Set in 1880, the story involves a disparate group of strangers — including prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), Southern gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), pregnant army wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), escaped outlaw the Ringo Kid (Wayne), and others — who all wind up traveling on the same stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. Besides having their own secrets, burdens, and crimes to deal with, the passengers have to worry about Geronimo and the Apaches, who are on the warpath.
John Wayne had previously appeared in some 80 "B" pictures; most studio executives were vehemently opposed to giving him top billing in a major film, but Ford (whose first sound Western this was to be) insisted on casting Wayne as the Ringo Kid. (Notably, the actor was paid far less than any of his co-stars except for Carradine.) Ford, well known for abusing his cast and crew, reportedly brutalized Wayne to screw an effective performance out of him — and succeeded. This film also marked the first time that Ford would shoot in Monument Valley, Utah, the site that would become his favorite setting and almost a trademark of his films.
The film was remade in 1966 by director Gavin Douglas, with Alex Cord replacing Wayne as the Ringo Kid, Bing Crosby as Doc Boone, Red Buttons as Peacock, Stephanie Powers as Mrs. Mallory, Mike Connors as Hatfield, Robert Cummings as Gatewood, Van Heflin as Curley, Slim Pickens as Buck, and Ann-Margret as Dallas. Despite an improved script (the Gatewood subplot is particularly satisfyingly tied in to the Ringo plot, with Keenan Wynn's delightfully nasty Luke Plummer being fatally hired by the defaulting banker) and a remarkably strong showing by Crosby, the film is killed dead by Cord's leaden performance. Ultimately the most memorable aspects of this remake are the in-character portraits of the main cast done by Norman Rockwell, used for the closing credits and poster art. (Rockwell also had a brief cameo in the film itself as a poker player.)
The story was redone once more in 1986 as a Made-for-TV Movie, starring Kris Kristofferson as the Ringo Kid, Willie Nelson as Doc (Holliday instead of Boone), Johnny Cash as Curley, Waylon Jennings as Hatfield, and John Schneider as Buck.
Many decades later, two brothers who were fans of this movie would be inspired to write their own "survivors escape from Hellish Wilderness" story, complete with a sympathetic criminal and a bounty hunter in place of a Marshal. The rest, as they say, is History.
Stagecoach provides examples of the following tropes:
- Adaptation Distillation: The movie draws inspiration from "Boule de Suif", a short story by Guy de Maupassant. The story is a social critique of French passengers trying to flee a hot spot in the French-Prussian War, and where one of the passengers (a jovial well-meaning prostitute) is forced to have sex with a Prussian officer to help the coach passengers escape. The movie changes the setting, removes the degradation of the prostitute, but leaves the social critique pretty much intact (with a karmic punishment for the crooked banker). A more direct source of the movie was "The Stage to Lordsburg" by Ernest Haycox, which had a "bare-bones plot". Ford merged it with de Maupassant's story to add more characterization.
- The Alcoholic: Thomas Mitchell earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being convincingly alcoholic as Doc Boone. By movie's end - having proved himself a good doctor - he's hinting at cutting back on the whiskey...
- Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: Hatfield's gun touches Mrs. Mallory, gunshot is heard... and Hatfield's hand crawls back as he dies (then again, the gun didn't smoke or anything).
- Bottomless Magazines: Sort of. The passengers fire more times than they should be able to and then all run out of ammo at once.
- Calling Shot Gun: The film popularised it.
- Card Games: Used when Hatfield cuts the cards to decide whether to go on to Lordsburg, and again for Foreshadowing when Luke Plummer is dealt the "dead man's hand" while playing poker. Ford loves using the Aces and Eights to foreshadow doom.
- The Cavalry: Out chasing Apaches. They swoop in to save the stagecoach just before the Apaches kill them all.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Gatewood.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Doc Boone is a rambling, semi-comic drunkard for most of the film, until he has to sober up to deliver Mrs. Mallory's baby. Following this he takes a major role in defending the stage from Apaches and even stares down a dangerous gunfighter while completely unarmed.
- Dead Man's Hand: Luke holds this hand. He is shortly thereafter gunned down by the Ringo Kid.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: Ringo pulls this off with a lever-action rifle.
- The Dreaded: Geronimo.
- Establishing Character Moment: Ringo's introduction.
- Fake-Out Opening: Trailer example: The 1939 coming-attractions spot opens with....documentary footage of trains (a stretch for the Old West, but still believable) and airplanes! It makes no sense at all without the narrator's commentary: he's comparing the present (1930s) with the past, and actual footage from the movie doesn't show up in the trailer until the narrator says something along the lines of "What were things like back then?" (Weird, to be sure, but justified and even effective for a moviegoing audience who up to this point had probably never seen a Western movie, or at least one that was done so well.)
- The Gambler: Hatfield, who seems to do this for a living.
- Gun Twirling: Ringo Kid is introduced twirling the lever-action of his carbine to cock it.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: They don't come nicer than Dallas. Apparently she was forced into prostitution after her parents died when she was a child.
- Injun Country: The stagecoach enters Apache country and must ultimately flee from a swarm of angry Apaches giving chase.
- Jerk Ass: Gatewood is obnoxious to everyone.
- Mercy Kill: When the Indians seem like they're about to overwhelm the stagecoach, Hatfield plans to use his last bullet to shoot Mrs. Mallory to save her a grisly fate. Fortunately, The Cavalry and a well-timed Indian bullet for Hatfield save her instead.
- Moral Guardians: The "Law and Order League", which seems to consist of a bunch of mean old ladies, kicks Dallas out of Tonto.
- Morally Bankrupt Banker: Henry Gatewood is trying to abscond with his customers' money, but insists on preferential treatment.
- Old-School Chivalry: Hatfield's primary characterization is his old-fashioned Southern sensibilities, including his treatment of Mrs. Mallory.
- One Bullet Left: Hatfield saves his last bullet to spare Mrs. Mallory "a fate worse than death". There's another woman on the coach but she's a prostitute so he doesn't seem to care. He's just about to pull the trigger when he's shot and mortally wounded, sparing her. They are saved by the cavalry moments later.
- Plucky Comic Relief: Buck, the talkative, skittish coach driver played by Andy Devine.
- Revenge: The Kid's motivation to get to Lordsburg. The Plummers killed his father and brother.
- Running Gag: No one can seem to remember Mr. Peacock's name.
- The Savage Indian: Local Navajo Indians were enlisted to play the part of the bloodthirsty Apaches.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Implied to be the reason for Doc Boone's drinking: he was an army medic during the Civl War.
- Slut-Shaming: Dallas is on the receiving end of this in both versions of the film, Ringo disagrees with this.
- Sour Prudes: The "respectable" women who hate Dallas and force her to leave town. Also Lucy Mallory to some extent, who is barely able to express any gratitude to Dallas for delivering her baby and taking care of her afterwards.
- Southern Gentleman: Hatfield. He's more gambler than gentleman, though.
- Standard Snippet: Par for the course in a John Ford movie, but probably used more here than in any other. By one count, the score uses seventeen folk and popular songs from the era, some as leitmotifs, for instance I Dream of Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair for Mrs. Mallory.
- Stealing from the Till: Henry Gatewood jumps on the stagecoach with $50,000 he's stolen from the bank. Apparently he's been at it a while, as he mentions that a bank examiner is coming to look at his books.
- Take That!: Gatewood procalims that America should have a businessman for president. Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer turned Secretary of Commerce, had been the previous president. This was a deliberate dig by John Ford.
- The Trope Kid: The Ringo Kid
- U.S. Marshal: Wilcox, who is taking the Ringo Kid in.
- Unorthodox Reload: In his first scene, Ringo reloads a rifle this way.
- Vehicle Title
- The Wild West