In mid-1968, I was out at John Wayne’s home in Newport Beach, California, preparing a filmed interview with Wayne for a documentary which the American Film Institute had asked me to make on John Ford. As the Duke was walking me back to my car, he took a shortcut, leading me through the sizeable garage. Entering, I was greeted by a virtual sea of 35mm motion picture canisters—-large, octagonal specially-built metal cases to hold the heavy 2000-foot reels of film—-two or three reels per canister; this is how movies have always been shipped and stored. Suddenly, here before me, were 35mm prints of an awful lot of John Wayne movies: mostly brand-new-looking cases, boldly marked “RED RIVER,” “THE QUIET MAN,” “SANDS OF IWO JIMA,” “RIO BRAVO,” “SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON,” etc.
For a movie buff, it was a heady moment. I said something like, “Jesus Christ, Duke, do you have 35mm prints of all your pictures!?” He said, “No, but just about. It’s been part of my regular deal for a long time—the studio’s gotta give me a print off the original negative.” A light went on in my head. I looked around and saw quite near me a canister marked “STAGECOACH.” Knowing the original negative of that classic film—-the one which turned Wayne into a major star—-had been lost or destroyed, I got excited: “Is that print of Stagecoach from the original negative?” Wayne said, “I believe it is—don’t even think it’s ever been run.”
Well, this was golden news for film lovers because, as I told Wayne, his print—-which did turn out to be a mint copy—-could be used to create a new negative, producing a better result than anything in existence. I knew that if he would actually contribute his Stagecoach print to a non-profit institution like the AFI, he would get a very good tax write-off. After a new negative had been made, a new copy could then be sent to him. Duke was enthusiastic, especially about the tax break. Indeed, what I outlined in the garage did happen, and just that accidentally is how Stagecoach got saved.
Of course, Stagecoach (available on a new Criterion DVD, with a video introduction I did), was the first time Ford or anyone ever shot in the extraordinarily mythic landscape of Monument Valley. It was also the first time in the sound era that a Western was considered in a serious, adult light, discussed as a work of art. The New York Film Critics voted Ford best director of the year for Stagecoach and Oscars were won by Thomas Mitchell for his superb supporting performance as the alcoholic doctor, and by the rousing folk-song score. It was as well no doubt the first Western inspired by a Guy de Maupassant story (“Boule-de-suif”: “Ball of Fat”), and the one film Orson Welles ran forty times (each screening with different craftsmen) while he was preparing Citizen Kane. In fact, Welles used Stagecoach as a kind of handbook in the production of a well-made popular yet poetic drama. Although it has been officially redone twice, stolen from and imitated innumerable times, Stagecoach still holds up on its own today: the first talking western from John Ford, our foremost poet of filmed Americana. Ford also had released that same year both the stirring Drums Along the Mohawk and the moving Young Mr. Lincoln, each starring Henry Fonda. Who says the old studio system was so bad?
In the documentary we shot (Directed by John Ford, 1971; totally revised, expanded and recut, 2006), I naturally asked Wayne about the making of Stagecoach and he made an especially revealing remark, almost in passing. The anecdote he was telling had to do with Ford’s humiliating him in front of the crew (not a rare occurrence) but this began with the director letting the actor see rushes of Stagecoach for the first time and then quizzing him about what he thought of various players’ work, the photography, direction, all of which Wayne was overwhelmed by. When Ford asked him what he thought of his own performance, Wayne just shrugged and said (repeating it to me), “Oh, well, I’m just playing you—-you know what that is…”
When a movie actor says something of that kind, he means that in the picture he is essentially doing precisely, and only, what the director has asked for, told or shown him. Indeed, Wayne’s performance in Stagecoach is very carefully realized and Ford keeps the actor’s laconic character in the forefront throughout by repeatedly cutting to his silent reactions. Right from Wayne’s entrance, Ford is consciously creating a star player. All the other nine leads in the exceptional ensemble cast (among them, Claire Trevor and John Carradine) receive solid but visually casual introductions into the story. Not Wayne’s Ringo Kid. His arrival is announced by a shot uncharacteristic of Ford: The camera moves from a full figure of Wayne standing at the side of a road, dollying quickly into a large close-up, the biggest in the film thus far.
The producer (the estimable Walter Wanger) and the studio (United Artists) had wanted Ford to cast Gary Cooper in the part, or somebody with a bigger name than Wayne, who was known only in bread-and-butter B-westerns. Ford refused anyone but Wayne and his first shot of the actor clearly announces to the executives: “You want Cooper? You got Wayne—-get used to it!” With this film as the beginning (and a great many other Ford-Wayne collaborations to follow), John Wayne would go on to become the most popular and long-lived male star in picture history. Over thirty years after his death, he is still within the top five in the public’s affection.