Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
At only 20 years old, John Ford moved from the mountains of Maine to sunny Los Angeles, California. There, Ford began a career working in film production, following in the footsteps of his older brother Francis. John started out as an assistant and handyman to his brother’s production company at Universal Pictures. Occasionally the young Ford would assist as an actor and stuntman, often doubling for his older brother. Within three years, John worked his way up the ladder as not only Francis’ chief assistant, but his occasional cameraman. In 1917, Ford was offered his first job as a director.
Ford worked on over sixty movies throughout the silent film era. He remained one of the busiest directors of the 1920s and also served as the president of the Motion Picture Directors Association. John was an early supporter of implementing sound in motion pictures. In fact, his 1928 movie Mother Machree featured the first song sung on screen for a film made by the Fox studio. That movie also featured a young aspiring actor in one of his first parts as an uncredited extra. The actor, who worked mainly as a prop and stuntman for Fox, was John Wayne.
John Wayne in one of his earliest film roles, 1930’s The Big Trail.
John Wayne and John Ford soon grew to become friends over the years. Wayne appeared in two more of Ford’s films in small roles. Entering the 1930s, Ford churned out film after film spanning a wide range of genres from hard-hitting dramas like The Informer to the Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie. The Informer earned Ford his first Best Director Academy Award in 1935.
In 1939, Ford decided to return to a film genre which he had not worked in since 1926: the western. The director bought the rights to a short story, “Stage to Lordsburg,” that appeared in Collier Magazine, for a mere $7,500. Ford’s longtime friend and associate Dudley Nichols was brought in to write the adaptation of the story for the screen, titled Stagecoach. The story’s premise revolved around a group of folks embarking on a journey across the frontier to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Along the way, their trek becomes complicated by the threat of attack by Apaches. The group must band together to protect themselves, while also learning something about each other. Stagecoach was greenlit with a small budget of roughly $500,000. Although the film’s producer Walter Wanger pushed Ford to cast big name stars such as Gary Cooper or Marlene Dietrich to star in the movie, the director refused to budge. He already had the perfect person in mind to portray the movie’s most iconic role.
Reportedly, Ford invited Wayne on a weekend boat trip and asked him to read the screenplay. He allegedly asked Wayne who should be cast in the part as Ringo, relying on Wayne’s network and knowledge of fellow young actors. The next day at sea, Ford declared “I have made up my mind. I want you to play the Ringo Kid.” The rest is history. From the first shot in Stagecoach when the camera slowly moves in on Wayne, audiences knew they were being introduced to the next big movie star. Wayne turns in a charming, bold performance as a fugitive seeking revenge for the death of his father and brother. Over 70 years later, Wayne’s first big role remains one of his most memorable.
Additionally, Stagecoach includes one of the most remarkable stunts in cinema history. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt plays a Native American who rides next to the coach in the movie’s climactic chase scene. Canutt then jumps from the horse he’s riding to one of the horses pulling the coach. The Apache is shot by Wayne, his now lifeless body falls between the horses and gets passed by them and the coach. Computer effects did not exist in this era (obviously); this incredible feat was all due to Canutt’s brilliant skill as a stuntman. Others recognized the combined brilliance of the technical prowess and performances at work in Stagecoach. The film received seven Academy Award nominations in 1939, going on to win two – Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Score.
Raiders of the Lost Ark contains a sequence where Indiana Jones slides down the hood of a moving car, passing underneath it and being dragged behind the vehicle. The scene is an homage to the famous stunt in Stagecoach.
The hat that John Wayne sports in the movie is his own. He would go on to wear it in many other westerns before retiring it in 1959.
Famed Director Orson Welles reportedly watched Stagecoach around 40 times while making Citizen Kane in 1941. He declared it a perfect textbook example of filmmaking.
Stagecoach was the first of many films John Ford shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The location might be recognizable to some as a location also used in recent seasons of Doctor Who.
What’s your favorite Western film? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.