Joe Dante once said in an interview about the current remake trend that “they remake pictures that people just didn’t want to see remade.” This is actually an age-old phenomenon, and I’m sure the film historian that Joe Dante is would agree—but back in the olden days they tended to remake a film if the original wasn’t that good or flopped. This means that Stagecoach is a really strange choice for a new version, given its place in the history of cinema and specifically the western. The 1939 original is often considered the western that showed the artistic merit the genre had, and it made the careers of John Ford and John Wayne.
This new version of Stagecoach follows the original fairly closely. I hadn’t seen the original in a long time so my memory was a big foggy, which probably helped getting any enjoyment out of the film. Like the original, it’s about a group of strangers who travel by stagecoach from Arizona to New Mexico. The passengers consist of a prostitute who has been driven out of town, an embezzler, a whiskey salesman, an alcoholic doctor, a lawman, etc. Along the way, the stagecoach picks up outlaw Ringo Kid, the character John Wayne played in the original. However, Geronimo and his Apaches are on the warpath, so the Cavalry escorts the passengers to Dry Fork, and after that they are on their own.
1966 was an interesting year for westerns. You had The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is undeniably one of the greatest westerns never made but is like the initial shock of punk rock when you compare it to a traditional western like Stagecoach (and I love the original). The spaghetti western genre, which The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of course is, had some other key films like the original Django and Bullet for the General. The US also had the double whammy of the psychedelic and eventually Kafkaesque westerns by Monte Hellman. The closest thing to an old-school western besides Stagecoach that came out that year would have been The Professionals or El Dorado, the latter being one of Howard Hawks’s uncredited remakes of his own Rio Bravo.
Stagecoach seems really out of place, and tried to hold its own alongside the changing face of the genre with more explicit violence than the original and a pace more common to the burgeoning revisionist take on the genre. It’s also not like Marlon Brando’s masterful One-Eyed Jacks, which may be the greatest of all westerns because it looks at the westerns that came out before but also single-handedly creates what would become known as the revisionist western. However, it does share with that film a fun supporting role from Slim Pickins, who was always a pleasure to watch on-screen.
Overall, the 1966 film is really nothing more than a pale imitation of John Ford’s original. Its depiction of Native Americans is problematic—even John Ford himself had by this point painted more complex Native characters in his films. Maybe they wanted to follow the original film too much, but the Native actors have nothing more to do than just be depicted as the boring and ultimately racist savage. The cast is OK: Ann-Margaret is the highlight, who had obvious charisma; Bing Crosby in his final screen role is having fun playing the drunk doctor. John Wayne may have not been the greatest actor ever, but he at least had some appeal, which his replacement Alex Cord sorely lacks.
The disc is fairly basic, with only a commentary with C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, and a stills gallery.