Not quite as great as Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which of course came out in the same year, but a good (if not great) film none the less. I always feel a bit inadequate approaching a film that has been so canonized over the years as it is impossible to address and/or fully comprehend all of the “important” factors of such a film. In this case, it is particularly difficult as this is essentially “ground zero” for all westerns. Thus, it does feel slightly too close to the genre’s elements, but of course, that is because this film created them! It also helps that Ford’s usual technical comprehension is present. If anyone understood how to make a great film, surely it was him.
A group of off-beat characters board a stagecoach headed for Lordsburg, but it must go through the dangerous Apache territory. On board is Dallas – a prostitute who is being driven out of town by the local “moral” police, Doc Boone – an alcoholic doctor, Lucy – a pregnant woman eager to be reunited with her husband, and Samuel Peacock – a whiskey salesman. The town marshal, Curly Wilcox, joins along while searching for Ringo Kid, who is quickly found and proceeds in joining the gang. Hatfield, the local “gambler”, also joins along, mostly due to an infatuation with Lucy.
It is quite alarming, at least to me, how much of a similarity this bears with Hiroshi Shimizu’s Arigato-san, which came two years earlier. It is very unlikely that Ford ever saw Shimizu’s film, or even had the opportunity to do so for that matter. Still, the similarity is so striking that I can’t help but bring it up. Most of the things that I like about Shimizu’s film apply here as well. Yes, Ford’s film becomes dramatic where Shimizu’s continues at a leisurely manner, but this is pretty good company for a Hollywood director to be mentioned alongside. Of course, I would never want to imply that Ford was a typical Hollywood director, but more that he was just as in tune with Renoir and Shimizu than any other directors I could think of.
Back to the film in and of itself, like in Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford’s (seemingly) dated aesthetics capture an oddly poetic tone. That’s a rather strange remark for an action film, but the action sequences, most of which were filmed on location, only add to this sensibility. The relatively hamfisted performances are another contributing factor. John Wayne is thankfully nowhere near as over-the-top as I expected him to be and in fact, has a charming type of low-keyness at times. I’m not sure if this’ll hold true in his later performances, but at this point, he had yet to slip into his iconic persona.