detail and definition. Gray levels also look far better and more natural (the 2-disc Warner DVD looked a little yellow to me at times) and grain is visible, looking natural.
There is still a fair amount of damage, though, ranging from scratches and marks to dirt and debris, but it’s still not as bad as the damage present on the Warner discs, only getting heavy in a few instances. Criterion states in their notes that they had removed thousands of instances of damage but had to leave some visible marks because taking them out would have hurt the image. While I’m sure some will be unhappy about that I’m pleased they went that route; because of this the transfer retains a film-like look that further restoration may have ruined. In the end it’s a gorgeous looking transfer, despite the flaws, Criterion having done an exceptional job with it.
The lossless PCM mono track unfortunately has some issues due to the source materials, though I’m sure Criterion has done all they can. There’s an audible hiss in the background and music can sound a little distorted and edgy. Voices are a touch weak and I had to crank the volume to hear it at times. But I thought it was a bit of an improvement over the Warner discs and I feel this is about as good as it’s going to get.
None of the supplements from the now discontinued 2-disc special edition from Warner Bros. have made it onto this edition, which is unfortunate because they were decent, but Criterion has managed to load quite a bit of new material on here, making up for that fact.
Jim Kitses provides a fairly intriguing audio commentary for the film, analyzing the layered social aspects present, Ford’s visual sense, and even offering some historical context like the importance of the stagecoach during the time period presented in the film. Kitses is a bit of a character with a booming voice, and he appears to be reading from some sort of script or notes, but he keeps it engaging while he breaks down sequences, comments on the actors and their respective characters, Ford’s career, criticizes critics and some of their interpretations, the film’s strong female characters, and confronts accusations of what many see is Ford’s racist depiction of the Indians that appear in his films. Even if he might ramble on at times it’s a fairly engaging track and moves by briskly.
The next supplement is a rather cool one, an early silent short film by John Ford from 1917, thought to be lost but found a few years ago, called Bucking Broadway starring Harry Carey. Running 54-minutes and divided into 7-chapters, it’s a fairly simple “fish out of water” tale where cowboy Carey has to go to the big city to get his girl back from the city man who has seduced her. It’s a charming piece if not a great one, but it’s interesting to view if just to see all early signs of Ford’s techniques, most notably his ability to introduce a character and tell you all you need to know about them in a second or two, even if it is based on stereotypes like the introduction of the smarmy city man. The editing is also fairly seamless and unnoticeable. The restoration, which was done by Archives françaises du film, looks surprisingly good, with very little damage. The picture has different tints throughout, though primarily yellow, but I am not sure if this is actually present in the film elements or was added in during restoration, replicating how it was supposed to be shown. It also comes with a rather playful score by Donald Sosin that suits the nature of the film. It’s presented in 1080i, which is disappointing, but I assume this has more to do with the frame rate of the film and probably couldn’t have been helped anyways. Still, a rather cool and fun inclusion on Criterion’s part.
Next is easily the best feature on here, possibly one of the best interviews I’ve come across, a 73-minute interview with director John Ford, conducted for the BBC by Philip Jenkinson in 1968. What I believe we have here is raw footage and not a finished product; it has some cuts but is incredibly rough around the edges as they’re constantly running out of film, the cameras are moving every which way, and the segment has odd, inexplicable cuts and repeated segments, though it’s possible it could be a stylistic choice, albeit not a very good one. But whatever the case may be, what we have here is gold! Ford, as mentioned by director Peter Bogdanovich in another supplement on this disc, was a difficult interviewee and that’s best evidenced here as Jenkinson attempts to pry answers from the man. Ford has no interest in political questions and gets aggravated when the interviewer keeps asking him political questions, replying something in the vein of “that’s not a question about film!” I think you can sense a frustration in Jenkinson as well when he wants to ask about deeper meanings in Ford’s films or his photography or how he was able to shoot complicated sequences, to which Ford usually replies that the film was “just a job.” But he does get some great material out of him, including some funny anecdotes about the business, his favourite film of his at the time (1953’s The Sun Shines Bright,) thoughts about John Wayne, Will Rogers, and others in the business, his distaste for producers, and even some things about Winston Churchill. There’s also some great insight from the man on courage and violence, and some interesting thoughts on racism, focusing on the civil rights movement going on, about the only political topic Jenkinson manages to get out of him. I was also amused by his constant “Wha’s!?” to Jenkinson’s questions, either because he didn’t hear it or didn’t understand, even asking for a translator at one point. He also offers some hilarious interruptions, like a moment where he looks to the side and asks a crew member if he’s trying to grow a moustache. It’s all over the place and Ford can be difficult, but there’s some great stuff in here, presenting what I feel is a very unpretentious man just talking about movies and his work. Easily my favourite feature on here. This feature is presented in 1080i.
The next interview is with Peter Bogdanovich, who talks about Stagecoach and Ford in general. He notes some of the influences the film has had on the Western genre, as well as its influence it had on Orson Welles, and talks a bit about Wayne, who he met on the set of one of Ford’s films. He then moves on to John Ford, and talks about being around him on the set of Cheyenne Autumn, giving a clearer idea of the man and how he could treat Bogdanovich. Short and brief but still rather fascinating and worth watching. This is also presented in 1080i.
Tag Gallagher offers another one of his excellent video essays for this release, running 22-minutes and entitled Dreaming of Jeanie. In it he concentrates on Ford’s visual style and his ability of conveying so much information in the imagery using the introductions of the various characters as examples. He looks at the use of light and space but then breaks down one sequence giving an example as to how Ford keeps us at an “empathetic distance,” even breaking out diagrams to demonstrate how camera placement achieves this, and then even going a step further by showing how a director like Alfred Hitchcock may have shot the scene, again using diagrams, giving us a clearer idea as to what Ford was aiming for. It’s a rather fascinating, scholarly piece, and I actually wish Criterion would include more pieces like this by Gallagher on their releases. This is presented in 1080p.
Still working our way through (there’s a lot on here) we now come to John Ford Home Movies, which is an interview with John Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford, with some home movie footage playing over top. Dan Ford recalls his grandfather and how his limited schedule had him bring family and friends together for events so he could spend time with everyone as much as he could. He mentions being around the business, and fondly remembers some of the times he had on his grandfather’s boat. Most of the footage shown is on this boat, featuring gatherings and parties that happened on it. There’s some footage of Wayne and Henry Fonda as well. Though the interview may not be an opener of the director, the home video footage is worth watching on its own. The footage here is presented in 1080p.
True West is a short 11-minute interview with journalist Buzz Bissinger who talks about Harry Goulding, who is often considered the one who brought Monument Valley to Ford’s attention. He talks about how Goulding came to actually own a piece of land there, setting up a trading post and becoming a trusted and respected man to the Navajo there. He then explains how Goulding eventually made his way to Hollywood to draw Ford’s attention to the landscape, and then how Goulding ended up being a go-between for Ford and the Navajo. Filled with plenty of pictures it’s a fascinating little glimpse into how Ford first discovered the area and how it would play a big part in his films to come. This feature is also presented in 1080p.
The final video supplement features stunt man Vic Armstrong talking about Yakima Canutt, who performed and rigged the stunts for Stagecoach. He talks of his admiration for the man’s work, praising his “rigging” ability, which included getting the stagecoach across the river for one sequence, and he even explains how Canutt was able to perform some of the horse stunts, even bringing up how a similar stunt hurt another stunt man on a different film. At 10-minutes it’s short, but covers a lot of ground about the man, including his acting work in silent pictures, and his overall impact on the profession, Armstrong even pointing out a stunt from Raiders of the Lost Ark that was a homage to one of the stunts in Stagecoach. This video is also presented in 1080p.
The section for Screen Director’s Playhouse we get a 27-minute radio adaptation of Stagecoach from 1949, which actually stars both Claire Trevor and John Wayne. The Indian impersonations were a little much, but overall it was a fun little piece, with a few changes to the storyline to condense the film down from 96-minutes. Audio quality is also surprisingly good here, and it plays over the menu with 8-chapter stops. It’s not something I feel one has to listen to, though I usually like these radio plays and it is a bit of kick to get a taste of Wayne’s “radio acting.” The Warner Bros. special edition also came with a radio adaptation though it’s different from this one and does not feature Wayne. Another cool little find on Criterion’s part. It should be noted that the DVD edition contains actual MP3 files for this broadcast on the second disc that can be downloaded onto your computer while this Blu-ray edition does not.
The supplements then conclude with a 3-minute theatrical trailer for the film that looks to be the same one found on the Warner Bros. disc.
The booklet the comes with an essay on the film by David Cairns, examining the film, it’s visual style, and its influence. Also included is the short story Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox, which served as influence to the film. Though obviously the film expands and changes the story to fill 96-minutes, there’s still some similarities, specifically in the types of characters. Another cool inclusion.
In all this release is fairly loaded with some great material, though I have to admit some surprise Criterion didn’t have more material on John Wayne. It’s a shame that Criterion more than likely couldn’t include the same features found on Warner’s special edition, which presented a couple of good documentaries on the film and Ford, as well as an alternate radio adaptation and a decent commentary by Scott Eyman. But alas, one will have to hunt down that now out-of-print DVD if they’re interested in the features. As it stands, though, what we get here is all top of the line material from Criterion, and one of their more thorough collection of supplements.
This is a great release from Criterion, one of their best Blu releases this year so far. The materials used for the transfer are in rough shape but Criterion has done a stellar job in their restoration and transfer, giving us a very film-like presentation of Stagecoach. Throw in the abundance of supplemental material and I have to say it’s certainly one of the most satisfying releases yet this year.