Well, I had thought that I had seen "Stagecoach" many times over the years, but it turns out that I really hadn't. Criterion has done a magnificent job in restoring this film, and with the exception of a small portion of what would be the second reel, it is virtually scratch and dust free.
The great thing about this is that, for the first time, I've actually seen the movie John Ford wanted us to see. Certainly it is a testament to black and white photography, and although I'm no artist, the photography, and placement of the cameras are such that you see this movie as a startling contrast, reflecting the morality, social prejudices, and conflicts of the times..
It begins in the small western town of Tonto, which is a bright town, dominated by the "reformers" who are kicking out the riff-raff, and you see many characters introduced with their own vignettes. It's the '30's and "big bankers" are still evil at the end of the depression.
In the relay-station scenes, you get the full impact of the black and white photography; the movement of characters from shadow to light, and how the use of lighting make this film truly magnificent. You know the baby's been born, but the first thing you see is Dallas' shadow, coming from the bedroom into the hallway; it's a great moment. There's the scene between Ringo Kid and Dallas, walking down a partially lighted hallway, with their conversation and shadows moving from dark to light, creating a mood of danger and two people trying to form a relationship. As an aside, this may have been John Carradine's greatest screen performance.
In "Lordsburg", you see the opposite of "Tonto"; a town of darkness, with all the raucous noise and scenes of a "Babylon" at its worst. As The Ringo Kid is walking Dallas to her "home" and we see her utter dismay at the possibility he'll see her "past", we get one of the great lines in this movie. Dallas" pleading; Let's say goodbye here Kid." Ringo Kid: "We ain't never gonna say goodbye" - delivered by John Wayne with just exactly the tone and forcefulness to make it truly memorable.
The gunfight at the end is remarkable, in its restored version. You see the 3 bad buys first as their shadows come into view. The Ringo Kid, in a homage to Harry Carey Sr. walking with his Winchester, through shadow, then light, to the final gunfight - which we don't actually see, but we don't need to - we know that The Ringo Kid won.
Lastly, the stunts, designed and performed by Yakima Canut remain amazing. This was the first of his "falling between the horses, and having the stage run over him" stunts, which has been repeated many times; most tellingly in the original Indiana Jones movie. Canut was a genius, in a time when there were no rules, and very little experience to guide him, and we have real people performing real stunts - not the current CGI coming out of Hollywood.
For those of you who have moved to HD Television and Blu-ray DVD players, this is a must purchase. If you haven't made the change, frankly, this single restoration, for me, would be the deciding factor. Criterion is just one company, but they have performed a great service in restoring this move. The "extras" are worth the price; don't miss seeing them.
Hard to remember, but before this movie, John Ford was just a cantankerous movie director, from the silent era, that the studios put up with, and John Wayne was a certified "B" western performer. Although they went on to make many great movies, this one, "Stagecoach" was their defining moment for what was to come.