It’s what they call a tracking shot. Not technically a zoom. The camera is mounted on a car on a track and actually moves in to get physically closer to the actor, which is the reason it goes out of focus when it happens approximately 15 or so minutes into number 87 on our countdown. The person who thought of it was a man named John Ford a journeyman director from the 20s whose specialty is/was westerns. The man it pushed in on? 32 year old John Wayne who spins his rifle midway through the shot, cooly cocking it (a move that Arnie would steal approximately 60 years later in Terminator II). This shot is about as iconic as it gets in movies, and even though The Searchers is sometimes held up as the best ford/wayne team up, my money is on Stagecoach.
It appears to be almost a mistake that John Wayne was even in it. He was already 32 years old at the time and was just now getting his breakout role. It was made at a time when Hollywood could do almost no wrong. It was not the only great movie to come out that year (1939) but it very likely could’ve been the greatest adventure movie of the year and it introduced us to both John Ford and John Wayne.
Wayne’s character is named Ringo the Kid and he is an outlaw traveling through the old west. And like most outlaws traveling through the old west he is extremely useful in a fight. Still he is arrested by the marshall who is on the stagecoach in the position of “shotgun.” Unlike the ceremonial position it is used for today, in the old west, the person riding shotgun literally had a shotgun and a lot of times he actually shot it.
John Wayne has definitely called it and after this of course, he became a huge star appearing in over 5 million other westerns where he played pretty much the same role as he does here. Though he never claimed to be a great actor he was known to dispense some sage acting advice. In one case he advises “Talk low, talk slow and don’t talk too much.” His reasoning was that if you talk slow enough they can’t cut away from you. This is great practical advice the likes of which is never given to actors. Actors, as you may know, usually have to deal with people giving them advice about sense memory and emotional memory. However the practical advice given by John Wayne is (almost) just as useless as the advice about Sense Memory. This is because the advice really only works if you are already John Wayne.
Well, that and the cavalry. Which actually did save the day. Movies in those days relied a lot on conventional forms whereby the cavalry could in best Deus-ex-machina fashion come in and save the cowboys from the Indians at the last second. Today we might find that too trite or perhaps to self-aware, but back then it seemed like even justice.
Next up … #86!