Welcome to the outlaw territory of movie remakes, where a later version of an all-time classic virtually never gets the love and respect accorded the original iteration. Such a fate befell the combination of Wild West action, skilled ensemble playing, Cinemascope and Deluxe Color called Stagecoach (1966), in which director Gordon Douglas, producer Martin Rackin and screenwriter Joseph Landon strove to deliver for contemporary audiences thrill-for-thrill and character-for-character what director John Ford, producer Walter Wanger and screenwriter Dudley Nichols achieved in their immortal 1939 adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story The Stage to Lordsburg. For a film that didn’t rack up much critical favor in the summer of ’66, Stagecoach was a mild box-office success, and as it turned out, had enough admirers to make Twilight Time’s October 2011 DVD release a brisk sell-out.
A rundown reveals many of the assets that glow in the memories of fans who refuse to dismiss this version of the tale, about frontier-crossing stagecoach passengers on a dangerous journey marked by dissensions amongst themselves and encountering hostile invasive elements and enemies throughout, as ill-starred. To begin with, the cast (which includes three Academy Award® winners) is anything but ill-starred: dancehall girl Ann-Margret (succeeding 1939’s Claire Trevor), liquor salesman Red Buttons (following Donald Meek), crooked gambler Michael Connors (after John Carradine), Alex Cord (in the formidable footsteps of John Wayne), Bing Crosby (a fellow Oscar® winner to match the great Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic, “social outcast” M.D.), Bob Cummings (succeeding veteran heavy Berton Churchill as a larcenous banker), Van Heflin (reinventing George Bancroft’s marshal), Slim Pickens (in the stage’s driver’s seat following beloved Andy Devine), Stefanie Powers (succeeding Louise Platt as the pregnant lady in distress) and Keenan Wynn (a climactic menace to match Western icon Tom Tyler). Rather than inviting comparisons by taking on the original’s towering Monument Valley shoot head-on, this version went to fabulous wilderness Colorado locations, where veteran Ford cinematographer William Clothier (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cheyenne Autumn) captured marvelous outdoor vistas and treacherous sequences of peril that took bountiful advantage of Cinemascope. In charge of the musical score (which captured the 1939 version’s second Oscar®), the gifted and versatile Jerry Goldsmith conjures the size and scope of a mammoth frontier trek with sparkling and peerless Americana-evoking craftsmanship. Reviewing the title’s DVD release, The New York Times’ Dave Kehr noted: “The 1966 Stagecoach is an intriguing anticipation of the disaster-film cycle that would begin in earnest with Airport in 1970. An all-star cast…faces an apocalyptic threat…while trapped in a restrictive environment, much like the casts of The Poseidon Adventure  and The Towering Inferno . But what at first seems a threat becomes a sort of therapy, as some characters reveal their hidden weaknesses (Cummings’s smiling, sanctimonious banker has a satchel full of stolen cash), others discover their hidden strengths (Crosby’s alcoholic doctor sobers up long enough to deliver a baby), while the frayed social network pulls more tightly together. The 1970s disaster films would add a theological dimension (remember the inverted Christmas tree in The Poseidon Adventure?) that remains quite foreign to Douglas’s pragmatic personality. There is nothing metaphorical or metaphysical about the violence in Stagecoach, which retains the shocking, graphic immediacy that Douglas pioneered in films like Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and Them! (1954).”
In another assessment of the DVD release of what he called “one of the most underrated films of the ’60s,” Cinema Retro’s Lee Pfeiffer observed: “The film follows the original fairly closely but differs in the sense that there is far more violence and some of it is very brutal. In fact, the first sequence of the movie begins with a shocking massacre of a U.S. Cavalry patrol. This version also expands the climactic showdown between the Ringo Kid and his adversaries: a crazed father (Keenan Wynn in a truly terrifying performance) and his equally crazed sons. The shootout was only glimpsed fleetingly in the original film and this full-blown action sequence in the remake plays out much more satisfactorily.” Pfeiffer and long-time colleague Paul Scrabo contribute a detailed and compelling Audio Commentary to Twilight Time’s new hi-def Blu-ray release of Stagecoach, which also carries over the DVD’s rousing Isolated Music Track of Goldsmith’s score. Book passage for a ride to remember when it rolls your way April 16. Preorders open April 3. And get a taste of the filming from the spiffy vintage promotional featurette Stagecoach Wheels here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXV4-tVd3IQ.