John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach did two important things: it turned an unknown B movie actor named John Wayne into a star, and it struck the mold for the modern Western. Hollywood had been making Westerns for decades, some very good ones in fact, but it took Ford to unlock the genre's full potential and demonstrate it's worthiness of serious artistic attention.
Ford and Wayne had run into each other back in 1928 when the latter was still Marion "Duke" Morrison. Duke worked summers as a propman while attending USC Law and playing football, and as fate would have it he was assigned to a Ford picture called Four Brothers. Ford was drawn to the young man, but as often happened with the temperamental director, Wayne did something to offend Ford and was given the silent treatment for years. It was quite a surprise then when Ford offered Duke the plum part of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. It would be the first of many fruitful collaborations between Ford and the man he treated alternately as a son and whipping boy. All this and more is related in Scott Eyman's engaging Ford bio Print the Legend.
Eyman goes on to discuss the appraisal of some critics that for all the praise given to Stagecoach, it's basically a B movie Western with stereotypical characters not far removed from what audiences had seen over and over again -- "there's a whore with a heart of gold, a good bad man, the drunken doctor quoting Shakespeare, a crooked banker, a courtly Southern gentleman." While true, it's the compassionate way Ford presents his characters and the thematic and visual richness of Stagecoach that make it the great motion picture it is.
Stagecoach remains the paradigmatic Western. As Andre Bazin wrote of the film, "Art has found its perfect balance, its ideal form of expression." Bazin found the film the ideal fusion of form and content, that, like a wheel, "remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position."
Ford would make deeper films than Stagecoach, and he would make more virtuosic films than Stagecoach, but he would never again make one so nearly perfect, more filled with an easeful grace, with perfectly inflected camera and characters. It's a film as pure and refreshing as deep breaths of mountain air. It's his City Lights, his Rules of the Game, but unlike those pictures, which don't fall into any neat genre classifications, the characters and settings of Stagecoach could be all too easily replicated by other, less expert hands.
I watched Stagecoach for the first time a few nights ago. I was blown away. What surprised me was how strikingly fresh and contemporary it felt -- as if it could have been made last week. Citizen Kane is routinely ranked at the top of best American film lists. Interestingly, the film Welles studied most before shooting his masterpiece was none other than Stagecoach.
Quotes from pp. 205-6 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (John Hopkins University Press, 1999)