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.