Stagecoach (1939), considered one of the great classics of American cinema, a film that raised the Western, that most American and durable of genres, from the realm of the B-picture to movie-art, more than seventy-five years old, and I’ve just seen it. Well, not quite – I saw the remake as a young boy, and thought it pretty dreadful. The critics agreed. I recall my mother telling me that it was a remake, and I resolved never to see it – bad choice.
My interest in the film was awakened when I had dinner at a fabulous little restaurant in Genoa, Italy, called Ombre Rosse. I knew that the words meant “Red Shadow,” but I didn’t know that was the name given to the Italian release of Stagecoach, and I missed the poster near the restaurant’s door. Inside, there was quite a lot of art of the Soviet Socialist Realist school, so I thought that this was the source of the place’s name – the shadow of the Reds…Communism, etc. The waiter enlightened me when we chatted after I told him I liked his Dr. Strangelove T-shirt. The red shadow is the threat of the Apaches, of course. For Americans, “stagecoach” evokes the Old West, but for Italians, it would probably evoke a 19th century transit system, thus the change.
One thing that really intrigued me in the film was the character of the “genteel” southern gambler, Hatfield, played by John Carradine. He’s really creepy. Carradine was widely known for his roles in horror flicks, among other things, and he looks quite elegantly cadaverous. He takes it upon himself as a gentleman to watch over Mrs. Mallory, travelling to rejoin her husband, a cavalry officer, and soon to give birth. They share a southern background: Hatfield claims to have fought in her husband’s regiment. He even owns a silver cup of his which she recognizes to his embarassment: he won it gambling. She looks at death’s door, and he sort of looks like he’d be willing to help her through it.
He has something of an affinity for dead, pretty women. When they reach a rest stop, they find it destroyed by the Apaches: Hatfield gently covers a female corpse with his coat. I guess that’s the Wild West equivalent of throwing yours in the mud for a lady to step on to keep her feet dry.
In the climactic scenes, as the coach races to escape the attacking Apache raiders, the men, all crack shots, run out of ammo. Looks pretty grim. Hatfield examines his revolver and finds one last bullet. He saves it for the lovely head of Mrs. Mallory who is praying up a storm. He really takes his role of guardian of the weaker sex quite seriously, and it’s a good thing that the other female onboard, aside from the baby, is a whore, or he would be sore pressed to dispose of them both with one bullet. As it is, only the lady gets the bullet.
Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and I won’t tell how it goes, in case you haven’t seen it already, but you can probably guess what happens, what with all those Indian bullets flying, and the US Army not too far away.