By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; 12:00 AM
"Stagecoach" is one of those movies that most students of cinema feel obligated to watch because of its historical significance. It marked director John Ford's first western to feature sound, his first collaboration with John Wayne and the first appearance onscreen of the rocky, soon-to-be-iconic landscapes of Utah's Monument Valley. On top of all that, it's considered one of the best westerns in the history of cinema.
But here's the best reason to visit (or revisit) this 1939 horse-and-buggy adventure, out today in a new DVD and Blu-ray (both $39.95) from the Criterion Collection: more than 70 years since its release it remains a beautifully shot, flat-out great motion picture.
While undeniably a western by definition, what makes "Stagecoach" so compelling is the fact that it transcends its genre, acting as both a character study of the relationships between a socially mismatched crew of stagecoach passengers, and an action movie about that same group's attempt to avoid crossing paths with the dangerous Geronimo and his Apache tribe. And that action, by the way, is incredibly impressive, even by contemporary standards. Some moments may even look familiar; if you experience deja vu while watching an Apache (played by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt) slide on the ground between galloping horse hooves and the wildly spinning wheels of the coach, that may be because, decades later, Indiana Jones replicates the same move in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
This latest version of "Stagecoach" looks decent enough on DVD, but perhaps not as sharp as one might hope given the high-definition digital transfer touted on the DVD case. (Presumably the Wayne close-ups and gunfights look a little sharper in the Blu-ray version.) The extras are certainly substantial enough, though some are more worthy of watching than others.
Ford fans may get a kick out his often cantankerous behavior in an hour-long 1968 interview with British journalist Philip Jenkinson. All jowly in his mid-70s, with a cigar perpetually in hand, the director of such classics as "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" begrudgingly answers the interviewer's questions -- "It doesn't annoy me," he says of looking at his own press, "because I never read anything about myself" -- but only when he's not barking at Jenkinson to repeat his question.
A similarly candid glimpse of Ford also can be found in a brief collection of home movie clips narrated by the filmmaker's grandson, Dan Ford. A featurette on Canutt, hosted by veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, also merits a look, as does the rarely seen "Bucking Broadway," a 1917 silent John Ford feature starring Harry Carey.
Other special features, including a 14-minute interview with Peter Bogdanovich, a man who seems to have made a career out of popping up on DVD extras, can probably be skipped. And that goes double for the commentary track from western expert Jim Kitses. While Kitses is clearly knowledgeable, his audio track sounds as though it's being read straight from sheets of paper. In that sense, it doesn't quite do justice to "Stagecoach," a movie that remains just as exciting no matter how old it gets.