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Warners and Turner have opened the vault doors wide for this selection of John Ford films. They're being offered at the same time as another separate John Ford / John Wayne Collection which will presumably be the bigger seller. The five titles collected here are some of the director's more sober dramatic work for RKO and Warner Bros. scanning the years 1935 through 1964. Unlike the eight-title John Wayne box, these are all new to DVD and none are presently available separately.
The Lost Patrol
1934 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 72 66 min. / not available separately
Starring Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff, Wallace Ford, Reginald Denny, J.M. Kerrigan
Cinematography Harold Wenstrom
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase, Sidney Ullman
Film Editor Paul Weatherwax
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Garrett Fort, Dudley Nichols from a story by Philip MacDonald
Produced by Merian C. Cooper
This rather primitive story of death in the desert can be described as Ten Little Indians with uniforms. It once showed constantly on television but both its predictable story structure and its style of acting have dated badly. Actor Victor McLaglen had already been in five Ford silent pictures and holds down the main role; it's easily his best movie.
The Lost Patrol has an official literary source but sounds a lot like a foreign-legion remake of Men Without Women, a story of sailors trapped in a disabled submarine. One of them is even a Bible-quoting madman. The submarine movie was the first collaboration between Ford and writer Dudley Nichols, a teaming which would produce a number of classic films.
The Lost Patrol was a hit in 1935 but now plays rather stiffly. As in a bad play, the men take turns telling their life stories, which is a sure giveaway as to who will be killed next. Everyone talks too loudly, as if told that their voices are too light on the soundtrack; although most of the acting is acceptable, favorite Boris Karloff overplays and comes off as a real ham. That's not typical for him at all.
More tiresome is the story's reliance on fiendish, demonized Arabs as villains; they're kept off camera and symbolize a remorseless enemy, a fate that cannot be avoided. Victor McLaglen's character makes a short list of things he likes and killing Arabs is near the top. It's too bad that none of the soldiers think to change their habits -- they keep standing and sticking their heads up to be shot, when it's obvious that somebody with a good rifle is watching them at all times.
Audiences probably accepted The Lost Patrol's dramatics because of its straight storyline and unsentimental logic. The kill-off is relentless and noble characters are slain right along with the troublesome or foolhardy. Near the end, the deranged Karloff character drags a cross up a sand dune, as if to banish the Arabs with the Power of the Lord. The awkward symbolic gesture doesn't add up to much.
The print of The Lost Patrol is the only one in the set to look appreciably aged, probably owing to its popularity in reissues. The picture is contrasty overall and unsteady in some scenes that seem to have shrunken. We're told that a later version of the film was shortened by a reel, but the one here is a full 72 minutes. Warners is still using original poster artwork for the package covers, and the colorful RKO graphic on this box is very attractive. (We're also happy to report that color artwork has returned to the discs themselves, a welcome touch from Warners).
1935 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 91 min. / not available separately
Starring Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford, Una O'Connor, Joe Sawyer, Donald Meek, Francis Ford
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Film Editor George Hively
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Dudley Nichols from a novel by Liam O'Flaherty
Produced by John Ford
John Ford's The Informer is a mid-thirties drama that takes its look and tone from the silent period, especially the late-twenties expressionist films by Murnau and Pabst. The opening is practically a clone of an ending scene from Pabst's Pandora's Box: The hero's girlfriend is caught on the foggy sidewalk, trying to sell herself to keep from starving. The remainder of the story tells of the grim downfall of Gypo Nolan, an ox of a man too brainless to follow through on a dirty plan -- but just sharp enough to betray a friend. There's no greater Irish tragedy.
This wasn't John Ford's first 30s attempt at screen art. His 1933 Pilgrimage was a moody downer about the grief of a mother who sends her boy to war to get him away from an "unworthy" girlfriend. Until WW2 he'd be repeatedly pulled back to non-escapist artsy filmmaking, often with very liberal themes. His social conscience would eventually work its way into his westerns, but with only an exception or two (most notably 1947's The Fugitive) Ford's post-war producers did their best to steer him away from downbeat material.
The Informer is a very Catholic story that makes strong use of church iconography. The "troubles" of rebellious Ireland in 1922 are presented as a mix of religious and political grief. The story is an obvious parallel of the betrayal of Christ. Gypo's body forms a silhouetted cross behind the main titles, contemptuous English soldiers pay Gypo his blood money and the mother of his victim is presented as a suffering, forgiving Madonna. Gypo is almost an absolute sinner -- a coward, a bully, an alcoholic. He's vain, stupid and infantile, but also a brute innocent. His actions alienate him from the rest of humanity. When he's found out, all he has left is the redemptive mercy of his faith. He calls out not to God but to Frankie, his only friend who he betrayed.
If it were not for the expressive visuals of Ford and cameraman Joe August, The Informer would play like the parody clip that opens Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, where Labor and Capital struggle atop a speeding train, only to plunge to a mutual doom in an icy river. The fog and lights make it look as if the street characters Gypo meets are already living in purgatory, or perhaps a Catholic limbo. With his girl starving, Gypo is mesmerized by the dream of a voyage to America, which might as well be heaven. This is an entirely different Ireland than the fairytale Lucky Charms landscape of Ford's later The Quiet Man.
Big sections of The Informer might as well be a silent movie. Double-exposures of wanted posters remind Gypo of his dark deed. The first person Gypo meets after his dastardly act is a blind man, a sure sign of conscience in an expressionist film -- the witness who sees nothing. Of course, we'd not want to do without Max Steiner's wonderful score. It tracks the action closely and rises to one of the first "heavenly finishes," the kind of rhapsodic climax guaranteed to bring out reverent instincts in atheists.
Victor McLaglen is great in this picture, a truly tragic clown. He would become a crude Irish clown in later Ford pix. The other actors behave as if taking sober roles in a passion play; they're all good but it's McLaglen's show. Exceptions are Wallace Ford's (Freaks, A Patch of Blue) great fugitive terrorist, and Joe Sawyer's hard-edged IRA hit man. He forms a nice contrast with Pierce Brosnan's killer in a much later IRA crime saga, The Long Good Friday. We've become accustomed to seeing Una O'Connor as comedy relief, but she's nothing of the sort here.
The long-delayed DVD of Sergio Leone's Giù la testa (Duck You Sucker a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite) may finally be released late this fall. That film's uses an unusual reworking of The Informer's classic Irish betrayal tale as part of a complex flashback.
The Informer looks good on DVD, with just a few scratches and an occasional shot that's fuzzier than normal. The many fog scenes look fine. An audio clean-up is a vast improvement on the dialogue, although without the old 16mm hiss the music seems a bit thinner than I remember it. An okay featurette Out of the Fog makes most of the standard points about the picture. An original trailer is included.
Mary of Scotland
1936 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 123 min. / not available separately
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Douglas Walton, John Carradine, Robert Barrat, Ian Keith
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Original Music Nathaniel Shilkret
Written by Dudley Nichols from the play by Maxwell Anderson
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Mary of Scotland is a film for John Ford purists and Katharine Hepburn completists. Some critics use it to illustrate the shaky thesis that Ford really doesn't understand women -- a line of reasoning that continues to his treatment of blacks and Indians. There's actually nothing wrong with the movie, a forthright telling of a chapter of English history without the usual sentimental gloss. The rivalry between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth 1 is a royal duel to the death.
Katharine Hepburn is no stranger to costume dramas, and she certainly showed versatility in her choices of roles in the 1930s, but this Mary is neither written nor directed to suit her strengths. Mary wavers and dithers and allows a pack of royal knaves outflank her, requiring Hepburn to be a passive kind of woman that she doesn't play well. We never understand Mary's self-defeating decisions, especially when she sends Bothwell away.
John Ford has a definite Catholic sensibility and appears to be championing Mary out of faithfulness to his church. Maxwell Anderson's play is a tragedy plain and simple, and Dudley Nichols' faithful adaptation doesn't simplify the courtly power plays and deadly reversals. Mary of Scotland is better history than most 30s films but makes for a frustrating drama. We keep expecting Mary to laugh out loud at the troublemakers that surround her throne, or humble one of her foes by striking them with a glove. It doesn't happen ... she falls into trap after trap.
Even worse for audiences hoping for romance, Mary spends precious little time with her highland lover Bothwell. Remaining true to history, they're separated and defeated individually. Mary was definitely caught between ambitious men, an unforgiving church and an English Queen waiting for the first opportunity to claim her head. We who aren't familiar with history keep expecting a revolution or perhaps a surprise attack by allies to save Mary. We're reminded of Josef Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, in which Catherine the Great's story is an almost complete fabrication designed to crown Marlene Dietrich, not the facts. Mary of Scotland is for history professors. When Mary's detractors accuse her of adultery with her loyal secretary Rizzio (John Carradine, excellent in a meaty role), there's not even a hint that the charge could be true. This Mary is basically sexless.
Except for a final, surprisingly non-explosive scene, enemies Elizabeth and Hepburn stay separate. Florence Eldridge is an interesting Elizabeth, much less likeable than Bette Davis or Flora Robson. A good 'battle of the broads' version might have pitted Davis against a Mary played by Irene Dunne or Carole Lombard, but the script would have needed a good rewrite.
Ford's direction is quite good, although he has less personality when set adrift in castle walls, staging court rituals. He knows when to give Hepburn beautiful close-ups, but she never gets the fire in her eyes that animates her other performances. Mary of Scotland is the key movie that tarred Hepburn with the "boxoffice poison" label. That was an unfair slur by an exhibitor with a grudge to vent, but it probably described the reaction to this picture ... the audience didn't go for it. After The Plough and the Stars Ford was back at Fox working on a "sure-fire" Shirley Temple movie.
Warners' DVD of Mary of Scotland could only have come about through the John Ford connection, unless Warners were to commit to an RKO Hepburn collection. The transfer is good if not dazzling but the source element is in fine shape and the sound has been nicely cleaned up ... Savant never got through this on broadcast TV because of the hissy 16mm tracks. There are no extras.
1960 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 111 min. / not available separately
Starring Woody Strode, Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Towers, Billie Burke, Juano Hernandez, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Art Direction Eddie Imazu
Film Editor Jack Murray
Original Music Howard Jackson, Jerry Livingston
Written by James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck
Produced by Patrick Ford, Willis Goldbeck
Here's where John Ford's social conscience really comes into play. After placing liberal, pro-Indian elements in The Searchers and the cynical Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge comes out as an ode to the Buffalo Soldier and a clear pitch for racial equality. Unfortunately, besides being a really awkward courtroom drama, Sergeant Rutledge has little to say about blacks beyond exalting the superhuman Woody Strode, and recommending the Army as their proper place to find a "home" in society.
Sergeant Rutledge is a noble mess. Ford wants to confer equality on Braxton Rutledge and uses all of his cavalry-epic grace notes to do so. Woody Strode rides tall in the saddle, always stands erect and proud and poses nobly against the ubiquitous Monument Valley backdrops. Ford tries to leap forward with his nod to the Buffalo Soldiers but he goes in reverse in his position re: the Indians. The "scary" Apaches are the old-fashioned kind that always ride directly into cavalry fire, to be shot dead by the score. Liberal revisionists have no trouble making the claim that Ford finds it comfortable to exalt the blacks because they're so eager to fight the Indians -- in the politicized view, it's one oppressed minority being used to suppress another oppressed minority.
The story is really a fumbled version of Intruder in the Dust, the superior 1949 lynching movie that ended with the admonition that "Lucas Beauchamp (a falsely accused black man) wasn't in trouble, WE were in trouble." In that film (by Clarence Brown out of William Faulkner) Juano Hernandez refuses to proclaim his innocence because he knows it will just enrage the lynch mob. Juano Hernandez has a secondary role in Sergeant Rutledge, watching Woody Strode do the same thing.
Unfortunately, the script for Sergeant Rutledge fumbles both the Rutledge character and the trial structure, which doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. Rutledge is on trial for a double murder and rape but the testimony ignores that event to tell the mostly irrelevant post-crime tale of a midnight standoff at a rail stop and an Indian chase through the desert. The story makes Rutledge virtuous but doesn't know how to humanize him -- everything he does and says relates to his identity as a faultless black man. The only reason Rutledge doesn't come out and say he's innocent is to delay the 'surprise' that somebody else is guilty. The trial is taken up with 'testimony' that informs us of basic facts that the assembled court should already know ... Rutledge didn't rape Mary Beecher; he's a fine soldier, etc.(Spoiler)
The court is of course what's put on trial, although they turn out to be "okay" when they exonerate Rutledge. Thus Rutledge is a credit to the cavalry and vice versa. The one element in the film that still stands tall is Woody Strode's iron-willed sergeant ... when he does defend himself, he never begs or asks for mercy.
Ford and his writers make the trial into an amusing charade, with the judges drinking whiskey and playing poker during breaks. The story is told in flashbacks with very modern hard cuts ... but a major error in that Constance Towers' "testimony" flashback contains an involved dialogue scene that takes place after she leaves the room!
The subject keeps returning to the fact that the main judge (Willis Bouchey) helped burn Atlanta and stole knick-knack souvenirs to bring home to the missus. The judge's wife Billie Burke is a ditsy old biddie, but neither she nor anyone else expresses any direct racist sentiments. In fact, everyone's far too respectful of the black soldiers, historically speaking. To Ford, the blacks can be given no higher compliment than being allowed to serve (enlisted only) as Indian fighters. The Army is their home too, you see, although they don't seem to be allowed to have familiies. Perhaps Ford saw this as another kind of recruiting tool, as were so many military-themed 50s films. Jeffrey Hunter goes back to his red-lipped Constance Towers, while Sgt. Rutledge retakes his place at the front of his troops, riding in circles in Monument Valley. T'was ever thus.
Sergeant Rutledge looks better than ever before on DVD, cropped to its correct 1:85 AR. TV prints had so much head and foot room that the action got lost in wide shots. When someone walks across the courtroom, the correct widescreen format now lets us see who it is. The cropping cannot remove one egregious flawed take: Strode poses under a foggy sky, and we can see the entire stage rafters in the background.
The "Captain Buffalo" song is a rather good one, as movie cavalry tunes go. As could be predicted, that original title was changed, and original posters downplayed the black actors. Savant saw one "rape" themed poster that showed Constance Towers backing terrified into the railroad shack, with Strode's hulking silhouette threatening her from the foreground. That's not exactly what Ford had in mind.
The only extra is a trailer that also tries to exploit the rape angle for all it's worth.
1964 / Color / 2:35 enhanced widescreen / 154 min. / not available separately
Starring Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Sal Mineo, Dolores del Rio
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Art Direction Richard Day
Film Editor Otho Lovering
Original Music Alex North
Written by James R. Webb from novels by Mari Sandoz, Howard Fast
Produced by Bernard Smith, John Ford
Ford's Cheyenne Autumn was his 65mm bid to follow in the footsteps of The Alamo and How the West Was Won. Signs of Ford's souring attitude to the West started with his post-war Fort Apache but his reversal of sympathies to the side of Native Americans didn't really hit until The Searchers. Audiences didn't pick up on this change, so the full-blown liberal outrage of Cheyenne Autumn took them by surprise.
The movie is not good. If Ford and his producer Bernard Smith had a master plan, it got lost along the way. Andrew Sarris pegged the problem when he said that Ford could sympathize with the Indians but wasn't capable of presenting them as anything more than stiff symbols: It's supposed to be their movie but for the most part they pose like ... like wooden Indians. Add an ungainly structure and a story with no surprises, only grim disappointments, and Cheyenne Autumn is a real debacle.
One shocking scene in The Searchers shows mounted cavalry troops marching a line of freezing Indians through deep snowdrifts. Although complacent 1956 audiences don't seem to have been aware of Ford's subversive intentions, that set of visuals (and the troopers splashing through an icy stream) say more than the 156 minutes of Cheyenne Autumn. It's not that we don't like the movie -- it overflows with our favorite actors playing against drop-dead beautiful 65mm visuals of Monument Valley (which again stretches from the Southwest to the Canadian border). But just as we sometimes find ourselves complimenting films that magically get everything right (Casablanca, Singin' in the Rain, The Asphalt Jungle) it's a sad thing to report on a picture that somehow gets everything dead wrong.
Ford's background Indians are the same reliable fellows we've seen since Stagecoach but his leads are all played by ethnic Europeans and Latins ... Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Victor Jory, Gilbert Roland. Dolores Del Rio is supposed to be a Spanish woman, but everybody else just reminds us that we're in Hollywoodland. Mineo is good in his small part, but Montalban and Roland are lost doing a "who's got the pillow" schtick with the tribe's sacred icon. The worst of it is that we learn so little about the Indians. They're so boring we honestly don't care what happens to them. An old Mad magazine hit this fact without mercy, calling the movie "Cheyenne Awful."
We'd never believe that Ford could be led astray with good intentions ... the screen story is the movie equivalent of a root canal. The Indians suffer in the sun. A narrator tells us about the injustice visited upon them. Carroll Baker (who is fine - no weepy scenes) tells us about the injustice. Liberal trooper Richard Widmark complains about the injustice. Soulful Secretary of the Interior Edward G. Robinson worries about the injustice in Washington. Meanwhile, Ford's stock company is either sidelined or plays villains. Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson do some hot fast riding, but that's all they do. Ken Curtis is a murderous cowboy. Casual western fans in 1964 must have wondered what the heck Ford was thinking.
This DVD release comes complete with a major missing scene (that still looks like it has continuity jumps) that disappeared from most sub-runs of the film. It's a light-comedy episode in Dodge City that just plain doesn't fit. James Stewart is Wyatt Earp, Arthur Kennedy is Doc Holliday and a pack of amusing actors (John Carradine, Elizabeth Allan of Donovan's Reef) play idiotic townspeople panicked by the idea that an Indian horde will soon attack. It's only fitfully funny and is ridiculously wrong for Cheyenne Autumn. James Stewart shoots Ken Curtis' murderous cowpoke in the foot in a dirty-trick faceoff identical to Han Solo's "shooting first" scene in Star Wars (the real Star Wars from 1977).
After the Hallelujah Trail-style chaos in Dodge City, we're given an obvious concentration camp metaphor with Karl Malden's harsh Captain deciding to freeze the Indians into accepting his terms. Everybody gets a chance to thump their chests and say how sorry they are. Then Edward G. Robinson shows up via terrible rear-projection for a quickie peace-pipe scene. One shocking scene with Sal Mineo and the Indians has a powerful outburst of Indian emotion but neglects to show us the reaction of Mineo's lover (spoiler), who presumably should be concerned when he's shot dead in front of the whole tribe. A few discontinuous shots of Baker and Widmark returning an Indian child to the (now happy?) tribe gives us a wholly unsatisfying ending. Has everyone forgotten about returning the Indians to the desert? What's going on?
I particularly wish that Cheyenne Autumn hadn't been a big flop, because it probably contributed to Columbia's decision to slash the budget at the last minute for Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee. There were a pack of failed cavalry pictures in 1964 -65.
Warners' DVD of Cheyenne Autumn is to be praised, as this is a picture that only John Ford fans will appreciate. A welcome commentary from ace Ford biographer Joseph McBride records the entire story of this noble failure, including the various cuts and editorial choppings done to bring it into showable shape. If you've seen the movie before, I recommend listening to it right off the top. A trailer is also included, along with a lazy vintage featurette that has narrator Jimmy Stewart expressing more concern for the historical plight of the Apache. It has pretty pictures but not much of a commitment to its subject.
The John Ford Collection is bound to be given less attention than Warners' John Wayne set, which is why Savant is reviewing it first. There aren't many more Warner or RKO Ford titles to be exploited and I hope that the studio finds ways of packaging them. His final picture 7 Women has a great performance from Anne Bancroft; maybe it can be part of a "Strong Females" set or a second Controversial Classics collection. And nobody seems to champion the interesting Young Cassidy with Rod Taylor, Maggie Smith and Julie Christie; maybe because it's co-directed by Jack Cardiff.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,