The first image we see of John Wayne, né Marion Morrison, in Stagecoach is inarguably one of the most iconic character introductions in all of cinema. You've probably seen it, even you haven't seen the movie itself (and shame on you, if that's so): some time after the titular vehicle rattles out of an unnamed town in the Arizona Territory, a shot rings out, and the driver brings the coach to a halt. He recognises the shooter as the famous and infamous Ringo Kid. Cut to a wide shot of Ringo loosely holding his gun out to the side (he shot to get their attention, and for no other reason), which quickly dollys to a close-up that fills the screen, a dolly so fast that the camera briefly goes out of focus. It is a shot that screams, in every fiber of its existence, "this fella here is somebody who is going to knock you flat on your ass, because of his sheer fantasticalness."
Okay, so they wouldn't have used that exact phrasing in 1939, but the intention is still the same: ladies and gentlemen, John Wayne - he is awesome. And awesome he would continue to be, in the 37 years before his death proving to be perhaps the greatest movie star in Hollywood history. That's not meant to be a statement one way or the other about his abilities as an actor (which are under-appreciated, though less so in recent years), nor his personality as a man (which is over-appreciated by the wrong people); simply a recognition of the mere fact of his dominance of a certain kind of movie for nearly four decades, and by extension his dominance of movies across the board.
Stagecoach is occasionally called Wayne's first film, or at least his first starring role; and frequently called his first collaboration with director John Ford, with whom the actor would become as inextricably linked as any actor and director ever have been. Neither of these statements are true. However, Stagecoach was the film that launched Wayne rather abruptly into superstardom, and it was his first leading performance for Ford, in a film that did quite a lot to establish what we now understand "John Ford" to mean. With hindsight on our sides, knowing how timeless their collaborations would turn out to be, it's hard not to read that shot as Ford's statement of intention, that with this moment Wayne would be an icon, and Ford himself would be the greatest of all Wayne's directors. It's not likely, of course, for that to be the case in fact, but... it's such a perfect introduction to the two men's work together that we can maybe in this instance be romantic enough to print the legend as fact.
The Ford-Wayne relationship is one of the most commented-upon in the annals of film criticism, and I'd not spend too much time going over it all, if it please you. Let me instead simply assume that we can all agree that something profound happened when the two men worked together; perhaps it wasn't anything to do with that actor's particular presence, but Stagecoach is a particularly special entry in Ford's already lengthy career, which had by then tallied up one Oscar and several more perfectly brilliant works of cinema craftsmanship. Here, I maintain, Ford created his first, perhaps his only, absolutely perfect movie (though I would not also call it his best, therefore). This is the film, let us not forget, which led a young Orson Welles to declare the older director the great American master of cinema, and which he viewed (saith the legend) more than 40 times before shooting Citizen Kane. "The film that inspired Welles while filming Citizen Kane" is no small thing, higher praise than perhaps anything else I could say about it.
With Stagecoach, Ford was given one of his most structurally-perfect screenplays ever, courtesy of his frequent collaborator Dudley Nichols (and allegedly, an uncredited Ben Hecht, maybe the best screenwriter of his generation). It's the kind of script in which every line of dialogue is functional without looking like it, so that even a throwaway moment ends up somehow setting up some element of the plot later on, or explaining something about the characters. More importantly, it's a script with hardly any place for the awkward comedy that often trips up even the best Ford films. Stagecoach is a model of tight storytelling: the opening fifteen minutes set up all of the film's whys, the next 70 minutes push us, with all due speed - and for those whose chief complaint about old movies is that they're slow-moving, well this one is fast - and a final ten minutes that wrap everything up. The scenario is incredibly simple: there are seven passengers and two drivers on a coach driving to Lordsburg, Arizona, under threat of hostile Apache warriors.
In its opening minutes, Stagecoach announces itself unambiguously as exactly the kind of story Ford had already excelled at for two decades: above all other things it's about the conflict between the joyless conservative hypocrites who call themselves "polite society" and the messy, flawed, gloriously human people that polite society would like to see banished from the world. Nearly the first things that happen in the film are that a cheerful and seemingly competent alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell, doing that drunken Irishman thing that he did in pretty much every role) and a smart whore (Claire Trevor) are thrown out of town by a band of unsmiling women. By 1939, Ford had mastered the art of just-so-subtly manipulating camera angles to make sure the audience understood exactly who to root for and who to hiss at, so subtly indeed that it's felt subconsciously. So even if we don't quite know who this Dallas lady is, other than that she's a working girl, we know that we like her a hell of a lot more than the prudes who are kicking her to the curb.
The stagecoach, like Melville's Pequod isn't a conveyance but a framework in which to explore as much of the human condition as the creators could manage to stuff into it. Accordingly, the passengers aren't characters, entirely, they're archetypes: besides the wise whore and the drunk Irish doctor, there's a nervous Easterner who wasn't quite ready for the frontier (the perfectly-named Donald Meek; and his character's name, Peacock, is almost as perfect), a selfish corporate windbag (Berton Churchill), a determined but easily-offended soldier's wife (Louise Platt), and an amoral ex-Confederate (John Carradine, in his career peak). The coach drivers include an optimist who's a touch too stupid to know real fear (Andy Devine) and a crisply professional marshal (George Bancroft). Much of the film consists of little more than putting these disparate people into one situation or another, and watching as they behave according to their natures, or find it within their power to change their nature, as the case may be.
Accordingly, the finest moments in Stagecoach are mostly the small moments of character detail. Sometimes it's the look in Wayne's eyes when he dares Carradine to extend his Southern gentility to the less-reputable woman in the coach; sometimes the way Bancroft ignores Devine, to Devine's endless resignation. One of my particular favorite moments in the whole film is the way Carradine rolls his eyes when Mitchell brags about serving under Abraham Lincoln (a particularly important figure in Ford's cinema). For all that the Western is customarily seen as a genre of action and mythological storytelling, much of what makes Stagecoach an absolute masterpiece is how Ford and Nichols pitch the film as a study of how personality types interact.
Which isn't to say that it's not also a great Western as such; and a greatly significant one in Ford's career. The film stands at the junction between the first phase of his movies, which were so very invested in looking at social interaction while also making ripping good adventures, and the second phase, begun in earnest with 1946's My Darling Clementine, when his films became preoccupied with self-analysis and exploring the division between mythology and truth, and how Ford's own films had perpetuated myth. I'd argue that Wayne's appearance, with his larger-than-life presence and instantly classic appearance, is part of what allowed Ford to launch into this second phase; the actor was so mythological just in his being that he made a suitable hook on which to hang all sorts of deconstructive theory. The other truly important first made in Stagecoach is that it was Ford's first movie shot in Monument Valley, the plains of huge stone edifices scattered throughout the Navajo reservation which became the defining face of The American West in film.
Monument Valley is an inherently unreal place; to shoot a movie there is by necessity to place that movie in a fairy tale realm. This, I think, was the other great step Ford needed to take to become the fully matured version of himself, placing all of his greatest Westerns in this Neverland of giant rocks and rolling vistas. It separates them from any semblance of reality, and a canny director - and Ford was surely that - could work that separation into a chasm, definitively stating, "this is a fiction". Once that's been established, it's impossible to take a story of cowboys and Indians at face value.
Later on, his work in this vein would become quite aggressive (The Searchers, anyone?), but for the first time out, the filmmaker kept things simple. This is what I believe Stagecoach to essentially consist of: a typical John Ford film starts up in a typical movie town, with the usual suspects. Then they go riding off into a place that had never been seen onscreen before, one of the most desolate stretches of gorgeous wilderness on God's earth, and there they are observed by their creator gods like insects under glass. In a way, Stagecoach owes as much to something like Six Characters in Search of an Author as it does to any B-picture with gunslingers in black and white hats; it's a story about what happens when characters are removed from the world and forced to perform sociological experiments for our enjoyment. That's not the whole story, of course - it's still got a mind-blowing chase scene that is one of the finest action setpieces of the 1930s, and the plot resolves as a conventional, although impeccably-crafted, Western melodrama. But then again, John Ford built a career out of blending the esoteric, the formally flawless, and the flat-out entertaining better than most filmmakers would dream of.