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Stagecoach Criterion's Region A Blu ray review.
on 4 May 2015
Please note that the following review is for the Criterion US import Blu ray release. As is the case with all Criterion BDs this is region A locked meaning that you WILL need a multi region Blu ray player to view this. Unlike a handful of other Criterion titles the region coding cannot be bypassed on certain Panasonic models by pressing top menu on the mismatched region screen.
Iconic and genre defining, John Ford's legendary 1939 western Stagecoach is also fondly remembered as the first collaboration between Ford and his regular star player John Wayne beginning a partnership that would produce well over thirty movies including such favorites as The Searchers, Rio Grande and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Stagecoach was also Ford's first use of the infamous Monument Valley which spans the borders of Utah and Arizona, establishing possibly the most recognisable western landscape ever committed to celluloid which along with the Saguaro cactus became synonymous with the genre and immortalised for decades to come.
As there are countless reviews outlining the synopsis of Stagecoach I will avoid any lengthy breakdowns of what is a fairly standard western storyline concerning a colourful group of travellers who despite warnings of the ever present threat of Apache interference led by the ruthless war chief Geronimo all have their own personal reasons for making the treacherous journey from Tonto Arizona to Lordsburg New Mexico. Suffices to say Stagecoach is not your average shoot em-up cowboys and indians oater and is much more of a character driven piece especially as the opinions heat up within the tight confines of the stage leading the movie to far more complex themes involving class, tolerance and acceptance as well as solidifying ideals that would become favourite clichés of the western. Of course none of this would work if the screenplay and performances were below par but thankfully this isn't the case. The script is full of wit and intelligence never once feeling blighted by dated dialogue exchanges, the cast are totally believable and if the characters seem ever so slightly stereotypical then they are but what you have to remember is this was 1939 and since then Stagecoach has been copied and plagurised to the point where it no longer feels original but 75 years ago this was still fresh and new and the movie where it all began. Unquestionably the biggest star of Stagecoach was the least well known at the time having mostly starred in B movies and serials but from the moment Ford's camera zooms into a close up of a young, fresh faced John Wayne as The Ringo Kid, wielding a Winchester repeater rifle you know your witnessing the birth of a star in the making.
Another big ace card for Stagecoach is the visuals and despite being a film from the late 30s the cinematography is simply wonderful especially of the wide open vistas in and around Monument Valley. The feeling of space and long distance depth is immense despite the confines of the tight Academy Ratio with the huge skies reaching down to the endless horizons with composistions that would go on to define how the western would be photographed. But it isn't all pretty scenery that makes the look of Stagecoach so successful and thrilling. Cinematographer Bert Glennon utilises some incredibly inventive camera angles from the superbly shot river crossing through to the low slung camera angles that make the viewer believe the Apache horses are literally passing overhead whilst not forgetting the white knuckle chase of the finalé featuring some truly death defying stunt work by the award winning Yakima Canutt.
US boutique label Criterion present John Ford's legendary black & white masterpiece in an AVC encoded MPEG 4 1080p transfer, framed at the correct Academy Ratio of 1.37:1. According to the accompanying booklet the original negative for Stagecoach had been considered lost for decades. For this Blu ray release Criterion evaluated a number of different sources before deciding upon a 1942 nitrate duplicate to use as a basis for this transfer which featured strong detail and an accurate greyscale. They also admitted that the source was far from perfect with huge amounts of print damage especially around reel changes and action segments and although the restoration experts spent hundreds of hours removing damage inevitably some still remains as it couldn't have been removed without damaging the filmic texture and creating a processed look hated by true lovers of cinema.
Well considering what Criterion had to work with I am extremely pleased with how this has transferred to HD and this is by far the best I have ever seen Stagecoach look. The opening credits do look very dark and impenetrable but as soon as these were over the image tightened up considerably. First and foremost detail was wonderful from close ups of faces and textures on clothing through to intricacies on various buildings, dusty roads and the stagecoach itself. The magnificent panoramic shots of Monument Valley really make you appreciate how good this transfer is and what an improvement it is over standard definition with a fantastic feeling of depth that seems to stretch forever and the image flowed well in motion especially during the fast paced action sequences. As to be expected from a 75+ year old production there are some inconsistencies with some scenes looking far softer than others and contrast can vary but on the whole blacks are reasonably robust as are the greys and shadow detail can be revealing in the nighttime segments as well as the low lit interiors despite a little fading. As already mentioned this transfer does have the problem of print damage and indeed this can be very noticeable with scratches, hairs, dirt spots and vertical lines prevalent throughout but because removing all of these would have resulted in an over manipulated and digitised appearance I would much rather take these age related marks over a DNR smeared mess. Thankfully the thick natural grain structure is completely intact creating a wonderfully warm, inviting and filmic image which is one of the strongest points to this transfer. Could this look better? Quite possibly but Criterion have got to be commended with what they have achieved with the elements available and unless better preserved sources are unearthed this is more than acceptable just don't expect a restoration along the lines of Criterion's fantastic 3:10 to Yuma Blu ray.
Staying authentic to the source Criterion have presented Stagecoach with its original monaural soundtrack delivered in an uncompressed 1.0 LPCM rendering. As with the visuals Criterion have tried to present the best they possibly could and taken the soundtrack from various elements. The resulting mix is far from perfect with light background hiss ever present as well as the occasional slight imperfection. That said this is crisp and clear with well prioritised dialogue and a lively feel to the foley effects and music score. There are no real noticable cracks or pops and no distortion issues. This is hardly dynamic and as to expected lacks weight and low end but comes across as you would expect a 1939 picture to sound.
This is where this Criterion Blu ray really comes into its own with a completely exhaustive selection of very well produced special features beginning with a feature length audio commentary with western film historian Jim Kitses and a 70+ minute interview with director John Ford filmed in 1968 and presented in HD. Also included is a 55 minute full length 1917 silent western by John Ford entitled Bucking Broadway presented in HD, a video interview with writer and director Peter Bogdanovich, a selection of John Ford's home movies running around 7 minutes again presented in HD, an interview with stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong who shows his appreciation for Stagecoach stuntman Yakima Canutt and a short 10 minute featurette True West with details on how Monument Valley was brought to the attention of the producers. As is always the case with Criterion the insert booklet is of exceptional quality as is the packaging making this feel a very special and worthy release.
Stagecoach was John Ford's first western in over a decade and despite the studio's initial unwillingness for the director to make a western this movie became a defining work in film history reinvigorating the genre and introducing us to the pairing of Ford and Wayne as well as the beautiful location of Monument Valley. For sure this is dated now and modern audiences may well struggle with the style and execution with what is a picture approaching its 76th birthday but without a doubt this has a timeless quality that is nothing but entertaining and a film that should be on the must see list of any self respecting movie fanatic. Criterion's lovingly produced Blu ray is a joy to behold with a gorgeous and unmolested true to source picture transfer and the supplementary features are nothing short of exceptional. If you are Blu ray multi region enabled this American import comes highly recommended.