The Highwaymen in a twist on the classic western story.
Consider this my bonus entry for Mike’s Country Music week. For the last day I thought I’d see how many country legends I could fit in one picture and so I picked Stagecoach (1986), a TV movie starring Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. They had united to make amazing music as The Highwaymen in 1985, and Nelson co-produced this movie so they could do a traditional western together.
The story is about, how did you guess, a stagecoach packed with diverse passengers travelling from the town of Tonto through dangerous territory plagued by frequent Apache attacks. Nelson plays Doc Holliday, complete with a rattling coughing fit and inferiority complex, Cash plays the Marshal who ends up accompanying outlaw Kristofferson to the next town to determine whether or not he was involved in a robbery. Jennings plays a Richard Boone/Paladin type of reformed gambler and wise gentleman who repays his debt to his military commander by protecting the man’s daughter, a very pregnant Mary Crosby travelling to meet her husband in the Cavalry. Elizabeth Ashley is a jaded saloon lady who leaves town craving a change of scenery and a new start in life, and Anthony Franciosa is a crooked banker who steals all the money in the bank of Tonto and hops on the coach at the last minute. Anthony Newley makes a short but very good appearance as a shady whisky salesman who has to have the term “sneaking liquor” explained to him. John Schneider is the jovial coach driver and there are appearances by Jessi Colter, June Carter Cash, David Allan Coe and Lash La Rue.
This is not to be taken as a serious attempt to remake a classic, and it’s not even pretending to be that. It comes across as an opportunity for this group of friends to get together and have fun playing themselves in period costume. As a fan of these superstars and their music, and someone who grew up thinking these were some of the coolest people around, I appreciated this movie in the same spirit of fun they were having, and neither expected nor got a meaty story or outstanding performances. The script is unremarkable, with paper thin characters and a basic predictable plot, but at least it’s light and simple. As it was made for TV and family oriented, any adult situations are put across with winks and knowing looks, and we only get to some shooting and danger near the very end.
The coach is stopped overnight at a way station that was recently attacked. Since there’s no relay team, the gang has to wait out the night while their horses rest. During that night, Kristofferson and Ashley fall in love, and Nelson gets to prove he can handle a medical emergency when Crosby has her baby. In the morning the group gathers weapons and prepare themselves for the next leg of the trip, knowing they have little chance of avoiding the deadly Geronimo. During this sequence Franciosa proves himself a weasel through and through, refusing to even look at a gun when every hand is needed to help defend the coach; he’d rather clutch his money bag than protect two women and a baby. Schneider is the one to depend on, and even with that giant beard, his awareness that he’ll probably get killed and his complaints about earning only $8 to drive in these awful conditions, he can’t help but come across as anything but cute, sweet and optimistic.
So in all, it wasn’t a waste of time, and everybody either plays themselves or gets to be a ham and apparently share some inside jokes. If you’re one of the viewers excited to see this for simply for the stars, then it’s totally worth it, and you get some nice payoffs: Cash gets shot and Kristofferson has to rescue him from falling between the horse team, Cash calls Kristofferson the “prettiest one here,” Jennings answers every question about his mysterious past with a riddle and a twinkle in his eye and shows off some fancy card dealing, they all get some wisecracks and one-liners, and there’s the obligatory cool shot of the quartet walking toward the camera on the night of a big gunfight.
Stagecoach was directed by Ted Post, veteran of many TV series including Rawhide, Gunsmoke and Peyton Place, and director of the films Magnum Force (1973) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).