Stagecoach (1966)

poster_of_the_movie_stagecoachOh, no. Here we are again. The unnecessary….remake!!! Considered by most to be one of the best westerns ever made, 1939’s Stagecoach is a key film that helped lay out a foundation for a whole type of western, not to mention helping skyrocket John Wayne to stardom. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t really need to be remade, retouched, reboot and re-anything. There just isn’t much to improve on. That said, Hollywood seems to take that as a challenge. A TV remake was released in 1986, but that’s looking ahead too much. Today’s flick is 1966’s Stagecoach.

In the town of Dry Rock, several undesirables are being booted out of town for different reasons, including Dallas (Ann-Margret), a dance hall girl, and Doc Boone (Bing Crosby), an alcoholic doctor with some debts. Sioux warriors have been reported on the warpath — including a massacre of a small company of cavalry fixing the telegraph line — so travel isn’t encouraged, but Dallas, Doc Boone and several other passengers desperately need to get up the trail to Cheyenne. Hoping to thread the needle, eight desperate people board a stagecoach. They’re in for a surprise on the trail, meeting the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord), an escaped convict looking for revenge. Ringo has his reasons though, and another gun on-board couldn’t hurt. Can the coach make it through unscathed?

So let’s get this out of the way. There’s no need to remake the original Stagecoach. Can you tweak some things? Update story devices to be more current, more modern? Throw an interesting ensemble together? Sure to all three questions. But do you need to? No, not really. From director Gordon Douglas, this 1966 version is a pretty decent movie. The cast is solid, the filming locations gorgeous, and the story itself works. There’s a reason the basic premise worked so well in the original. We’re talking life and death in the wild west. It’s hard to mess that up. This remake is good because the script/story is good, and little else. It will feel familiar and comfortable but not necessary in the least.

The biggest changes? The story breathes a little bit more, clocking in at 115 minutes to the original’s 99 minutes. The additional 16 minutes doesn’t add much unfortunately. More talking, more repetitive scenes, but not much more character development. Dallas’ personal life is explored more and more obviously — she’s a GASP prostitute! — and we actually meet the evil Plummers here which is a positive. Filmed on location in Colorado, the visual appeal is evident with snow and tree-capped mountains filling in for the dusty desert and massive rock formations. As well, composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s score is good, a precursor to his score two years later with 1968’s Bandolero! Some positives, some negatives, a mixed bag of changes.

An ensemble cast with a story full of misfits and flawed characters is a gimme. The cast is what pulled me in here more than the story. Like I said, how much can you change? Some good star power though here for sure. Ann-Margret is a more mean-spirited, angry Dallas. Cord is okay but not flashy as Ringo. John Wayne’s original entrance is an all-timer, but here, it’s an afterthought. The chemistry feels a tad forced between Margret and Cord even though the love between two outsiders should have been a gimme. The high point is Crosby as the hard-drinking, fun-loving, accepting life as it is Doc Boone. Steals the show with a fun performance.

Who else to look for on our stagecoach? The always reliable Van Heflin plays Curly, the marshal riding shotgun on the coach while keeping an eye on Ringo. It’s not a flashy part but Heflin is a pro and fits in nicely. Slim Pickens plays Slim Pickens, um, Buck, the worrisome coach driver and has some good chemistry with Heflin. Also look for Stefanie Powers as Lucy Mallory, a young pregnant wife on the way to meeting her husband, Red Buttons as Peacock, a whiskey drummer, Mike Connors as Hatfield, a gentleman gambler looking out for Lucy, and Robert Cummings as Gatewood, a robbing banker. Also look for Keenan Wynn as Luke Plummer, a killer and an outlaw who crossed Ringo and his family in the past.

Things are pretty slow for the first hour as everyone is introduced and things are laid out. The highlight of the film though is the Sioux attack on the stagecoach in the last 45 minutes. It’s an underrated action gem. Some great stunt work, even cooler camera angles and shots (thinking some helicopters were used of some sort) and a whole lot of carnage. I think Ringo, Curly and Co. may have wiped out half the Sioux nation in the process. A final showdown between Ringo and the Plummers is also expanded where in the original, the entire gunfight happened off-screen. A little slow early, but the action late is worth it.

Flawed but entertaining in the end. Still stick with the John Ford original from 1939, but western fans will get a kick out of this 1966 remake. Also worth sticking around in the credits as famous American painter Norman Rockwell painted portraits of the 10 main cast members. They look great and are a cool, unique addition to the credit sequence.

Stagecoach (1966): ** 1/2 /****

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Fort Dobbs

fost_dobbs_poster_smallStarring in TV’s Cheyenne for seven seasons, Clint Walker shot to stardom as the burly hero of the long-running western. He never transitioned into a huge star in movies, but with a few exceptions (his supporting part in The Dirty Dozen among others) he was always quite at home in the western. Natural jump, right, TV to film? An underrated, exciting, well-made western, 1958’s Fort Dobbs, was one he made during his Cheyenne run.

Having killed a man in the small town of Largo, Gar Davis (Walker) heads off into the desert ahead of a posse. Comanches are on the warpath and killing anyone in their path though, Gar stumbling across a dead man with an arrow in his back. He switches jackets with the corpse and manages to trick the posse into thinking the Comanches killed him. Gar is still on his own though amidst raiding Comanches until he walks onto a small ranch run by a wife, Celia Gray (Virginia Mayo), and her son, Chad (Richard Eyer), who are waiting for her husband to return. He agrees to help the Grays get to the relative safety of nearby Fort Dobbs, but Mrs. Gray begins to think that Gar has a secret, maybe even about her possibly missing husband.

This is an example of what a western can and should be. The story doesn’t have to be on the level of The Searchers, Shane or High Noon where it delivers a message. It doesn’t have to be mindlessly stupid either full of action and gunplay. From director Gordon Douglas, ‘Dobbs’ isn’t a great, classic western. It is just a really good western, and that’s fine with me. It is shot on a relatively small budget with Max Steiner‘s score sampling his score from They Died With Their Boots On and even borrows some action footage from 1953’s The Charge at Feather River. But even on a small scale, it knows what it wants to do and how to get there. Unspectacular, solid entertainment that any western fan should be able to appreciate.

In the vein of the traditional, white-hat wearing hero from the 1940s westerns, Clint Walker is a great lead as Gar Davis. For starters, he looks like a western hero. Walker stood an imposing 6-foot-6 and weighed 235 pounds so he towers over basically everyone around him. When he starts talking, that deep, baritone voice sounds like it’s going to bounce off of people and echo back. His backstory is explained late in the movie, giving Gar a slightly darker side albeit a righteous darker side. Don’t go in thinking he’s the flawless hero, but he is a good hero who will ultimately make the right choice. It’s too bad Walker didn’t become more of a star in films because as is the case here and yesterday’s Gold of the Seven Saints, he’s perfect for the western genre.

He is capably helped in three main supporting parts, all three of which could have gone obviously very wrong. We’ve got the damsel in distress, her possibly shrill, annoying son, and a smooth, conniving gunrunner. Credit to Mayo, Eyer and Brian Keith for making the most out of their parts. I’ve long been a fan of Virginia Mayo, an actress who was always able to hold her own against some of Hollywood’s best tough guys. She’s tough, smart and gorgeous, able to stand toe to toe with Walker. Eyer as her son, Chad, is also very good. So often in the 1950s (maybe more than any other decade), child actors could single-handedly ruin the movies they’re in. In other films like Friendly Persuasion, The Desperate Hours, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Eyer shows he can act, genuinely act. He has a great scene with Walker too late in the movie, a natural, emotional scene for a 13-year old actor.

As for Mr. Keith, he’s a scene stealer as Clett, a gunrunner who keeps crossing paths with Gar and Celia as they make a run for Fort Dobbs. He obviously has had some past run-ins with Gar, and that tension comes out in these scenes, especially when Keith’s Clett goes after Mayo’s Mrs. Gray. I’m used to seeing him as more of a straight-laced good guy (like in Nevada Smith) so it’s great seeing him as a bad guy. It’s more of a smooth, quick-talking bad guy, but you get the idea. The final confrontation between Gar and Clett is appropriately epic featuring some great dialogue that feels right at home in the western. It’s not a huge part, but one that Keith knocks out of the park nonetheless.

The fairly straightforward story does just enough to keep you interested and/or guessing until the end. The Utah locations serve as a gorgeous backdrop to the trip to Fort Dobbs which upon arrival delivers quite a twist. The last 25-30 minutes are the more traditional cowboys and settlers vs. Indians story, but it’s handled perfectly. The action is exciting, even surprisingly graphic, and in the end everything wraps up nicely. Russ Conway has a good part as the Largo Sheriff in this final portion. Good, underrated western. Definitely worth checking out.

Fort Dobbs <—Youtube montage (1958): ***/****