1986’s Stagecoach was a made-for-TV movie, but more importantly it was a gimmick movie. The gimmick being that it featured a bunch of Country music stars in its biggest roles. Willie Nelson (who was also a producer and performs the theme song) plays Doc (though not Boone, as we’ll get to in a minute), Waylon Jennings is Hatfield, Johnny Cash is Curly, and Kris Kristofferson is the Ringo Kid. They even have John Schneider who had a respectable, post-Dukes of Hazzard Country music career going around that time. He plays Buck, the stagecoach driver. Jessi Colter and June Carter Cash even have supporting roles and David Allan Coe plays one of the Plummer brothers. (Kirks’ son from Wrath of Khan has an important role as a cavalry officer, but he didn’t sing as far as I know.)
The movie’s set in Arizona again, so it’s nice to hear the characters talking about the familiar town names from the original: Tonto, Apache Wells, and Lordsburg. And of course Geronimo’s back. As I mentioned in the post on the ’66 version, the Indians finally get some consideration in ’86 other than just being the force of nature that propels the story forward. There’s some irony there though, because early on Buck talks about Geronimo as just that: a force of nature who is as much a part of the desert as cactus and tumbleweeds.
Geronimo and the other Indians still get no speaking lines. There’s not even an Indian wife for the trader at Apache Wells this time. But Willie’s character is a supporter of Geronimo’s right to fight for his home. He admires the Apaches for their courage and tenacity and wastes no opportunity to express that whenever the subject comes up. It comes off a bit preachy, but after having the issue ignored in the previous versions, I’d rather have it raised in a flawed manner than not raised at all. Perhaps we’re due for another remake in which Geronimo and his men are made full-fledged characters to further complicate the already multifaceted drama.
After the break: the drama doesn't stay multifaceted for long. SPOILERS abound.
Unfortunately, the ’86 Stagecoach actually simplifies the story, particularly in terms of the intricate relationships that I liked so much about the previous two versions. One of the biggest cast changes is that Doc Boone is now Doc Holliday, on his way to Tombstone by way of Tonto and Lordsburg. That’s kind of cool actually – I love Doc Holliday, thanks to Val Kilmer – but since he’s no longer a drunk, it removes his entire relationship with Mr. Peacock, the liquor salesman (played in this version by a decidedly non-Country musician, Englishman Anthony Newley, who co-wrote the theme song for Goldfinger and the music for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Leslie Bricusse). In fact, since Peacock is no longer needed as the straight man for Boone’s comedy, the character is let go pretty quickly, buying a horse and returning to Tonto at the first sign of trouble. It’s a realistic development (I never quite buy the Boone-Peacock relationship in the other two versions), but it makes things less interesting. And that’s indicative of the kinds of choices the ’86 Stagecoach makes throughout.
Take Hatfield and Mrs. Mallory (Mary Crosby from Dallas and The Ice Pirates; also the niece of Bing Crosby and the aunt of Denise), for instance. There’s no mystery surrounding Hatfield. He’s still a disgraced Southerner, but he comes clean to Mallory about his entire history very early on, telling her how he was the paymaster in her father’s regiment, but ruined his career by gambling it away. Her father kept him from being hung however, and that’s the debt he’s compelled to repay to her. The story gets him involved in the action, but it does no more than that. Once he’s on the coach, he’s a loyal companion to Mallory, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about him.
Same with Mallory and Dallas, who have no relationship at all. There’s no prejudice one way or the other. Dallas is played by Elizabeth Ashley (Evening Shade) who’s an older actress. She needs to be older to be a reasonable love-interest for Kris Kristofferson, but making her so serendipitously leads to some pleasant results. In the other two versions, Dallas is lost because she’s kicked out of town and doesn’t know where she’s going. In ’86, she leaves voluntarily because she’s just discovered that the man she was in love with – whom she thought was going to rescue her from her life of prostitution – was actually a married liar. Disillusioned, she’s quitting her job and moving, but she still has no idea where she’s headed or what she’ll do when she gets there.
Which is much more tragic than the other versions. The younger, prettier Dallases still have options. Those options aren’t pleasant and probably entail whoring themselves out in other towns, but the girls still seem to have some direction, even if it’s not the one that they want for themselves. The ’86 Dallas doesn’t even have that. She doesn’t even know who she is anymore.
What she does have though is some unshakeable wisdom and a lack of caring what anyone thinks about her. Even though she’s without purpose, she puts up a great front and doesn’t take guff from anyone. That and her being older than Mrs. Mallory changes things between them in this version. The only real interaction they have is when the baby’s born (this time, Mrs. Mallory is obviously very pregnant from the first time we see her) and even that is pretty bland. Since there’s been no tension between them up to that point, Dallas just comforts and encourages Mallory the way any woman would a first-time mother. There’s no drama to the scene. There’s not even a drunk doctor to sober up. Holliday is a dentist and not a physician, so he’s a bit nervous, but he’s delivered horses before, so even his inexperience isn’t made into too much of an issue.
Dallas and Ringo’s relationship is also watered down. What makes Ringo different from the other guys in Dallas’ life is that he offers no promises. He’s got this little ranch down in Mexico and he likes her enough to invite her to come check it out and see if she wants to stay and help him with it, but there’s no proposal or commitment. Under the circumstances, that’s exactly what Dallas needs and I kind of like it, but it’s not very romantic.
Speaking of the Ringo Kid, the movie even deconstructs him to make him less heroic. He makes it clear to the other passengers that his real name is Bill Williams, that “Ringo” is just a childhood nickname, and that the Ringo Kid is an invention of pulp writers who embellished his life story. He’s just a guy whose brother was killed and who was framed for a bank robbery he didn’t commit. He’s still after Luke Plummer though, the guy responsible for both of those occurances.
There are a couple of places though where ’86 is surprisingly more dramatic than its predecessors. Gatewood doesn’t have as strongly irritating a personality as he did in ’39 and ’66, but there’s more mystery surrounding him. Not much more, but what he’s doing isn’t spelled out for us like it is in the other versions. We know that he’s fleeing town because his mistress is getting ready to tell his wife about their affair, but we never see him actually steal the money. Curly and Buck are immediately suspicious though about why Gatewood waits until the edge of town to catch the stage, why he lies about getting a telegraph (Curly and Buck know the lines are down), and why he refuses to stow his bag up top in the stagecoach’s strongbox. Like I said, it’s not a deep mystery and the two figure it out quickly, but they spend the rest of the movie trying to get confirmation and that keeps things interesting.
Of all the relationships in Stagecoach, Curly and Buck’s is the only one that’s improved by the ’86 version. John Schneider’s Buck describes himself as a “poor wit,” but that applies only to his bad jokes, not any slowness of mind. He’s actually quite smart and heroic, more of a partner for Marshal Curly than a comedic sidekick. They have some nice moments together and an easy chemistry, perhaps thanks to John Schneider’s spending so much time with Johnny and June Carter Cash in real life around the time this film was made.
I also like the foreshadowing that Buck does about the stagecoach’s chances of making it all the way through to Lordsburg. He talks about how dangerous it is and how his $8 a month isn’t worth it, but he does it anyway. He talks about his wife and how she used to ride shotgun with him. He talks about how he’s going to get the stage through if it’s just him and one horse dragging it. In another movie all of that would signify that either Buck or the coach or both wouldn’t make it, so it adds some nice tension if you haven’t already seen the other two versions of the story.
Unfortunately, the tension doesn’t pay off. When Geronimo attacks, the chase scene is woefully short. It’s over almost before it begins and there’s no moment where all hope is lost. In ’39, the passengers run out of ammunition. In ’66, a wheel falls off of the stagecoach. Here, they just get chased for a bit, a couple of them get shot, and then the cavalry shows up to chase Geronimo away. Since all hope was not lost, the cavalry’s arrival is fortuitous, but not particularly exciting. Gatewood’s killed, but Hatfield – unlike in the other two versions – survives.
Why Hatfied lives becomes apparent once the coach makes it into Lordsburg. Curly wants to arrest Luke Plummer, but he and Buck have both been injured in the attack, so he gives in to Ringo’s wishes and deputizes the outlaw. And because Plummer has brothers and friends in town, Curly asks Hatfield and Doc Holliday to help out as back-up. Which of course leads to a great shot of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson’s walking down a Western street on their way to a shootout. Can’t do that with Hatfield dead.
As obvious as that shot is – and as much as it destroys the notion that the rest of this movie has been any more than a gimmick to get us to that moment – it does make the events in Lordsburg a lot more fun than they are in the other two versions. If you embrace the gimmick, it’ll embrace you back.
It’s the same with the acting all throughout the movie. None of these guys are actors; they’re Country-Western personalities and they’re mostly just playing themselves. But they’re personalities for a reason. All of these guys – except for maybe Kristofferson, but I guess he has his fans too – have a ton of charisma and it’s fun just to watch them be themselves. I never once thought that I was watching Doc Holliday instead of Willie Nelson, but man do I love watching Willie Nelson. This isn’t a great version of Stagecoach, but it is a fun movie if you like your classic Country-Western outlaws.
Three out of five red-headed strangers.