Monday, June 07, 2010

Stagecoach (1966)

I didn’t expect much from the ‘60s version of Stagecoach. Not with Bing Crosby and Red Buttons in it, I didn’t. In fact, I half-expected it to be a musical comedy. But it sure rid me of that notion quickly. Like in the very first scene.

After a credits sequence that lets you know we’re in the Black Hills instead of the American Southwest, the story opens with an extremely violent Indian attack on a military camp. I forget exactly how the ’39 version handled this, but I do recall its taking a while before getting to Tonto and introducing the main characters. There was some set-up about Apache war parties, downed telegraph lines, and the US Cavalry’s response, but I don’t recall its being this bloody. In the ’66 version, the opening massacre is as graphic as anything I’ve seen from that time period with tomahawks sticking out of peoples heads and tons of red paint.

Since the locale has changed, the names of the towns have changed too. Tonto and Lordsburg have become Deadwood and Cheyenne respectively. And since this is no longer Apache territory, but Sioux, Geronimo has become Crazy Horse. I have mixed feelings about this, all born from the trip my family and I took to South Dakota and Wyoming last year.

After the break: More on the locale shift and lots of detail about other changes between the two versions, including plenty of SPOILERS.

On the one hand, I loved seeing that scenery again. As spectacular as Monument Valley is in the ’39 version, I prefer the wooded mountains and winding valleys of the Black Hills to the open desert. On the other hand though, I’m so used to thinking of Crazy Horse as a hero in this part of the country that I had a harder time accepting him as the villain than I did Geronimo in the original. It was impossible for me to hate Geronimo, but I’m not as familiar with his specific agenda as I am with Crazy Horse’s, so I had an easier time letting him be a personality-free force of nature. Because I know what Crazy Horse was fighting for, I had a harder time not rooting for him.

Not that Crazy Horse and his men are any more fleshed out as characters than Geronimo and his army were in the original. They also get no dialogue other than some war whooping. And like in ’39, the Indians’ issues are completely ignored so that they have no purpose other than to propel the characters along in their journey. It’s all about the nine travelers (not ten; the poster above lies by implying that Keenan Wynn is a passenger when he actually plays Luke Plummer and doesn’t appear until the end of the film), which is fair enough. This is really their story. We’ll have to wait until the ’86 version for the Indians to get any real consideration at all.

The first of the nine passengers we meet are in Deadwood’s saloon the night before the stagecoach arrives, though none of them know yet that they’ll be on the stage when it leaves again. Ann-Margret is Dallas, who’s not the only prostitute in town this time, but is certainly the most gorgeous. I always forget how beautiful Ann-Margret was in her youth until I see her in the ‘60s. It’s no wonder that she’s the object of a fight between a couple of cavalry men. Unfortunately, the fight ends with both men dead.

The cavalry commander is Captain Mallory, a no-nonsense officer who buys the other, jealous prostitutes’ story that the fight was all Dallas’ fault. He gives her until the following day to get out of town (eliminating the women’s group from the original). He also invites Doc Boone (Bing Crosby) to leave for reasons that are less clear. Apparently just because Mallory is pissed off and Boone is drunk and useless.

I love Bing Crosby when he’s playing a certain type of wise, good-natured character like in, say, White Christmas or Going My Way. As I learned in Road to Zanzibar though, I don’t like him in every role. But even though his Doc Boone is a far departure from my usual favorite way to experience Bing Crosby, I liked him a lot. It would be impossible for Crosby to disappear into a role, but he gives it a good shot. He’s convincingly drunk, but he doesn’t overplay it the way Thomas Mitchell stumbled and slurred around in the original. It’s mostly a light-hearted role, but Crosby plays it with sincerity.

The third future-passenger at the saloon is Hatfield, played in this version by Joe Mannix himself, Mike Connors. (Which reminds me that I really need to get some Mannix DVDs and see if that show’s as cool as I remember.) Hatfield remains aloof from the violence in the saloon, so he's not kicked out by Mallory. But as with John Carradine’s version, he’s still introduced as very much an amoral and suspicious character.

The stagecoach arrives the following morning and we meet the three people already on board. Buck the driver is played by Slim Pickens, whom I always thought was doing an Andy Devine impersonation in most of his films anyway, so he’s pretty perfect in this part.

Mrs. Mallory – whose husband just rode out of town with his men a bit earlier – is played by Stephanie Powers from Hart to Hart. She still isn’t obviously pregnant in this version, but we learn later that that’s on purpose; due to her choice of loose-fitting clothes. It makes sense that a pregnant woman traveling alone through the West might try to hide her condition, so I like this explanation. I also appreciate that we eventually learn she’s pregnant at the same time that the other passengers do – well before she gives birth – so it’s not a complete shock.

Mr. Peacock the traveling liquor salesman is played by Red Buttons. Like I said earlier, this isn’t a comedy, so Buttons could’ve been all wrong for the part had he chosen to ham it up. But he does a great job balancing one of the film’s more playful characters with a realistic portrayal of a harmless family man whose job just so happens to have taken him into deadly Indian country. It’s fitting that he and Bing Crosby have so much interaction in the film and the script helps out quite a bit by giving Peacock a nasty cold. That provides Doc Boone with an excuse to stay close to the liquor case by claiming that Peacock’s illness is serious enough to require constant medical attention.

The last two passengers to board in Deadwood are Marshal Curly – played with just the right amount of aged weariness by Van Heflin – and the banker Henry Gatewood (Bob Cummings). Gatewood is much younger in this version and less pompous too. He’s not the owner of the local bank, but the owner’s son-in-law. He’s supposed to be running to Cheyenne on a bank errand, but he’s actually stealing the Deadwood miners’ payroll (a nice historical touch) and getting the hell away from his shrewish wife.

The Ringo Kid – whom we meet later on the road, of course – is played by Alex Cord, who I was unfamiliar with. My first impression was that he was no John Wayne, but I came to like him more and more as the film progressed. He’s got a little Kirk Douglas in his looks, but also that same easy swagger that Wayne brought to the part.

The ’66 version does what every good remake should do. It updates the look of the movie, but keeps the storyline intact, making use of hindsight to tweak weaknesses in the original. I’ve already mentioned Mallory’s pregnancy. It’s revealed on the stagecoach during the argument between Boone and Hatfield after Boone sneakily implies that Hatfield shot a man in the back. As the two men become more heated, Mallory reaches out to calm them down and her clothing shifts to reveal her tummy bulge.

Dallas has been significantly updated for a ‘60s audience. She’s a much stronger woman than Claire Trevor’s version. Rather than being shunned by the members of “polite” society in the group, Ann-Margret’s Dallas isolates herself because she’s pissed at Captain Mallory and Deadwood’s other hookers who turned on her. Mrs. Mallory does seem uncomfortable around Dallas, but she’s not intentionally rude to her as in ’39. Hatfield also ignores Dallas when offering niceties and comforts to Mallory – prompting Ringo to have to speak up for Dallas’ consideration – but it appears to be because Hatfield is so focused on Mallory that he forgets everyone else; not because he’s prejudiced against the hooker.

I liked Dallas and Ringo’s relationship in the original and I like it even more in the remake. There are some really nice scenes between the two of them. At the first stop on the way to Cheyenne, the group has dinner and Dallas goes off to sit by herself in another room. When Ringo joins her she hints that she’s okay eating alone, but he sticks around anyway.

“I’m trying to tell you that you don’t have to sit here with me,” she says.

“And I’m trying to tell you how obliged I’d be if you let me.” Cord’s delivery of that line is honest and perfect. I think it was at that point that I realized how much I was enjoying his version of Ringo.

The romance between Dallas and Ringo is rockier in this version. They’re not as sweet as they were in ’39 and later in the movie they have a huge argument and Dallas slaps him hard in the face. They both see themselves as losers and each wants to help the other out, but mutual advice-giving is seen as criticism and makes things difficult. It’s not that cliché They Hate Each Other So They’re Obviously In Love scenario. It’s that they obviously like each other, but hate themselves enough to keep getting in the way of a real relationship.

Self-hatred is an interesting angle on Ringo that's missing in John Wayne's version. Cord's character wants Plummer dead, but doesn't seem as confident as Wayne that he'll be able to kill Plummer and survive. It's not that he has a death wish, it's just that he seems trapped by what he believes is his responsibility to his family members whom Plummer killed.

In the midst of this turmoil and its effect on Dallas are born some great lines like when Ringo asks her why she’s crying and she replies, “You couldn’t possibly understand.”

When Ringo tells her, "But I'd try," you believe that he means it. He desperately wants to reach Dallas and understand her; he's just not sure he knows how.

Another time, Dallas pleads with him through tears, “Forget about Luke Plummer. Make me more important.” It’s a heart-breaking moment to realize how much she’s got invested in Ringo’s survival and how much of her own self-worth is on the line. You get the feeling that these really are two lost souls grasping for each other in the dark. That makes it even more heart-breaking when Ringo decides that Plummer is indeed more important and Dallas selflessly helps him escape Curly to ride out to Cheyenne alone.

I’ve already mentioned how Dallas and Mrs. Mallory’s relationship has been modified some for this version, but there’s more to it than Mallory’s just being uncomfortable. Dallas’ insecurity causes her to be downright mean at times, even implying that Captain Mallory was a customer of hers when he wasn’t.

It’s not until the baby’s born that she softens. In ’39, she was eager to help with the delivery. In ’66, Doc and Ringo have to talk her into it, but the experience changes her and she takes pity on Mrs. Mallory, clarifying that she didn’t really know Captain Mallory at all.

The remake also provides some additional details about Mallory and Hatfield’s relationship. As in ’39, Hatfield claims that he wants to help Mallory because he served in her father’s regiment during the Civil War. And like in ’39, she doesn’t remember any Hatfields among her fathers soldiers. There’s also the bit with the silver cup, which I paid more attention to this time. It has the Ashburn Manor coat of arms on it, which Mallory recognizes, but Hatfield – like in the original – claims he won it in a bet.

However, where the original lets that be the end of it, this version later spells it out that Hatfield’s real name is Ashburn and that he changed it to avoid bringing dishonor to his family back East. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a once-great gentleman who hasn't yet fallen so completely that feels no shame at what he’s become. He does, and he’s trying to redeem himself by helping the daughter of a beloved commander. Thinking back about it, that was all in the original too; it was just much more subtle and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t pick up on it. So while ’66 perhaps loses points for spelling it out, I’m nevertheless grateful for having things explained.

One final relationship that’s worth talking about is Dallas and Gatewood’s. Gatewood plays the same role in the plot as he did in ’39, but he’s a much different character. I’ve already mentioned that he’s much less arrogant this time, replacing that trait with simple selfishness and cowardice. For instance, after the baby’s born he tries to convince the others to leave Mallory and Hatfield behind and press on without them to Cheyenne.

Another change to the plot is that when the coach arrives at the last outpost, the trader with the Indian wife isn’t there. He shows up later, having just returned from Cheyenne with his new bride, saying that they saw no Sioux activity on his way back from there. That’s what makes Gatewood think it’s okay to press on, but his wanting to leave the new mother behind and his whining so hard about it makes him a disaster-movie stereotype. He’s the privileged weasel who only cares about saving himself and is perfectly willing to put others in danger to do it. I love to hate that guy.

To make Gatewood look even worse though, we learn that he was also a customer of Dallas’ back in Deadwood and there's an implication that there may have been deeper feelings between them at one time. When the others refuse to leave Mallory and Boone behind, Gatewood tries to play on these old emotion to convince Dallas to help him steal a horse and escape to Cheyenne alone. That conversation’s interrupted by Ringo though and Gatewood has to stay. Not that Dallas was eating up what Gatewood was dishing out. He’s slime and she knows it.

In contrast, Dallas does help Ringo get a horse and escape shortly after her conversation with Gatewood. Ringo doesn’t get far though. Curly comes out just as he’s leaving and orders Ringo to stop. Surprisingly, Ringo does, but it’s not because of Curly’s rifle. It’s because Ringo sees a party of Sioux approaching. That gets the party on the road again... baby and all.

The travelers aren’t sold out by the trader’s wife in this version. Part of me likes that because – unlike in ’39 – it means that not all Indians have the same objectives just because they’re Indians. It’s not huge progress, but it’s progress. Another part of me doesn’t like it though because it rids the story of the one Indian character from the original who had a personality and was interesting in her own right. In this version, the wife has absolutely nothing to do.

The original Stagecoach is rightfully famous for it’s spectacular and innovative chase sequence between the Indians and the stagecoach. The ’66 version isn’t as innovative, but it’s no less exciting. Probably even more so thanks to the diverse terrain that it covers and some additional events thrown in by the script. The coach loses a wheel, for instance, and everyone has to get out for a last stand. There’s also an hilarious bit where Peacock’s liquor case is shot and a distraught Doc Boone applies pressure to the “wound” to keep the liquor from bleeding out.

One thing I didn’t like about the ’66 chase though is that the cavalry doesn’t show up. Maybe that was too cliché by then. Or maybe it was a political statement that these outsiders and misfits didn’t need the government to step in and save them. After all, the ‘60s were very different from the late ‘30s in terms of how folks felt about the military. Whatever the reason, I miss the bugle call and the soldiers riding over the hill to save the day. It’s an old device, but it’s one that’s always worked for me.

A weakness about the first movie gets repeated here in that I’m ready for it to be over after the chase and it’s not. We still have to get to Cheyenne and resolve the situation between Ringo and Plummer. The ’39 version had the benefit of my not knowing exactly how that was going to play out, but in ’66 - already knowing what was going to happen - I lost some patience. Fortunately, the ’66 version makes the shootout between Ringo and the Plummers much more exciting than it was in ’39 (where the tension leading up to the fight got a lot more attention than the fight itself), but I was still ready to be done. It was worth sitting through that part though to see Curly give up his bounty to let Ringo go riding off with Dallas.

Four out of five drunken crooners.

1 comment:

Menshevik said...

The 1966 version was the first "Stagecoach" I ever saw, ages ago, but unfortunately I only saw it once. Some of the differences are of course a reflection of changing standards in entertainment etc., for instance in 1939 they could not even call Dallas a "prostitute", "hooker" etc. (although to John Ford's mind it was clear what she was, viewers could still tell themselves that she was no more than a showgirl if it eased their conscience), but by 1966 the self-confident hooker had become a staple of mass-entertainment (cf. "Never on Sunday" and "Irma la douce"). And so I am not sure if Dallas (1966) really is a stronger woman than Dallas (1939) or if the difference is rather that Deadwood is portrayed as more accepting of prostitution than Tonto. (I would guess that actually would even work on contemporary terms, because Tonto comes over as a staid provincial town with a much more balanced gender ratio than the gold-rush town of Deadwood with its big surplus of single men with a lot of cash to spend).

That the cavalry is not needed to rescue the passengers of the stagecoach in 1969 does seem very odd and rather diminishes Crazy Horse as a threat, doesn't it?

Ah yes, the lovely Ann-Margret. 1966 also was when Mary Jane Watson's face was first shown in Amazing Spider-Man #42, and John Romita patterned MJ on Ann-Margret (but specifically on how she looked in "Bye Bye, Birdie").

I still haven't re-seen the 1939 version, but IIRC Hatfield does reveal that he is Ashburn when he dies in that one as well. There is also a scene where Dallas tries to help Ringo to escape alone but where he doesn't get far because of Curly's intervention and because of the approach of the Apaches (although you don't actually see them, just smoke on the horizon).


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