Viewed on a scene-by-scene basis, Dudley Nichols’s screenplay to John Ford’s seminal Western Stagecoach (1939) might seem a bit unfocused. The film, which follows a stagecoach racing across the territories out west, has an episodic quality to it. Each stage along the journey from Tonto to Lordsburg presents some set of obstacles: the unexpected absence of military personnel at Dry Fork, a passenger’s childbirth at Apache Wells, an Apache attack at Lee’s Ferry, etc. Really, it is one thing after another. If a student showed me this story as an outline, I’d be tempted to suggest that they “pick a direction and stick with it.”
Yet, when viewed as a whole, Stagecoach feels remarkably tight for what amounts to a road-trip movie. Each turn in the narrative comes across as the natural extension of some previous event, as though the new developments were not just chronologically but also causally linked. So how do Nichols and Ford make the journey’s episodes into a coherent story? Simple: they spend time establishing why each person has boarded the stagecoach.
Let’s talk about that stagecoach for a moment. The title vehicle in Stagecoach has much the same function as the deliberation room in 12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957). Both the stagecoach and the deliberation room are confining spaces, ones that force characters with clashing personalities into close contact. They all have a common purpose, whether it’s arriving at Lordsburg or arriving at a verdict, but the spatial restrictions and personal dramas make coexistence rather difficult.
However, there is a crucial difference between Stagecoach and 12 Angry Men, and it lies in how they set the stage for their conflicts. In 12 Angry Men, the audience sees the characters introduced without much context. The jurors make some small talk, which hints at their backstories, but only in fragments. This is a consequence of the film’s premise: these men have been called in for jury duty (and presumably could not get out of it). As such, they have no motivations for being in the deliberation room, beyond compliance with a court order. All conflict in the film emerges from happenstance. Pure luck is what brought these uneasy partners together.
By contrast, each passenger in Stagecoach is given their own motivation for getting in the vehicle; the law compels no one to board. As such, the film must justify the ploy of locking a varied cast in the same cramped space. Before anyone boards, Stagecoach shows all the parties moving about Tonto, preparing for their voyage and giving insight into their reasons for leaving. Thus, when the trials of the journey start to wear away at the passengers, their reactions follow naturally from the setup.
When the stagecoach arrives in Tonto, two passengers have already boarded at a previous stop. One is Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), who is hoping to reunite with her soldier husband at Dry Fork. The other, who exits the coach as though he were an extra, is the perpetually nervous Peacock (the aptly-named Donald Meek), a travelling whiskey salesman who must be on the road a lot. The pair are quickly joined by an opposing duo: Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute pressured into leaving town by the local moralizers, and Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a drunkard doctor aiming to start a new practice elsewhere.
But we’re just getting started. Right as the stagecoach is ready to leave town, word comes that Geronimo wants to make war, and that the passengers travel at their own risk. This inspires the gambling Southern gent Hatfield (John Carradine) to hop aboard the stagecoach. He’s shown an interest of some sort in Mrs. Mallory, although what kind of interest and why remains a mystery. Then, near the edge of town, the local banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill), who’s attempting to embezzle $50,000 from Wells Fargo, flags down the stagecoach and hops on board.
From this basic set-up, we can already see a number of possible sources of conflict:
- Dallas vs. Mrs. Mallory – can a society woman accept the presence of a prostitute?
- Doc Boone vs. Peacock – Doc will certainly drink Peacock’s samples; how will he react?
- Mrs. Mallory vs. Hatfield – are Hatfield’s motives noble or malicious?
- Gatewood vs. everyone else – will anyone discover his crimes?
Even if some of these conflicts only play minor roles in the narrative, their presence is important nonetheless. Potential conflicts give the audience a ready-made structure they can impose on the film’s events, making sense of what would otherwise be a series of vignettes.
And we haven’t even gotten to John Wayne’s part yet.
The audience doesn’t know much about Ringo when he first appears, except that he is a fugitive, one a quest for revenge on the man whose testimony put him in prison. But that fact alone is enough to suggest the chaos to come. All the other passengers are townsfolk, and even the marginalized figures of Dallas and Doc Boone have been subject to the laws and mores of organized society. Ringo, on the other hand, has escaped from the state’s control. He’s a potential source of disorder for the group (although, as the film progresses, he provokes that disorder in some unexpected ways).
I’ve intentionally been vague about the details of the plot, not because I don’t want to spoil the movie, but because I want to draw attention to how the audience perceives the film in the moment. Stagecoach is successful as a film because the audience is invested in the drama before it comes on screen. Even knowing next-to-nothing about the characters’ personalities or virtues or desires, the audience can be certain that the passengers will come into conflict, creating drama. There is a certain joy in the anticipation: watching the story unfold, but aware that trouble is bound to arise.
Of course, I have not yet begun to list all the ways in which Stagecoach forces its characters into uncomfortable situations; many more conflicts emerge as the passengers get to know each other better. The takeaway here is that so much of the story’s driving momentum is established before it even starts. To the extent that Stagecoach is exemplary as a narrative, it is because of how efficiently it sets the stage for the drama to come.