Please Note: This review contains spoilers galore!
There is nothing new with Hollywood remaking classics – witness the multiple variations on a theme called A Star is Born - but John Ford admirers would probably find this 1966 version of his 1939 classic pointless, save for the challenge of tweaking a classic script for audiences accustomed to CinemaScope, Color, and Stereophonic Sound.
Unfortunately, producer and occasion writer Martin Rackin never opted to go with even a banal stereo sound mix – a strange choice, considering this was a deluxe-styled production – but one does get a sense this version was originally conceived as Fox’s attempt to cash in on the success of sprawling widescreen westerns like How the West Was Won (1963), but the budget was significantly scaled back as the studio was recovering from the financial debacle that was Cleopatra (good as the film is).
The ties to HTWWW isn’t trivial – the aerial shots of verdant wild mountain regions are directly imitative of MGM’s Cinerama spectacular – but once the camera settles on land, the film goes through the machinations of introducing the ensemble characters who will be packed into a small carriage that’s made amazingly wide & cozy, courtesy of a wide angle lens, and some structural license in the studio’s carpentry department to accommodate three passengers flanking each ‘scope edge, and one lone figure seated on the floor with elbow room.
Fox’s roster of thespians is a mélange of recognizable faces rather than ideal casting, but it’s doubtful anyone could’ve transcended the archetypal roles that were slightly sweetened with comedic indulgences and witticisms slightly reminiscent of the studio’s raucous but scriptless indulgence known as North to Alaska (1960).
Ann-Margret, fresh from The Cincinnati Kid (1965), plays hooker Dallas, kicked out of town by a Captain Mallory for teasing two drunks into a fight to the death; Bing Crosby (in his final film role) is the drunken Doc Josiah Boone; Robert Cummings plays bank embezzler & thief Henry Gatewood; and Van Heflin adds needed gravitas and wryness to the role of Marshal Curly Wilcox, who’d rather be fishing than hunting down escaped con Ringo (although he’ll get a fat $500 for wrangling him to jail).
Alex Cord, a veteran TV actor who would pretty much stay put in TV movies and episodic guest spots for most of his career, is fine as a the rugged, brooding Ringo Kid (bleached sandy blonde mop notwithstanding), and Keenan Wynn unsurprisingly eats the scenery with gusto as the snarling patriarch Luke Plummer whom Ringo wants to kill for murdering his father and brother.
Unfortunately for screenwriter Joseph (co-writer of Von Ryan’s Express, Fox’s Great Escape knock-off) and director Gordon Douglas (Them!), the two men were trapped with both clichéd archetypes, and large group of characters of which at least half should’ve been killed off by the vengeful Indians the group avoid as they journey to Cheyenne.
Booze salesman Peacock (gratingly Red Buttons) pats his sweaty brow and watches with polite dismay as Doc Boone empties his suitcase of samples), while the good Doc pats him on the shoulder every few minutes before knocking back the amber liquid. Gatewood complains and hugs his satchel of $10,000 cash but never crosses the line and becomes the total arse he clearly is, and gambler Hatfield (wooden Mike ‘Michael’ Connors) spends most of the movie objecting to verbal vulgarities in front of the ladies during the rare moments the script gives him something to do.
Ringo and Dallas exchange sultry glances, and yet after two verbal exchanges during a midnight stopover, both are convinced they’re wholly in love; and Lucy, the pregnant wife of Capt. Mallory (up-and-coming actress Stefanie Powers), remains incensed and largely non-verbal except when the 'vulgarities' fly too close to her personage. As stagecoach driver Buck, Slim Pickens (The Flim-Flam Man [M], The Swarm) complains ad infinitum, and he's repeatedly told to ‘shut up’ by Marshal Wilcox – the core spectrum of Pickens’ dialogue exchanges.
It’s only when the group reaches the lodge where the massacred soldiers were billeted does the script offer meaty scenes for the actors, but they still come off as perfunctory. An exception, though, is Cummings' scene with Margret, where his character shows a serious, darker side in lying about wanting to take her with him to Cheyenne when his goal is to abscond fast with the stolen money. Unfortunately for Cummings, he’s stuck whining for the rest of the film until he’s shot to death by the Plummers in the film’s finale that feels strangely under-directed. (Perhaps a signal of Douglas’ distaste for Cummings’ one-note character, his death is covered in a wide shot, and there’s no close-up covering his ignominious death.)
Once the group head on to Cheyenne, the Indian attack finally begins, but where a massacre should’ve occurred, only gambler Hatfield is sacrificed. Presumably in 1966, killing off stars would’ve been regarded as poisonous to the film’s success, but perhaps under the helm of a more daring director and / or producer, removing the deadwood early into the group’s journey would’ve opened up the drama’s scope by focusing on the most viable characters.
Moreover, in spite of the handful of westerns from the fifties (Broken Arrow) where Hollywood attempted to humanize the once demonized ‘marauding Indian,’ the sixties failed to build on those advances, and Stagecoach depicts native Americans as a shrill, mindless mob who wage ‘total war’ without reason; men are warriors, and women are speechless housewives to be bought and sold among traders. End point.
Although the film begins with a kinetic and surprisingly bloody massacre (one Yankee bluecoat gets axed in the face, spewing Red Blood Colour #16), the film's midsection offers little action to break up the stale characters, and it’s actually quite shocking how clumsily Douglas staged a ‘treacherous’ cliffside crossing during a rainstorm. Instead of intercutting wide shots that reveal the dangerous terrain and the group’s progress as they lurch along the edge of a muddy road, Douglas focuses on angles that bear no resemblance to the rarely seen matte shots: the day-for-night lighting fails when the nearby arc lights unnaturally illuminate the rain droplets, and one never doubts the actors are on a safe slope at a ranch because the camera never covers the wobbling carriage in a wide shot, with some fake rocky edge at the bottom frame to maintain continuity. (To suggest the cliff's instability, however, Round Styrofoam Boulder #22 is used early in the scene.)
Not all pathways used for the stagecoach's travelling shots appear authentic. One particular curvaceous segment is a clean-cut, perfectly flat auto-friendly road on a ranch; and an aerial shot that follows the stagecoach into a thicket shows a well-worn set of tire tracks used for the camera car's fast tracking shots – which is just plain sloppy.
There’s also evidence there may have been more scenes or longer dialogue exchanges, as the script is somewhat clumsy with details. In the first example, Marshal Wilcox’s intro scene with Buck serves to detail Ringo’s recent breakout from jail and his vengeance for the Plummers for killing family members, but the Plummers' murderous deeds (as well as the Plummers themselves) are wholly ignored by the filmmakers (a brief, murky stagecoach exchange with Doc Boone excepted) until the finale, when Ringo demands to be uncuffed from the stagecoach and enter the saloon and exact revenge on the Plummer clan. Secondly, in their first conflicted love exchange, Dallas refers to seeing scars on Ringo’s back, which he explains stem from a sadistic warden – yet this factoid is delivered with the presumption of some prior scene in which she’s shown or glimpses the physical evidence of his torment.
At 115 mins., Stagecoach works, but considering the pedigree, it’s a half-hearted attempt to update a classic – perhaps a sign that cosmetic changes and transposing action sequences to different settings (such as the cliffside trek) don’t work. A careful rethink or radical changes might have yielded a more satisfying drama, but this isn't the classic western some fans may be hoping to see.
Twilight Time’s DVD features a sparkling transfer of the film, with rich and stable colours, lovely detail, and a virtually perfect print source. The mono sound mix is a bit worn with some evident shrillness in the highs, but Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative score manages to transcend the technical flaws. The music score is available in clean stereo on an isolated music track, and like TT’s Flim-Flam Man DVD, one wishes it were possible to remix the film with the stereo music stems.
The sleeve art makes use of the original poster art and superb character portraits by Norman Rockwell (who has a small role), and the portraits are also seen in the End Credits. Although segments of the art is used in the DVD’s lushly illustrated booklet, one wishes the DVD contained a stills archive, or scanned promo materials for what must have been sold by Fox as an event picture.
Julie Kirgo’s booklet notes are effusive towards the film (which undoubtedly has admirers), and she cites the parallels and tonal differences between both ’39 and '66 versions.
Director Douglas continued to work in diverse genres, closing a 42-year career with a TV version of Nevada Smith (1975) for producer / writer Martin Rackin, and the dud Viva Knievel! (1977). Stagecoach was remade once again for TV in 1986.
Crosby retired from film and appeared in a handful of TV projects, and Cummings would star in Harry Alan Towers’ Five Golden Dragons (1967) before working exclusively in TV after a 34-year career in movies. Cord never achieved the success Wayne enjoyed after playing the Ringo Kid, but then Cord wasn’t an emotive nor broadly skilled actor. His best work within his mostly TV-heavy C.V. are multiple guest appearances in diverse TV series, plus the unsuccessful Gene Roddenberry pilot Genesis II (1973).
Connors found success a year later in TV’s Mannix, Powers achieved modest cult fame in the short-lived The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-1967), and Ann-Margret eventually broke her sex-kitten persona in the edgy Carnal Knowledge (1971) until naughty Ken Russell made her writhe in excremental baked beans and copulate plushy furniture in Tommy (1975).
During the same year, Jerry Goldsmith scored a series of memorable features, including Our Man Flint, The Trouble with Angels, The Blue Max, Seconds, and The Sand Pebbles – a helluva multi-genre mix for 1966.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan