Release Date(s)1966 (April 16, 2019)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
Remaking a classic film has its pitfalls. With 1939’s Stagecoach, director John Ford elevated the movie Western from B status to a first-class production that dealt with adult situations. This 1966 remake seems almost unnecessary, since it duplicates the plot and characters without adding much other than color and widescreen.
A stagecoach headed to Cheyenne is transporting an assortment of characters. The driver is Buck (Slim Pickens). Marshal Curly Wilcox (Van Heflin) is riding shotgun in exchange for the lift to Cheyenne. Like the marshal, the passengers all have their individual reasons for being on that coach. Dallas (Ann-Margret) is a dance hall floozy run out of town because two men killed each other fighting over her. Doc Boone (Bing Crosby) is a physician with a taste for liquor who has outstayed his welcome in town. Peacock (Red Buttons) is a traveling whiskey salesman. Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers) wants to join her husband, Captain Mallory, stationed in Cheyenne. Hatfield (Michael Connors) is a professional gambler who served in the Confederate army under Lucy’s father and offers her his protection. Henry Gatewood (Bob Cummings) has stolen $10,000 from his father-in-law’s bank and is on the run. On the trail, the stagecoach encounters the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord), who broke out of jail and demands to be taken to Cheyenne to settle a score with the Plummer family, who killed his father and brother.
The individual characters develop relationships with each other as they face dangerous terrain, bad weather, and hostile Indians. The claustrophobic interior of the stagecoach forces a degree of civility, though it’s apparent that not everyone is thrilled with the company of the others.
This version was critically panned during its initial release, primarily because of affection for the superior original, but seen today, it has its virtues. First, the widescreen color cinematography by William H. Clothier is spectacular and shows off the Colorado locations to great advantage. Aerial shots of the territory under the title credits magnificently reveal the vast expanse of the pristine land. Such visual grandeur simply was not possible in the original, despite Ford’s use of Monument Valley.
Acting for the most part is adequate. Bing Crosby, in his final feature film role, stands out as a man who seems to exist on booze alone. His performance adds comic relief to the drama surrounding him. Ann-Margret and Stefanie Powers are wooden and their characters are clearly secondary to the bigger male roles. Alex Cord, who takes on the role that made John Wayne a star in the original, is no match for Wayne in terms of screen presence. He lacks the necessary stature, and for such a significant role, this is deadly. Though he is supposed to be driven by a thirst for vengeance, his Ringo lacks fire. He is much more effective in his scenes with Dallas, whom he feels sorry for because she’s shunned by most of the other passengers.
Pacing is also a major flaw. The film starts with an exciting clash between Indians and a troop of cavalry, complete with stunts, blood, and violence. But then we have to wait close to an hour before the Indian attack on the stagecoach. In the interim, the film bogs down. At 16 minutes longer than the original, this version drags when it should be heightening suspense. Though the threat of an Indian attack is always present, padding the movie with extraneous dialogue and interpersonal conflicts is mere filler until the “good stuff” comes along.
That good stuff is some excellent stunt work during the Indian attack. The sequence goes on for a while, which makes up for the extended lack of action that preceded it. Stunt men dressed as Indians fall from galloping horses, jump from horse to stagecoach, and get dragged behind the it. In a daring stunt duplicating one from the original, the Ringo Kid jumps from the driver’s seat to the team of six horses, making his way to the front and mounting one of the lead horses. This homage to Ford’s film is still exciting to watch. The film cost $6.3 million, a huge amount for the period, and it turned a modest profit.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the widescreen CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Visual quality is sharp and the colors appear natural, particularly in the shots of the picturesque Colorado countryside. Details, such as Doc Boone’s whiskers, the pattern in Dallas’ dress, the fair skin of Ann-Margret and Stefanie Powers, and the rumpled clothing of Marshall Wilcox, show up well. Clothier’s cinematography conveys an epic feel and even makes quieter moments intimate, often a problem with wide CinemaScope compositions. Matte shots convincingly show the stagecoach teetering on the edge of a narrow, winding, rain-soaked mountain road. Original paintings of the cast by Norman Rockwell are shown at the end of the film.
Soundtrack is English 1.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English subtitles are available for the deaf and hard of hearing. Sound is excellent, with dialogue distinct throughout. The whoops of the Indians, the sound of the stagecoach racing over rough terrain, and the horses’ galloping hooves generate excitement. These moments are balanced by quiet scenes, such one between Dallas and Ringo and the polite exchange between Hatfield and Mrs. Mallory. Jerry Goldsmith’s score has rousing moments, mostly during the stagecoach’s journey as the rhythm of the music matches the rapid movement of the coach.
The unrated 114-minute Blu-ray is released as a Limited Edition of 3,000 units. Bonus materials include an audio commentary, an isolated music track, the Twilight Time catalogue, and a booklet.
Audio Commentary – Film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo note that the “filmmakers are respectful of the original material.” The film, they believe, is as good as the original in terms of entertainment value. They acknowledge that Ford’s film is a masterpiece that elevated the stature of the Western. In Gordon Douglas’ re-interpretation, the color and widescreen really resonate. Douglas was wise not to use Monument Valley, a major location of the original, filming instead at the Caribou Country Club Ranch in Colorado. The violent opening Indian attack was pretty strong for the period. This early scene sets up a “sense of menace.” Audiences realize there is danger and the passengers in the stagecoach are at constant risk. The barroom scene integrates major characters. Brief career profiles are presented for the leading cast members. Bing Crosby is acknowledged for his huge impact on both music and film, and was also a shrewd businessman. He won an Oscar for Going My Way. Before Stagecoach, Ann-Margret starred in Bye Bye Birdie, State Fair, and Viva Las Vegas (with Elvis Presley). Bob Cummings was a romantic lead in Hollywood in the 1940s before getting his own TV show in the 1950s. He was hopelessly addicted to drugs and died penniless. Alex Cord had polio as a child and learned how to ride horses as part of his therapy. Mike Connors, who was originally known as “Touch Connors”, and Stefanie Powers, would both go on to star in TV series of their own (Mannix, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.). Red Buttons was a comedian who had his own TV show, Slim Pickens had recently ridden an atomic bomb to its destination in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and Keenan Wynn, who plays Plummer, speaks loudly in the movie because he was hard of hearing. One of Wynn’s sons plays his character’s son, Ike Plummer. The original X rating by the MPAA is discussed. Because the rating wasn’t trademarked, producers of porn movies co-opted it. Because newspapers wouldn’t run ads for X-rated films, that rating for mainstream Hollywood films was dropped. The use of back-screen projection is very well done. A major stunt – Ringo jumping from the driver’s seat of the stagecoach onto the team of galloping horses – is similar to the one in the original. Artist Norman Rockwell, who painted portraits of the cast, has a small role in the movie. Wayne Newton sings Stagecoach to Cheyenne under the final credits.
Isolated Music Track – Jerry Goldsmith’s score is heard with dialogue and sound effects muted as the film plays.
Twilight Catalogue – Twilight Time Blu-ray releases from 2011 through 2019 are listed in a click-on menu.
Booklet – An 8-page insert booklet features a critical essay by Julie Kirgo, 3 color pictures, 10 Norman Rockwell paintings of cast members, and a color reproduction of the movie’s original poster.
– Dennis Seuling