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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » James Stewart - The Western Collection
James Stewart - The Western Collection
Universal // Unrated // May 20, 2008
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted July 7, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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Jimmy Stewart was an unusual choice to play frontier hero, and that's exactly why his western adventures are so powerful. Unlike more typical cowboy stars, Stewart's gangly figure and reserved demeanor gave his characters a vulnerability seldom seen in the genre, while his ability to blend dark, angry emotions with his status as America's Everyman lent his films a much welcome depth. His work alongside director Anthony Mann (the duo teamed up for eight pictures, five of them westerns) is credited as a major influence on the growing maturity of the western that sprung up in the 1950s and continues to this day.

Universal has repackaged six of Stewart's previously released classic westerns (including three Mann films) into a new box set simply titled "James Stewart: The Western Collection." There are some changes on a few of the discs, most obvious being the new widescreen transfer on "The Far Country" and a slightly cleaner image on "Winchester '73."

Less obvious changes are more common. On several discs, the menu design has been minutely tweaked (still remaining: that awful menu music that sounds like generic western tunes as rendered by a Casio synthesizer) and some new subtitle tracks have been added. The bonus material remains the same on all discs. Since you probably wouldn't notice the difference without a direct side-by-side comparison ("Far Country" aside, but I'll discuss that later), there's little need to upgrade if you own these movies already. But if you haven't yet added these titles to your library, here's the perfect chance.

The discs now come housed in slimline cases with a more unified look to the artwork; each case is clear, allowing for additional artwork on the inside of each package. The six cases (one movie per disc) are housed in a sleek cardboard slipcover.

"Destry Rides Again" (1939)

Labeled since its premiere as a raucous comedy, a rootin'-tootin' side-splittin' spoof, "Destry Rides Again" isn't really that funny. The jokes are few and far between, and when we do get a gag, it's broad and cheap. Come to think of it, the songs aren't very good, either.

I'll admit that this is a risky statement, considering "Destry" is considered a classic, one of the titles listed any time someone talks about how perfect a year 1939 was for cinema. But bear with me here - the movie might not be anywhere near as good as its reputation suggests, and calling it the go-to western comedy is a vast overstatement, but on the other hand, as a straight-up cowboy flick with some moments of light comic relief, it's a fairly fun picture.

The Destry of the title is Thomas Jefferson Destry (Stewart), son of a famous lawman and a noble fella in his own right, credited here as having recently cleaned up Tombstone. When the citizens of the lawless town of Bottleneck are informed that their sheriff has decided to suddenly move away permanently (oh, maybe six feet down, perhaps?), the corrupt mayor - on orders by the real bigwig in town, the villainous Kent (Brian Donlevy) - appoints the town drunk (Charles Winninger) to be the replacement. But the drunk once knew the senior Destry and arranges for Tom to come to town as a deputy.

Upon arrival, Tom quickly makes a name for himself as "No-Gun Destry" due to his refusal to carry arms. Deemed a sissy and an easy target by the town's thugs, they're later surprised when Tom reveals himself to be a master marksman ready to fight when the time calls. And eventually it does call. Kent's various land-theft and graft schemes lead to murder, and when Tom's efforts to resolve matters peacefully fail, he grabs his guns and heads off to the saloon, where Kent and his men have holed up.

Thematically, Tom's sudden turn to violence doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the picture as well as it should. Unlike later Stewart westerns that would paint the star as a reluctant hero burdened by necessary killing, Tom's attitude in the later scenes is more of "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." "Destry" spends much of its time preaching nonviolence (Tom gets through to people by charming them with quaint anecdotes; his brief show of gunplay isn't a sign of macho swagger but one of standing firm, a winking warning to the bad guys that there's more hiding under his peaceful surface), yet fails to make much of Tom's quick change in the finale.

Of course, "Destry" isn't out to provide heavy meditations on character and motivation. All it wants it to show us a good time, and so it pads the running time with colorful characters, broad farce, romance, the occasional big action set piece, and plenty of music. Sharing top billing with Stewart is Marlene Dietrich, playing Frenchy, the slick saloon owner who sets up Kent's schemes but eventually learns the error of her ways.

This was Dietrich's first film in two years and marked a notable comeback for her, proving that she could still thrill audiences with her sultry ways. It's spot-on casting, as the film offers a twist in gender expectations: Frenchy as the (politically as well as sexually) powerful center of attention, Tom as the meek pacifist (a role for which Stewart was also a perfect match). Through Frenchy's commanding presence, the women of the town are the ones who ultimately rally to defeat Kent's men, and even if director George Marshall plays the idea more for chuckles than for genuine drama, thus woefully undermining any girl-power notions that spring from the plot (women? being capable? what a hoot!), Dietrich is still able to sink her teeth into the material, making her character more than just a wicked sexpot.

And even though her song interludes - which fill too much of the running time - are mostly bland cabaret numbers with even the Blue Angel herself unable to breathe much life into them, her command of the screen is what ultimately sells "Destry." The fun she's having with the role is infectious, and her rapport with Stewart adds just the right amount of charm this lightweight oater needs. Classic? No. But sure is a fun way to spend an afternoon.

"Destry" was an immediate hit with critics and moviegoers alike. However, a snafu in the film's release date left it ineligible for the 1939 Academy Awards (namely, the Los Angeles premiere was one day too late). This left Dietrich missing her best chance at an Oscar, and the movie itself missed the opportunity to be listed among that year's crowded list of Best Picture nominees. Voters failed to remember it the following year, although the box office boost was enough to kick start a popular year for Stewart; he would have four box office hits in 1940, the last of which, "The Philadelphia Story," landed him a Best Actor Oscar. While many have suggested that award was a make-up prize for his losing in the same category the year before, others have noted that his win was more likely a result of a busy, diverse, and wildly successful twelve months, which all kicked off with "Destry."

Changes from the individual release

Menus have been slightly upgraded with new fonts. Subtitles have been upgraded.

Video & Audio

With the black and white image holds up well, with nice, deep blacks and crisp grays, the overall transfer (presented in the original 1.33:1 format) is loaded with grain, showing the film's age. The picture is otherwise clean, with no digital issues. I'm willing to guess that the softness on display in several shots is more an issue with the original film (a little soft focus on our starlet, perhaps?) than with the transfer itself.

The Dolby mono soundtrack is clear, with minimal hiss. Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.

Extras

Curiously, no bonus material if any kind is included.

"Winchester '73" (1950)

A decade after "Destry," Stewart returned to the old west with "Winchester '73," and unlike the earlier film, this one is every bit the classic its reputation suggests. This was the first of the Stewart-Mann pairings; when Fritz Lang turned down the chance to direct, Stewart recommended Mann, with whom he collaborated in the theater years earlier.

As the picture opens, we find Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his pardner High Spade (Millard Mitchell) in Dodge City. It's 1876, the big Centennial celebration, and the duo have come for the sharpshooting contest. First prize: A 1873 "One-of-a-Thousand" model Winchester rifle, the self-proclaimed best rifle in the world. (President Grant has one!) McAdam would sure like that gun, but more importantly, he knows somebody else wants it more, which means he'll be here, too.

The exposition in this opening scene is doled out slowly, as Wyatt Earp himself (Will Geer) shows the men around town. It's clear the duo have come to Dodge City to seek revenge, but on whom, and why? Watch how the next few scenes play out. Lin walks into a bar, sees a man, and instantly, they both attempt to draw their pistols. (That they're both gunless makes it an even stronger moment - gunfighting is a reflex response, but the town's no-gun laws have foiled them.) So now we know who; a quick exchange reveals McAdam's quarry to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), or, that is, someone using that alias. But why? Later scenes take their time with the information, eventually revealing that Dutch Henry shot a man in the back, and that man may have taught both Dutch Henry and McAdam how to sharpshoot. The complete story isn't divulged until the finale.

By withholding such information, the screenplay (by Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase, from a story by Stuart N. Lake) moves the focus away from motive and on to pure action. Like Ethan Edwards six years later, McAdams is a man eaten away by revenge - although the comparison to "The Searchers" isn't quite fair, since the results of such vengeance-fueled fury leaves different marks on both men. Where Ethan becomes a man disconnected from the very world he wants to save, McAdams maintains his connection with society. His troubles stem from regret: the regret of not being able to stop Dutch Henry earlier, the regret of having to kill him now. Again, it's Stewart as the reluctant warrior. In the final shoot-out (a masterwork of tension and claustrophobia, as both men wind up stuck in a rock formation where a ricochet could kill), McAdam isn't happy or proud to be taking down his man. There's a sadness in his actions.

McAdam's quest does not fill the entire picture. The gun itself is the star of the show; although McAdam wins the prize, Dutch Henry steals it and bolts out of town with his gang. We follow the rifle as Dutch loses it, then gains it back. It's not so much that the gun brings bad luck to those who own it; it's that it brings out greed, want, dark desires in men who become convinced that they deserve it. A crusty Indian trader (Joe McIntire, in a deliciously colorful performance) meets a bad end after swindling Dutch Henry, and on the trail goes, the rifle moving from dead hand to dead hand, finally back to Dutch, via psycho cohort Waco Johnnie Dean (a devilish Dan Duryea). (Along the way, it also passes through the hands of up-and-comers like Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, credited here as "Anthony Curtis." Shelley Winters also makes an early appearance here in one of the more prominent roles as a dance hall girl.)

Mann, a veteran of film noir ("Raw Deal" and "T-Men" are among his best known early efforts), brings that genre's dark sensibilities to "Winchester," ensuring a gritty, somber tone. He also knows how to craft a rollicking action sequence - and "Winchester" is loaded with them, including an Indian attack and a shootout that ends with a house on fire - but Mann's best contribution to the film is the amount of detail he gives to the characters. He's a storyteller interested in consequences, in human reaction, and the extra level helps set the bar for countless mature-minded westerns to come.

Changes from the individual release

A new transfer is used, although differences are slim. Menus have been slightly upgraded with new fonts. Subtitles have been upgraded.

Video & Audio

Preserving the original 1.33:1 format, the transfer on "Winchester" is much cleaner than that of "Destry," thanks mostly to its lesser age. Grain is still present in most shots, but the crispness of the image has vastly improved when compared to the earlier film. Black and gray tones remain vibrant. Compared to the original release, this transfer has removed some of the print scratches previously visible.

Again, the Dolby mono soundtrack is hiss-free and quite clear. Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are offered.

Extras

While labeled simply as an interview with Stewart, the interview is actually a feature-length audio track that acts as a makeshift commentary. Recorded for the film's laserdisc release in 1989, this marks the only commentary from the star available, and it's a doozy, with invaluable reminisces on his lengthy career.

The film's original trailer is also included.

"Bend of the River" (1952)

Stewart and Mann reunited two years later for "Bend of the River," bringing "Winchester" producer Aaron Rosenberg and co-scripter Borden Chase with them. This one finds them moving to bright, bold Technicolor, and perhaps because of such a move, the story and characters are lighter, more optimistic. The mood is looser, with the plot featuring more traditional oater themes. Even the backlot locations make this look like a friendlier, Hollywood-approved adventure.

Of course, Mann being Mann, we still get danger, rough thrills, and ruminations on man's darker side. An adaptation of the novel "Bend of the Snake" by William Gulick, "River" finds Glyn McLyntock (Stewart) leading a wagon train across the Oregon frontier. When he rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a hanging, the two reveal (as with the facts of "Winchester," the revelations come slowly, cautiously) that both are former troublemakers whose names are still recognizable as notorious gunmen back Missouri and Kansas way.

So what's a border raider doing helping these innocent settlers find their way across the northwest? Hoping to make a clean start, that's what. Cole is impressed by Glyn's attempts at a better life, and decides to join up. This gives us the film's key duality: while Glyn is convinced bad men can change for the better (as evidenced by several dialogue exchanges throughout, including a nice but all-too-obvious metaphor regarding rotten apples), Cole is certain that such change can only go so far, because once the settlers find out about Glyn, they'll run him out. And if that's the eventual result, why bother helping at all? Ah, but Glyn sees a brighter angle; they might not run him out, and if that day comes, a little word of thanks will be worth far more than money or gold. Glyn's taking a gamble on human nature, and he's betting big on kind hearts and open minds.

But the road is filled with temptation. After finally arriving at the settlement, the frontiersmen find themselves the victim of greed and villainy. You see, after the wagon train left Portland, a gold rush moved in. Suddenly, all the food and goods the settlers paid to have delivered come autumn is now worth ten times what was originally paid, so why bother delivering it at all? Glyn returns to the town to recover the supplies, and the remainder of the plot follows the lengthy journey back to the settlement. In addition to the threats from the revenge-seeking Portland gang and the dangers of the rough country, Glyn finds himself battling Cole, who figures the money he can get for the supplies is worth more than the thanks he'll get from a handful of hungry settlers.

By breaking up the action into a long string of episodic mini-adventures, the screenplay keeps the simple tale moving at a furious clip. It's basically one long wagon train story, but each danger along the trail - bloodthirsty injuns, mutiny, shootouts galore - offers its own immediate thrill. The reform theme is a constant thread, with Stewart and Kennedy each offering terrific interpretations, especially once the finale kicks in, as Glyn is forced to unleash his past brute and Cole reveals his inner cowardice.

The two are complemented by a dynamo cast, including Julia Adams, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Harry Morgan (credited here as "Henry Morgan"), and Stepin Fetchit as an amblin' riverboat mate. Meanwhile, Universal's backlot provides ample frontier scenery, enhanced by gorgeous location shooting in Oregon's wilderness. The familiar faces and gorgeous visuals make "River" a cleaner, breezier effort in comparison to the gritty feel of "Winchester," yet Mann keeps enough adventure and human drama in tact to make this another deeply satisfying work.

Changes from the individual release

None on the disc itself. The only change is the new artwork.

Video & Audio

Pay no attention to the "modified to fit your screen" disclaimer that mistakenly plays at the top of the film. "Bend of the River" was shot in a 1.33:1 Academy ratio with that format intended for projection, and appears as such on this disc. The Technicolor shines; the colors are a bit too muted to pop, but the image is still rich. Grain is noticeable but not distracting.

The mono soundtrack is once again very clear and hiss-free. A French mono dub is provided, as are optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.

Extras

The film's spoiler-heavy trailer is included.

"The Far Country" (1954)

Mann's next six films would all feature Stewart in the leading role. For this set, we skip over their three 1953 collaborations ("The Naked Spur" and the non-westerns "Thunder Bay" and "The Glenn Miller Story") and arrive in "The Far Country." Again, we get Borden Chase scripting (this time from an original story) and Aaron Rosenberg producing a tale of the dangerous northwest frontier.

If "Bend of the River" shows Stewart as the voice of optimism, "The Far Country" lets him play the direct opposite. Jeff Webster is a man so bitter, so cynical, so absolutely ruthless in his self-mindedness that he'd probably laugh at Glyn's efforts to change. We never learn what made Jeff such a bastard, only that he's frustratingly stubborn in his refusal to help others. The movie then becomes a game between Mann and the viewer - how long can the filmmaker keep the supposed hero from finally doing the right thing? The screenplay seems to wait, and wait, and wait with sadistic glee. Will an audience really want to see Jimmy Stewart be this much of a jerk for this long, and still root for him?

The answer is a straight-up yes. It's a riddle of the movie star image, really; since we know Stewart's always such a good guy, we're certain it's only a matter of time before he gets wise to heroism. And if Mann knows that we know that, he can fill his movie with a deep psychological study of bitterness. If, as a storyteller, you're interested in how to keep an audience invested in a character they clearly despise, you should be watching "The Far Country" while taking notes.

Jeff and his sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan, as perfectly cast as always) repeatedly run afoul of the law while running cattle north to Canada. Their biggest obstacle is Sheriff Gannon (John McIntire), the crooked boss of the crookeder border town of Skegway. Gannon rules on a whim without leaving the poker table, preferring to hang men for petty crimes; in lieu of hanging, the sheriff confiscates Jeff's cattle as "payment to the government." Watch how Jeff reacts to Gannon. Our hero is fascinated - charmed, even - by the sheriff's cruel ways. Stewart smiles, and we see that Gannon is a trickster after Jeff's own heart.

When Jeff is hired to lead a caravan to Dawson, a gold mining outpost in the Yukon, by the lovely but uncaring saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), he sees it as his chance to retrieve his herd and escape beyond Gannon's jurisdiction. The ensuing scheme, which leads to a daring chase between Jeff and Gannon and his men, leaves Jeff grinning all the way. Here's one scoundrel outfoxing another, two men both enjoying the contest.

The next scenes reveal Jeff to be an even greater bastard than previously thought - he lets Ronda take a trail prone to avalanche without warning her, then has to be prodded into rescuing them once danger strikes. (Jimmy Stewart as the guy who'd just let people die? Say it ain't so!) Upon arrival in Dawson, he (unsurprisingly) lets greed win out over decency, selling his cattle to Ronda instead of the locals who need it more.

This sets up the eventual overtaking of the settlement by Ronda, and later Gannon. It's interesting to view these scenes through modern eyes. Ronda's financial advantage (she has the cash - and now the beef - to run the local hash house into the ground) brings in a tidal wave of corruption and self-interest that could these days be viewed as "corporate." In a sense, Ronda is the big box store chain running the mom and pop shops out of business, ruining the small town flavor of the area. The locals are powerless to fight back.

And Jeff? He's ambivalent, telling the locals it's better to just step aside or even leave town than to get a belly full of lead from Gannon's henchmen. Besides, he's making a killing in the gold rush; the sooner he can walk away, the better, and no guilt trip from Ben, or the Dawson marshal (Jay C. Flippen), or the lovely Renee (Corinne Calvet) can change his mind.

Oh, Renee. Flat-out adorable and enchanting in every way, this sweet, unselfish moppet is the voice of reason in the film, always prodding Jeff to help while Ronda pushes him to more personal pursuits. The film presents a love triangle, with both women in love with our wicked cowboy, and again we see Mann toying with us. Every time we root for Renee, the script throws Ronda into Jeff's arms instead.

The screenplay is repeatedly setting Jeff up for a breakthrough, his moment of action, only to have him back down, again and again. Does he ever change his ways? That would be telling, but Chase's script is smart enough to not allow Jeff total redemption by the finale - after all that ruthlessness, all that hideous behavior, not even a single shootout could turn him into an instant hero. The film ends with a pinch of ambiguity regarding the characters, which is the right note.

Changes from the individual release

The biggest of all changes in this box set is found here, as Universal finally presents "The Far Country" in its original widescreen format. Menus and subtitles otherwise remain the same.

Video & Audio

"The Far Country" was previously released by Universal in a 1.33:1 open matte edition, revealing extra visual information at the top and bottom of the frame. The movie was always intended for 1.85:1 widescreen exhibition, and now Region 1 customers can get that version thanks to this anamorphic widescreen transfer. Only a few shots seem tight, with most of the compositions vastly improved by the rectangular image. (To be fair, the composition wasn't too bad on the 1.33:1 version, even though it was plenty roomy. Since Mann had planned for the large range of projection formats that would come from the exhibition of an open matte film during the era, allowing theaters to decide how to show it, it'll be up to you which look you prefer.)

The downside is that the print used for this transfer isn't very good, and there's no effort from Universal to polish it up. (The same problem affects the individual open matte release, too.) Colors are faded, grain and dirt are omnipresent, and one shot is even missing a few frames, resulting in an ugly jump cut. There's a softness to the image that betrays the movie's lavish location shooting. It's not a horrible image, but considering Universal is handing in a new transfer, you'd think they'd do some cleaning first.

The mono soundtrack fares much better and is on par with the previously mentioned titles. Again, clean dialogue, clear music and effects, no hiss. Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.

Extras

Once again, the only extra is the film's original trailer.

"Night Passage" (1957)

With Chase once again scripting and Rosenberg producing, "Night Passage" was intended as another Stewart-Mann collaboration. However, the director walked off the project shortly before filming. Reasons for his dissatisfaction vary from source to source; the conflict led to a falling out with Stewart, and the two would never work together again.

James Neilson was brought aboard as a replacement. By 1957, Neilson was already a TV veteran, having helmed several episodes of shows like "Playhouse 90" and "The Ford Television Theatre." "Night Passage" would be the first of only a handful of projects that would take him to the silver screen (and most of those would be Disney live-action adventures, tying in with his long run throughout the 1960s and 70s working on the "Disneyland" TV series).

But "Night Passage" isn't restrained by TV-sized thinking. Indeed, the director seems to revel in the chance to play with a widescreen palette - the film was the first shot in Technicolor's short-lived "Technirama" process. The visuals shine here, especially when cameras go off the backlot and into the mountains of Colorado, where trains roar with a majestic fury.

Trains are the name of the game in Chase's script. Working from a story by Norman A. Fox, the writer delivers lighter and less emotionally complex than previous Stewart westerns, although the focus still remains on the personalities of the characters - not enough to make the film as satisfying as the previous Mann works, but enough to make it better than its box office failure otherwise suggests.

Grant McLaine (Stewart), another good man with a dark past, is hired to protect the railroad's payroll as it plows through Colorado. The payroll train has been robbed three times in a row by the notorious Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea, once again flawless in his hyperbolic villainy) and his gang. Expecting a fourth hijacking, railroad boss Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) concocts a new plan: instead of locking the cash in the train safe, let Grant carry it as he goes undercover as just another harmless passenger.

Things don't quite go according to plan, as the gang, like clockwork, once more robs the train and Grant is forced to confront the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), the gang's fastest gun. Worse, not only is the Kid someone with a tie to Grant's own past, but he's also friends with the young Joey Adams (Brandon De Wilde), the boy unwittingly who's carrying the loot following a quick switcheroo.

The screenplay is rather simple - Grant rides across Colorado, Grant gets the money, Grant loses the money, Grant trails the gang and fights to get back the money, the end. Attempts by Chase to add complexity to the characters come up a bit short; there's some minor mentions of Grant previously being a serious gunslinger, and we learn he was recently fired by the very railroad who now needs him, but these bits don't really pan out. Neither does the connection between Grant and the Utica Kid, which never finds the emotional oomph it requires.

But even with these flaws, it's certainly an enjoyable kind of simple, briskly directed with several thrilling action set pieces. Stewart even gets to play an accordion (a hobby of his since childhood) and sing a couple of hummable tunes on screen, quite the rare musical turn for the star and a delicious treat for audiences. Dianne Foster makes an impression with a commanding performance as the Kid's girlfriend. And there's something sneaky going on in how Murphy's character is presented as something of a greaser, with leather jacket, slick hair, and easy-going attitude; I suppose train robbing is the ultimate in juvenile delinquency.

Changes from the individual release

None on the disc itself. The only change is the new artwork.

Video & Audio

Not only did Technirama allow for wide imagery, its use as a Technicolor gimmick brought out some dazzling colors. In this anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, the colors indeed dazzle, bright and bold. Lines are crisp, darks are deep, grain and dirt is completely absent, and would ya just look at that location shooting. This is the best looking disc in the collection.

I'm repeating myself in discussing the audio tracks, but here we go again: the mono soundtrack is clean and hiss-free, with solid levels for dialogue and effects. Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided.

Extras

The only extra is the film's original trailer, hyping the widescreen process.

"The Rare Breed" (1966)

The final slot in this collection goes to its weakest entry, the flimsy 1966 drama "The Rare Breed." Stewart was fresh off such titles as "Flight of the Phoenix" and "Shenandoah," films which used the quirks inherent in the now-older actor's demeanor to their advantage; "The Rare Breed" would not be so lucky, with a flat script giving Stewart a too generic role. Unconvincing studio sets and uninspired direction (courtesy Andrew V. McLaglen, who previously helmed Stewart in "Shenandoah") don't help in lifting this above other bloated, awkward studio productions of the period.

Yes, "The Rare Breed" is bloated, even though it only runs a slim 97 minutes. While "Destry Rides Again" was flawed, at least it was interesting, yet "The Rare Breed" rambles on and on, as if daring the viewer to keep watching. Moments of excitement are too randomly inserted into the story to really work, while the clumsy mix of comedy and melodrama leaves the whole affair feeling tiresome.

Stewart stars as Sam "Bulldog" Burnett, the rugged wrangler who's hired to transport a prize Hereford bull to Texas. The bull belonged to English widow Martha Price (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills), who came to America to introduce crossbreeding; they sold the bull, named Vindicator, to Scottish cattle baron Alexander Bowen (Brian Keith, sporting a ridiculous Scot accent and a more ridiculous red wig). But for reasons the screenplay never bothers to flesh out, some folks don't want Herefords to breed in Texas, or they want the bull for themselves, or whatever, and so Sam has to fight off folks like Jack Elam from time to time.

In an attempt to mimic the complications of Stewart's work with Anthony Mann, the script (by Ric Hardman, a regular writer on TV's "Lawman") also tosses us some slight ambiguity over Sam's kindheartedness - will he sell out Martha and steal the bull for himself? But the movie can barely muster any excitement for such notions, and such subplots and undertones are dropped as quickly as they're introduced.

Once Vindicator and Company arrive at Bowen's spread, the story turns to a long stretch of undercooked drama as Martha and the Scot bicker over the odds of the bull breeding, let alone lasting the harsh Texas winter. There's barely anything here, which can also be said for a love triangle in which Bowen and Sam both vie for Martha's affections; considering both Stewart and O'Hara seem constantly unimpressed with the material, it's no surprise that the two show no chemistry here, and the romance angle never takes off the way the movie thinks it does. (Faring slightly better is a subplot romance between Hilary and Bowen's son, played by Don Galloway.)

Of course, even though Stewart is more or less sleepwalking through the role, he's still able to deliver some fine moments, little character bits built around his natural charms. But as a transitional role for the star - too old to be the hero, too young to be the wise grandfather type - the movie's not sure what to do with the guy. We get some clunky attempts to place him in action situations, which wind up as groaners thanks to stunt work that never quite convinces.

Most of the film was shot on the soundstage, and in an unwise move, many scenes were filmed with the actors in front of a bluescreen, with stock footage of Texas landscapes pasted in behind them. This gives the movie an ugly, cheap look that only enhances the overall shallowness of the story.

Changes from the individual release

None on the disc itself. The only change is the new artwork.

Video & Audio

For the most part, the anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is spectacular, with full, rich colors and crisp lines. Every so often, however, the flaws of the print reveal themselves; a few scenes show grain, or dirt, or a slight flicker along the top and bottom of the frame. Such problems are minimal, though, and the overall look of the film is quite lovely.

One last time: The Dolby mono soundtrack is solid stuff, clean and clear and (yup!) hiss-free. Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.

Extras

The only extra here is a very rough print of the film's original trailer.

Final Thoughts

Two classics, two very good movies, one overrated but still highly enjoyable film, and one dud. Not a bad mix, overall. For those who own the individual releases, the only reason to upgrade would be the new widescreen presentation of "The Far Country," as the other changes are too negligible. With more bonus material or a better film in the sixth slot would've earned this set a much higher rating; as is, it's still quite Recommended - especially to anyone who has yet to pick up these titles.
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