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The John Wayne / John Ford Collection
Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles

Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles

Warner DVD

Directed by
John Ford
and starring

John Wayne

Street Date
June 6, 2006

Reviewed by
Glenn Erickson

This monster disc set is the dream box for John Wayne fans ... it contains his breakthrough picture with John Ford as well as the lasting masterpiece The Searchers, both in lavish special editions. John Wayne isn't Lawrence Olivier, but neither is Olivier John Wayne -- never was there a personality more fit to appeal to American moviegoers. Wayne is big, sincere and has a natural ease with the camera ... those eight years of "Singin' Sandy" and other two-bit westerns gave Wayne the experience, and the tyrannical hand of Ford forced him to stretch his talent as far as it would go. Not always the most commercial of directors, Ford benefited greatly from Wayne's popularity ... studios would let Ford do almost anything if Wayne was the star.

1939 / B&W / 96 min. / Two-Disc Special Edition / Available separately at 26.98
Starring Claire Trevor, George Bancroft, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Art Direction Alexander Tobuloff, Wiard B. Ihnen
Stunts Yakima Canutt
Film Editors Otto Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
Written by Dudley Nichols from Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox
Produced by Walter Wanger

John Ford boosted the western firmly back into mainstream popularity with this exciting show thick with thrilling action and rich characters. John Wayne had struck out in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail almost ten years before and spent the decade acting in series westerns, a second-tier product pooh-poohed by the majors. Because Stagecoach was an independent production by wildcat producer Walter Wanger, Ford was able to slip Wayne in at the head of an ensemble of accidental tourists who stray into an Arizona Indian war, circa 1881.


The stage to Lordsburg is packed with nervous travelers worried that Geronimo has broken free of the reservation. Whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) is concerned about his family back in St Louis. Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is anxious to get to her husband, an officer serving in the cavalry. Shifty gentleman gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) goes along to protect her. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) and prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) are being ushered out of town by an unpaid landlord and a pack of church ladies. Slipping on at the last minute is banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill). The coach driver is Buck (Andy Devine) and riding shotgun is Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft). Curly is going to Lordsburg to arrest prison escapee The Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who wants revenge on the three men who killed his father and brother.

Stagecoach makes all the clichés of old westerns seem fresh, even the tired gag of the drunken sawbones who sobers up to perform the crucial operation. We embrace Stagecoach for the same reasons audiences loved it in 1939: We recognize in it a prime myth -- it's our story of American virtue in adversity, even if few of us can trace our heritage back to pioneer days. Dudley Nichols reaches for ennobling effects and hoary last-minute rescues that work because we want them to work. We care about every passenger in the stagecoach and accept the film's little morality play about class snobbery.

That much of the story is derived from a De Maupassant tale that also inspired a little-seen Val Lewton film set in 1800s France, Mademoiselle Fifi. In that movie Simone Simon's "seamstress" is abused by her upperclass coachmates, yet she risks her life to save them from danger. Her role is split into two in Stagecoach. Star Claire Trevor and lowly Wayne are the social outcasts who provide the muscle and the heart to bring the journey to safety. But when it's all over they must face their personal dilemmas alone.

Stagecoach is a model of economy. The characters are set up quickly as comical or severe, righteous or mercenary, and each is allowed to play out. The film has been called Grand Hotel on wheels but it's much less obsessed with back stories. We grasp the basics of each character in just a moment, as if their natures originate from within us. The Ringo Kid is just a good guy gone wrong and Peacock is the sweet family man. Dallas is the original bad girl with a heart of gold. She displays an entire philosophy for living when she shows the group Lucy Mallory's new baby, beaming with pride: We women can make miracles like This.

John Carradine's gambler Hatfield is the most beautifully sketched passenger of all. We hear a few evasions and allusions to Hatfield's false identity, and only when he's in agony does he even hint at his secret. (spoiler) We can immediately fill in all the blanks to explain Hatfield's unaccountable aristocratic attitude and melancholy fatalism. Compared to Hatfield, a real character like Doc Holiday sounds like a writer's invention.

Nichols' script believes in the idea that Americans will reveal their best natures under pressure. Dallas, Ringo and the Doc all prove their willingness to work for a society that has rejected them. The script respects the foolish Buck (the unique Andy Devine) and the stage-stop Mexican (Chris-Pin Martin) as brave and caring in their own way.

Only the Indians are exiled from the film's inclusive sense of community, the one that can accept the bigoted soldier's wife and the marshal who likes Ringo but could also use the $500. The Indians might as well be an abstract force of nature. We never question why they chase the coach instead of stopping it by shooting a horse, as their actions aren't answerable to that kind of logic. We do marvel at the shot of a warrior reloading his carbine while galloping at full tilt, not using his hands.

Stagecoach thrilled audiences with its two-layered action conclusion. Wayne rides on the top of the coach while his fellow refugee riders from the serial westerns put on a thrilling stunt show. Ringo strides into Lordsburg with only three cartridges to kill three men. It's one of the genre's best showdown scenes despite the fact that almost all of the action happens off camera. Stagecoach isn't just western movie history, by now it's become American history.

This 2-disc Special Edition of Stagecoach is a good but not sensational transfer of the best element available for a show that was clearly printed to death for reissues. It's also a United Artists film and spent a lot of years rotting in vaults before falling into the hands of distributor Castle Hill. Savant remembers seeing the film presented by Ron Haver in 1974 at the L.A. County Museum of Art. The first reel looked terrible but we all cheered when the balance of the movie was a near-perfect print.

This release outclasses an earlier single-disc release by offering The Filmmaker and the Legend, a superior American Masters feature-length docu that premiered only a few weeks ago. It's a very classy show that includes a lot of non-Warners clips to illustrate its points.

Specific to Stagecoach we have a new featurette A Story of Redemption, a title that could apply to the majority of Dudley Nichols scripts. The lively feature commentary is by author Scott Eyman. A trailer is included, plus a bonus radio adaptation version with Claire Trevor and Randolph Scott.

The Long Voyage Home
1940 / B&W / 105 min. / Available separately at 19.98
Starring Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, Mildred Natwick, John Qualen
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Art Direction James Basevi
Film Editor Sherman Todd
Original Music Richard Hageman
Written by Dudley Nichols from four plays by Eugene O'Neill
Produced by John Ford, Walter Wanger

Eugene O'Neill and John Ford make a screen team any producer would fear. Following the typical artist-producer pattern, Ford made Walter Wanger a rich man with Stagecoach and then took him to the cleaners on this expensive follow-up. Yes, John Wayne is in it, but he's a relatively minor player in an ensemble cast ... and he tries out a Swedish accent.


A series of episodes aboard the SS Glencairn, a tramp steamer in service during WW2: The crew takes to liquor as a release from their loneliness. Denied shore leave, they talk some Latin women into smuggling bottles on board. Aloysius "Drisk" Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell) is the most sociable of the multinational group of sailors. Axel Swanson (John Qualen) has sworn off liquor, while the steward Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald) eavesdrops for news from the officer's quarters. The Yank (Ward Bond) is the biggest drinker. Young Ole Olsen (John Wayne) is tall and simple. The other sailors are keen on getting Olsen back to dry land in Sweden and away from the endless life at sea. The most mysterious sailor is Smith (Ian Hunter), an alcoholic with a shameful secret. The crew suspects Smith of being a German spy. They also struggle through both a storm and an enemy attack while carrying a volatile cargo of munitions. Finally, they're taken to a waterfront dive at an English port to be tricked out of their money, while a Limehouse cheat named Nick (J.M. Kerrigan) tries to get Ole Shanghai'ed onto the crew of another boat.

Chances are that besides the beautiful main theme "Harbor Nights," there wasn't much in The Long Voyage Home to appeal to 1940 audiences. There are plenty of audio references to the war being waged in Europe but the film has no patriotic message. Eugene O'Neill was a merchant seaman and the four stories on which the film is based provide the semi-connected episodes. The characters are wholly sentimental yet the story is not. The sailor is always a stranger and an outsider and his life is hard. It's taken for granted that he can be pressed into service to transport munitions and have no voice in the matter.

If this were an O'Neill play we could expect intense poetic speeches. Ford and his writer Dudley Nichols instead deliver naturalistic dialogue and realistic silences. Only four or five of Ford's familiar stock company have full parts to play but the others are given many soulful portraits: Arthur Shields, Joe Sawyer, Jack Pennick. One trucking shot down a line of posed men at the rail is as fussy as a verse of O'Neill dialogue, but plays naturally in the perpetual night and fog.

The sailors don't meet a high class of women. Latins Rafaela Ottiano and Carmen Morales are two of many girls that come aboard ship in South America. In England, an incredibly young Mildred Natwick is a miserable bar girl trying to lead Ole Olsen astray. She clearly has no choice in her work.

O'Neill's main theme is Death and Lost Men. When a sailor is seriously injured on the high seas, there is no doctor and therefore no hope of saving him. His buddies just make him as comfortable as they can. The melancholy Smith is horrified when his comrades raid his private letters to find out if he's a spy; they instead discover why an obviously cultured man like Smith would run away to drink himself to death on a cargo ship. When the enemy attacks, we never see their planes, only their machine gun bullets tracing into the decks. And in the final episode, Death is revealed to be a cruel game of chance.

Ford had Walter Wanger construct an elaborate tramp steamer set at RKO; like pieces of Astaire & Rogers sets and The Magnificent Ambersons, it ended up being re-used for a Val Lewton movie, in this case The Ghost Ship. The movie has a lot of rear projection and for a storm scene makes use of the giant water dump tanks that Ford's effects men perfected for The Hurricane. Most of Ford's other seagoing stories present sailing as an idyllic experience, at least when ships enter south seas ports and are met by adoring natives swimming out to their ships as in The Hurricane, Mr. Roberts and Donovan's Reef. There's no such paradisical imagery in The Long Voyage Home, which attests to Ford and Nichols' faithfulness to O'Neill's philosophy. The Academy responded strongly, giving the show six nominations including Best Picture.

The disc of The Long Voyage Home is a good transfer of a film element in very good shape. The plain card titles do ride a bit at the beginning but most of the film plays rock solid in the gate. The one special feature is a featurette called Serenity at Sea: John Ford and the Araner. It uses the same Kodachrome home movies seen in Mark Thurman's docu John Ford Goes to War, and will only seem redundant if one has seen that show or the American Masters feature docu on Stagecoach.

The film's poster (used on the box) doubtlessly infuriated some viewers when they found the movie to be a grim drama instead of a lively adventure. John Wayne is fine as the Swedish Ole, but nothing special. His accent is okay but he just doesn't hold the screen when sublimated into ensemble work. It's a highly unusual film for Wayne; he wouldn't get another chance to work for Ford again for five years.

They Were Expendable
1945 / B&W / 1.37 flat full frame / 135 min. / Available separately at 12.98
Starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Ward Bond, Marshall Thompson, Cameron Mitchell
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Film Editor Douglass Biggs, Frank E. Hull
Original Music Earl K. Brent, Herbert Stothart, Eric Zeisl
Writing credits Frank Wead, Comdr. U.S.N. (Ret.),
Based on the book by
William L. White
Produced and Directed by John Ford, Captain U.S.N.R.

Savant reviewed They Were Expendable way back in 1999; it was one of the last MGM-Turner DVDs issued before MGM dropped out of the Home Video loop for Turner product. I refer readers to the older review for details. This new disc is identical to the previous release. The menus are titles are the same, and the picture is unsteady during the title sequence.

Fort Apache
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 128 min. / Available separately at 14.98
Starring Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Pedro Armendariz, George O'Brien, Anna Lee
Cinematography Archie Stout, William H. Clothier
Art Direction James Basevi
Film Editor Jack Murray
Original Music Richard Hageman
Written by James Warner Bellah, Frank S. Nugent
Produced by Merian C. Cooper, John Ford

This is the Cavalry western, the template for everything from Major Dundee to F Troop. Frank S. Nugent's ode to the U.S. Cavalry is an examination of the Custer legend through a filter that idealizes military life. Ford's vision is historically sound and wholly honest about the contradictions of the Indian Wars: The "handling" of the Native American population is unjust and absurd, yet forms the basis of a revered military tradition: An honorable Army built on a heritage of dishonorable duties.

Synopsis (spoilers):

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is sent to 'the end of the Earth' to command Fort Apache just as Cochise and Geronimo leave the reservation. Thursday's daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) finds a beau in newly minted Lt. O'Rourke (John Agar) while Owen alienates his command with his priggish attitude and refusal to yield to officers more experienced in Indian matters. Meanwhile, a quartet of Sergeants (Pedro Armendaríz, Victor McLaglen, Dick Foran and Jack Pennick) find ways to stay saturated with alcohol. Troop leader Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne) negotiates a peaceful return to the reservation for the Apache, but Thursday refuses to recognize the Indians' rights and provokes an all-out battle that, thanks to his own incompetence, becomes a massacre. York carries on, falsifying Thursday's actions to bring glory and recognition to the Cavalry.

John Ford has this idealized vision of military life that I fear few military men under the rank of Major would share. The enlisted men and non-commissioned officers tend to be infantile jokers in the Army mainly to carouse and drink themselves into trouble. A stable community of contented wives and dependents loves the Army even though they live under a secondary pecking order of privilege. Fort Apache's telling scene in this regard is when young Philadelphia goes to another officer's wife for help in setting up her quarters. Mrs. Collingwood (the beloved Anna Lee) is happy to help: Help means calling the Sergeant's wife to "volunteer" to do the work. The Sergeant's wife and an equally "happy" Mexican servant (Movita from Mutiny on the Bounty) puts Philadelphia's house in order. Being the daughter of the commanding officer, Philadelphia also can appear unannounced and uninvited at any door in the community, and must be bid welcome. It's hard not to resent Shirley Temple in this role, although she's just fine as Ford's 'perfect' daughter of the Officer Corps.

That's an exaggeration, but it does point up the basic inequity in Ford's "idyllic" Cavalry community. Like all of his male groups, right up to the quasi-fantastic Elysium of Donovan's Reef, it's a heaven made for big boys who want to booze and brawl. In the real Army of 1948, petty differences -- both class- and ethnic-oriented -- were no joking matter.

Ford's film is not the anti-Indian tract that many assume it to be. Ford acknowledges the crimes of the Indian agent Meacham (Grant Withers), whom even Thursday detests. But Thursday understands nothing except his own agenda, transplanted from an interrupted military career back East. Like his obvious inspiration George Armstrong Custer, and his later incarnation Amos Charles Dundee, Thursday is looking for Glory, the magic career fix. "The Man who brought in Cochise," he mumbles to himself, as if mentally designing a commemorative statue for himself.

Thursday remains a mystery. He seems to be prosecuting his command honestly (his attack on Cochise is sincere) but has the completely unrealistic idea that manic charges against unknown hostiles are a matter of pride and honor, not human lives. Sure, it's honorable for men to ride to their deaths without flinching ... if we're talking about the 17th or 18th century. Thursday is a prime candidate to get shot in the back by his own men, for the good of all.

Fort Apache's acknowledgement of the tainted roots of military glory is almost schizophrenic. After two hours celebrating the glory of the regiment, Thursday's ignominious blunder is publicized as the Army's finest hour, an inspiration (and justification) for the fight to come. We've just been shown otherwise, yet Ford presents the contradiction without irony: It just is. Thursday was a man of honor, and that's all that matters.

Fort Apache is marvelous filmmaking for Ford. His formal visuals suit the quaint formality of the corps, and the awesome landscape of his Monument Valley provides the backdrop for history. The action scenes seem to be happening not in a desert but in some kind of historical never-never land of yesteryear, an America carved out of a God's country where every hill looks like a stone cathedral. Ford seems to be enchanted with the ritual aspect of Army life -- the formality of greetings and farewells. The endless parades and formations are an opportunity for the individual soldiers to become a uniformed military unit, always at proud attention. Even the troop dances are dominated by parade-like prancing: Look at us, we're noble warriors sworn to our duties. Even the drunken sergeants are part of the program: Service to the flag wipes out individual differences.

Ford drags generations of actors with him, wherever he goes. Mae Marsh and George O'Brien come from the silent era and Wayne, Fonda, McLaglen, and Lee carry the accumulated baggage of previous performances in Ford films. Jack Pennick has a big role, and Pedro Armendaríz is a welcome addition. Shirley Temple and her husband John Agar are the anointed younger generation, figuratively raised in and nurtured by the Army. Interestingly, although Col. Thursday supposedly hates young Michael O'Rourke, he pointedly excludes him from his suicide charge. Ford celebrates military glory, even as he acknowledges its contradictions.

The DVD transfer of Fort Apache looks splendid; Savant noticed only a couple of shots where dust seemed to stir up extra 'video grain.' The audio for all of those traditional Irish songs is likewise in good shape.

Besides a trailer, we're given a very informative and fresh featurette about Monument Valley. It goes beyond the usual statements to talk about the trader who brought Ford to the valley and served as his headquarters for all nine or so films he shot there; we also learn about Ford's personal relationship to the Indians in between films.

3 Godfathers
1948 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame /106 min. / Separate Availability uncertain (was released recently?)
Starring Pedro Armendariz, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Olive Carey, Hank Worden, Mae Marsh, Jane Darwell, Ben Johnson
Cinematography Winton C. Hoch
Art Direction James Basevi
Film Editor Jack Murray
Original Music Richard Hageman
Written by Peter B. Kyne, Laurence Stallings, Frank S. Nugent
Produced by Merian C. Cooper, John Ford

Often dismissed as a lesser achievement, 3 Godfathers is a fanciful offshoot of his western films and a throwback to naïve storytelling of the silent days. This tale of a transposed Nativity had already been filmed several times before and at least once by Ford himself. It's sort of a Sunday-School lesson that evokes the West as an almost perfect Utopia -- even the desperadoes (our three heroes) are true-blooded sweethearts.


Outlaws Bob Hightower, Pedro Roca Fuerte and The Abilene Kid (John Wayne, Pedro Armendaríz and Harry Carey Jr.) rob the bank and try to make their escape in the desert, with marshal Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) in pursuit. But the bandits come across a desperate woman (Mildred Natwick), lost in the wilderness and about to give birth to a baby. Deprived of their horses, the trio try to walk through the worst part of the desert with the newborn baby. Meanwhile, Buck Sweet's posse misreads the signs and assume that Hightower and his cronies are responsible for destroying a desert well, turning an oasis into a death trap. The law closes in on the outlaws, determined to wipe them out.

We can almost picture Sam Peckinpah's Pike Bishop or Deke Thornton dreaming a tale like this one when they felt particularly nostalgic. The skies are beautiful, even the lawmen are contented citizens and every man can be redeemed. Robert Hightower's desperadoes begin as misunderstood innocents and are soon carrying the hopes for the future of the Western world on their shoulders. When the trek through the desert begins, the specifics are just serious enough to keep the film from going soft. Wayne, Armendaríz and Carey might as well the the Three Wise Men carrying out a rescue mission from the manger. This is Harry Carey Jr.'s biggest role; John Ford gave him an "introducing" card in at least two movies, and maybe three. The film is dedicated to his father Harry Carey, who died in September 1947. He was the star of Ford's first silent features.

The rescuers give up their chance to escape to "honor their promise to a dying woman," bringing 3 Godfathers back to the western truism that staying true to a solemn oath is a life-and-death matter. On the other side of the story, Ward Bond's Perley ("Perley! Haw Haw!") Sweet runs a posse that's the exact opposite of the one in The Ox-Bow Incident. The bandits are given every benefit of the doubt, at least as long as Perley thinks they're playing by the rules. Jane Darwell of Oxbow and The Grapes of Wrath is a much more cheerful pioneer woman.

In fact, everyone is adorable in this Technicolor feature, and dressed in neat, colorful western attire: Mae Marsh, Guy Kibbee, Ben Johnson, Hank Worden. This is the cleanest, brightest West you've ever seen. Winton Hoch's cinematography is fairly staggering, with breathtaking locations in what looks like Death Valley -- no Monument Valley in sight. As the three bandits try to walk across the arid plain, they start to merge with their surroundings -- of all the Ford pictures, this one uses landscape in the same way as does Anthony Mann.

By the time the Bibilical references and "miraculous" events occur (nothing overtly supernatural, but certainly magical) we're won over. The 'taking care of baby' scenes are honestly amusing, especially the bit about covering the kid in axle grease. The bandits pay a steep price and collectively earn their atonement. For a whimsical Sunday school story, 3 Godfathers is a charmer, and a stylistic exception in Ford's body of work. The ladies of the Temperance Union are back from Stagecoach, but this time they're lined up and singing hymns, including "Shall We Gather at the River." These pioneers aren't only building the west, they're building a piece of heaven on Earth.

Dorothy Ford plays Miss Latham, the banker's daughter that Wayne's bandit is soft on; she doesn't appear to be a relation of the director.

A separate DVD of 3 Godfathers has been out for about three months, but only as an exclusive at Target stores. (Thanks to Chris Poggiali, Richard Carnahan & "B.") The transfer is near perfect, with only minor imperfections showing through the composite; there don't seem to be any misaligned shots. I had the pleasure of seeing MGM's IB Tech print of this show at UCLA 31 years ago and can still remember how bright and beautiful it was; it, The Searchers and The Wonderful Country were the best-looking Technicolor westerns I've ever seen. The audio is clear for all of those standard western tunes, especially the repeated theme "Streets of Laredo."

The only extra is a trailer, in perfect condition.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
1949 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 103 min. / Available separately at 19.98
Starring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O'Brien
Cinematography Winton Hoch
Art Direction James Basevi
Film Editor Jack Murray
Original Music Richard Hageman
Written by Frank Nugent, Laurence Stallings from the stories War Party and The Big Hunt by James Warner Bellah
Produced by Merian C. Cooper, John Ford

Savant reviewed She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in a previous Warner DVD in 2002. That review is linked here for reference. The disc offered in this set is also identical to the previous release ... same encoding, same menus. The "John Ford Home Movies" extra are some random shots of Ford and Wayne on a Mexican trip.

The Searchers
1956 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 119 min. / Two-Disc Anniversary Edition / Available separately at 26.98
Starring Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Dorothy Jordan, Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Harry Carey Jr., Olive Carey, Lana Wood, Pat Wayne
Cinematography Winton C. Hoch
Art Direction James Basevi, Frank Hotaling
Film Editor Jack Murray
Original Music Max Steiner, Stan Jones
Written by Frank S. Nugent from the novel by Alan Le May
Produced by Merian C. Cooper, C.V. Whitney

Writing about a movie considered one of the best ever made is not much fun, as plenty of people have done an excellent job of pegging the finer points of The Searchers. Before 1970 or so it seemed that only Lindsay Anderson was critically positive on the film, but it soon became the darling of the film-school directors. Paul Schrader re-wrote it a number of times, most directly as Hardcore. I imagine that USC saw the same Technicolor print as Jim Kitses showed us at UCLA, a VistaVision dazzler that made us all John Wayne fans. I remember trying to explain the film's graces to the parents of a girlfriend, who happened to be left-wing psychologists -- they couldn't believe that a longhaired kid was doing a sales job on John Wayne.

The Searchers is a pretty amazing movie, for the most part beautifully told in images that already seem to be a permanent part of our subconscious before we see them. It has a subversive (for Ford) racial subtext that gets to the heart of tribal warfare -- the story is about a blood feud that dies out but leaves behind a warrior unredeemed. Parts of it hark back to crude slapstick and others are a cinematic mystery. Ford is quoted as saying something like, "I wanted to make a tragedy that became a comedy," a phrase Savant can't claim to have yet figured out.


Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns to the farm of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), unsure if he has a place there. Comanche War Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) draws out Ethan and the Texas Rangers led by the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), and then massacres Ethan's family save for young Debbie (Lana Wood), who is kidnapped. Ethan and the young Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) begin an extended search for Debbie all across the west. Martin's girlfriend Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) waits for him to return ... until she reads that he's married an Indian squaw.

The Searchers is a straightforward story but a cultural puzzle. Out in West Texas, the settlers' relationship to the Indians can only be called a blood feud; healthy children are so precious that the Indians will kidnap whites to raise as their own. Ethan is a racist at the outset, already contemptuous of Martin Pawley for being a "quarter-breed Cherokee." Of course, the big shocker for baby boomers is to see his character revealed as a murderous racist, committed to killing his own niece (grown to become none other than Natalie Wood, lipstick and all) for presumably having been the wife of his sworn enemy, Scar. In an uncharacteristic push-in to Ethan, Ford shows his star staring with a look of ingrained hatred. This is DAD ... and he wants to KILL YOUR SISTER. That's what it's come to, kids.

More interestingly, The Searchers acknowledges that hateful racial attitudes are everywhere. Even Laurie Jorgensen is obsessed with terror tales about what happens to white girls captured by the Red Men ... and she says of Debbie that Martha would want Ethan to "put a bullet in her brain." The Searchers is much more than boozy brawls and John Wayne punching out guys who don't salute the flag.

Ford makes Ethan as big a mystery as John Carradine's Hatfield from Stagecoach. Ethan has been gone three extra years after the surrender at Appomatox, and has returned with some suspicious gold coins and a Mexican medal. Has he been fighting for Maximillian in Mexico, like the freebooters of Vera Cruz? As pointed out a million times, Ethan and Martha are secretly in love; it's possible that he has come back in hopes of taking her away with him. If that dream is what's on Ethan's mind, it soon becomes part of the scorched earth of the Edwards farm.

The Searchers has a generational-repeat story that reminds us of the work of Jacques Demy; we can piece together the general gist of what happened between Aaron, Ethan and Martha in the past based on what happens to Martin Pawley, Laurie and Charlie McCorry in the present. Martin has a future on the land with a bride waiting, but he wanders away for years. Ethan was apparently a wanderer as well -- Martha got tired of waiting for him and settled for the dull but steady Aaron. Laurie gets ready to make the same mistake by marrying the man that's there, instead of the man she loves. That unspoken tale gives The Searchers an eloquence that's entirely "between the lines."

Twenty years later George Lucas put so many Searchers references into Star Wars that when we found that Luke Skywalker was Darth Vader's son, we got the same jolt. Annakin Skywalker lost his 'family' and didn't follow through with his Jedi training, and bad things happened to him. With his hand cut off, Luke is primed to 'wander between the winds' for a period of time before finding out which side of the force he'll follow. Unfortunately, Return of the Jedi drops the ball, big-time. Luke's wild wandering is no more severe than wearing a dark costume.

Ethan's great quest is to find a home, but he's already decided that home is impossible without Martha. Part wild man himself, he's deathly afraid of the cruel fate he forces on a dead "Comanch" by shooting his eyes out -- wandering forever between the winds. Ethan won't stand "talking in the wind" when he meets Scar in person.

The last mystery: Ethan lectures Martin that he has no kinfolk, that he's "nothing." Ethan tries to say something else, but Martin cuts him off and he never finishes. We suspect it's about Martin's parents. Later on Ethan claims that he recognized Martin's mother's scalp on Scar's lance ... does Ethan know who Martin's father was ... or is?

The Searchers ranges all across the west yet never seems to leave Monument Valley, which again is a landscape of the mind. Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) raises cattle on a vegetation-challenged desert that would have trouble supporting a pair of goats. Those beautiful towers of stone look like cathedrals from afar, but horrible, dark things happen up close to them, and in their caves. It's as if the Earth is the Mother and those openings in the rock were .... it's a Freudian interpretation. When fleeing Ethan, the grown Debbie runs madly for the darkest, deepest cave of all, but Ethan brings her back from the edge of eternity. There's a serious insinuation of incest here ... when Ethan hoists Debbie aloft, he's physically reminded of Martha: Debbie IS Martha, his lost Home. And it's only then that he can't kill her.

Savant marveled for years at the weird discontinuity of locations at the end of The Searchers and thought to account for it by proposing that Ford is purposely fragmenting spatial reality. The Comanche camp is on a broad, flat plain, but Ford makes rapid match cuts between action in Monument Valley and action in the rocky cleft of Bronson Caverns, less than a mile from downtown Hollywood. Yet the location discontinuity isn't some abstract cinematic construct in John Ford's head; it's that way because of the limited availability of actress Natalie Wood. Apparently Wood could only come to Monument Valley for a short time -- the Bronson Caverns location may just have been a scheduling compromise.

The Searchers ends with a genuine chill. Ethan Edwards is shut out just as he seems ready to reclaim his place in society. Poetically at least, he has to turn away from Home (with the Sons of the Pioneers song warbling away on the same theme) and withdraw, alone and lost. He may have found Debbie, but he's tried to kill her too. There's no longer a place for him at the table.

Ford's compositions are more dramatic than ever, as is his use in several scenes of rather artificial stage settings, as if location money had run short. And there are still the frequent bouts of corny humor, even though some of them have a strange edge. Mose Harper (Hank Worden) may be a low-comedy loon, but he also happens to be the one who finds Debbie -- twice. Charlie McCorry is a slack-jawed clown until he starts to sing, whereupon he inconsistently becomes a beautiful tenor. Go figure.

Max Steiner's standard western themes are crossed with Martha's theme music and a driving beat that's much more savage than usual. The title theme blasts out a blood challenge quite unlike Ford's usual folksy Richard Hageman-adapted standards. The frantic battle music fits well with incongruous cuts of the pitiful Comanche response to Reverend Captain Clayton's attack: After all the talk of bloodthirsty savages, the Comanche we remember most vividly is a brave who takes a child in his arms and runs for cover. A Ranger knocks down a female as she flees on foot.

Warners' 2-disc DVD of The Searchers is a vibrant enhanced transfer that betters the much granier, and slightly mis-framed earlier release from 1998. Colors pop and the image is clean, but picture values are frequently too bright and some edges have digital distortion, indicating a slightly over-zealous use of digital filters. You can tell right at the front when the pale bricks behind the title are too light -- their highlights go entirely white. The picture still pops like a Technicolor print in many scenes, and the reds of Scar's war paint and Beulah Archuletta's jacket never distort.

The superb soundtrack is more vibrant than ever. It's too bad there is no discrete music track for this film because it would play as well as the separate music track that makes The Adventures of Robin Hood such a good listen. The scoring of the drive-by ride to the river ("I've already been baptized, Reverend!") is something to behold, as is the beautiful refrain of Look's music cue.

The extras fulfill one's expectations and perhaps exhaust them. Repeating from the first release are a trailer and a series of Behind the Cameras Warner TV shows from 1956, he ones with Gig Young hosting. Patrick Wayne provides a video introduction (more of a welcome) taped at Bronson Caves. The commentary by Peter Bogdanovich is good but a little laid back -- although Bogdanovich is certainly a Ford authority, he doesn't repeat the enthusiasm of his track for Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby.

Disc two has an excellent Appreciation from Martin Scorsese, John Milius and Curtis Hanson, a beautifully edited selection of critical insights. A much longer piece called A Turning of the Earth is far too much of a good thing. On the plus side, it uses a lot of interesting trim and stage-wait material from the ends of film takes, including some that have John Ford on camera. But it throws in a lot of feature film clips that we've already seen two or three times, plus replays of shots from the Behind the Cameras TV shows. The Turning short film is from Nick Redman, hails from 1998 and has an annoying over-use of a new graphic editing tool just introduced at that time. It does show us some remnants of unfinished, unused scenes. A long shot of Wayne riding may have been originally intended as a background for the main titles.

The packaging is three card folders inside a card box (the package image above is the individual release version). The two discs are in one folder and a second has a reproduction of some documents and a selection of stills. The third folder has a reformatted booklet version of the original press kit, and a full color reduced-scale reproduction of the original Dell movie-tie in comic book, which is quite a treat. Almost all of the movie's racist situations and observations are carefully omitted from the comic's detailed narrative.

The Wings of Eagles
1957 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 110 min. / Available separately at 19.98
Starring Dan Dailey, Maureen O'Hara, Ward Bond
Cinematography Paul C. Vogel
Art Direction Malcolm Brown, William A. Horning
Film Editor Gene Ruggiero
Original Music Jeff Alexander
Written by Frank Fenton, William Wister Haines from the book by Commander Frank W. "Spig" Wead
Produced by Charles Schnee

The Wings of Eagles is John Ford's tribute to Frank "Spig" Wead, a noted aviator and personality of the peacetime Navy between the wars. Himself a frustrated Naval aspirant, Ford used his Hollywood fame to participate in Navy culture and became a friend of Wead in his screenwriting days. With John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara starring as Mr. and Mrs. Wead, the film is a sometimes corny but enjoyable grafting of The Quiet Man into a Navy millieu with a lot of service hi-jink serio-comedy added by way of Dan Dailey. And yes, this is the movie with the famous "I'm gonna move that toe' scene, the effective gag that probably did a lot to promote the concept of restorative therapy.


Navy flying school -- the early 1920s? "Spig" Wead (Wayne) pulls an outrageous stunt in an unauthorized aerial joy ride but is retained by the Navy anyway. He becomes a publicity tool for congressional appropriations by promoting and winning aerial races, some of them against the Army flying team led by Capt. Hazard (Kenneth Tobey). Spig sees less of his wife Min (Maureen O'Hara) after they lose a baby and they eventually separate; when he returns in 1926 he's paralyzed by a fall. Old buddy 'Jughead' Carson (Dan Dailey) becomes Spig's nurse and eventually gets him going again. Spig starts a second career as a writer, promoting the Navy through his plays and screenplays.

Film fans able to withstand only small doses of John Ford's drinking & brawling humor from his cavalry pictures had better give The Wings of Eagles a wide berth, as this very affectionate portrait of a fantasy Navy is at least 50% horseplay pitched at the lowest level of slapstick. That said, John Wayne and his pals Ken Curtis and Kenneth Tobey are excellent at this kind of schtick. Wayne never convinces as a young flier but when he smiles it's hard not to like him. Tobey's Army flier may be intended to represent James Doolittle, Wead's big inter-service competitor in the peacetime years when the branches of the military used trumped-up air races to secure federal appropriations. It may have been a jock-strap army and a teakettle navy, but without promotional hoopla by cheerleaders like Wead, we might not have had much of any army or navy when WW2 started. Just the same, Frank Fenton's variable script assigns Wead a crystal ball when it lets him allude to a future day when we might be attacked by surprise.

The Wayne-O'Hara scenes are successful even when optimizing a married life ruined by spousal abandonment. It starts out as wife Min's call, when she says no to moving around the country. The way it works out, when Wayne finally returns home to make amends he accidentally breaks his neck; he then tells Min to just go away and leave him. Good farewell and reunion scenes (a Ford specialty) really add up to a lousy marriage -- we're supposed to think these people have a commitment to each other? The reality is probably much more complicated, even though Ford mildly alludes to the possibility of Min being with another man when she's out "playing cards." We're told that the real Wead was hurt when he fell through the 2nd story of a house under construction for his family, indicating that he spent a lot more than a few nights at home.

Obviously Wead had a heck of a recuperation and restoration period. Ford adjusts idealized fantasy of the U.S. Cavalry to create a matching 'blarney' version of the Navy. The Navy is one big boy's club with plenty of liquor. Since one's comrades can always be reassigned as drinking buddies the fun goes on for decades, in and out of battle.

The Wead bios list his film credits, which include the classic They Were Expendable, an exception to the other gung-ho action dramas. None of the accounts mention Wead going back into the Navy again or commanding an aircraft carrier, "Jeep" or otherwise in WW2. But I have to think that there's something to it all, even if Ford simply slipped Wead back into uniform to join his signal corps unit. The film has Wead becoming a logistics strategist and then seeing active duty in combat. I'd scoff at this part of the film but am not completely convinced that it isn't true ... although what useful shipboard experience would a naval aviator -- fifteen years removed from duty -- have to offer?

As a valentine to the Navy, The Wings of Eagles succeeds; although his characters like to act like tough guys Ford is exceedingly sentimental about the Navy and (we're told by the American Masters docu) was much prouder of his naval life than his Hollywood work. If we have to have idealized stories of the armed services, this kind of movie is certainly preferable to the Top Gun school of macho fantasy.

The DVD of The Wings of Eagles is a great enhanced transfer of this MetroColor movie, looking much better than the faded prints we saw at school. The 1:85 cropping also restores compositions lost in old un-matted TV prints. The strong mono audio is maintained. The only extra is a flat trailer.

The John Wayne / John Ford Collection is yet another pricey box that will entice many a hardcore film fan ... considering what it holds, it's a bargain if one does not already own earlier editions of some of its titles. Watching one of these a week, however, would fulfill a couple of months' worth of Friday night screenings - and they look great on a big monitor. What's better is that Warners keeps finding extras for their 2-disc special editions that are worth the extra expense and effort. I think I'll pull down my old Janey Place books on John Ford and see if her analysis still holds up.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stagecoach rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, American Masters: John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker & the Legend retrospective profile; documentary Stagecoach: A Story of Redemption; Commentary by Scott Eyman; Radio adaptation with Claire Trevor and Randolph Scott
The Long Voyage Home rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Featurette Serenity at Sea: John Ford and the Araner

They Were Expendable rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
Fort Apache rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette Monument Valley: John Ford Country, Trailer

Three Godfathers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: John Ford Home Movies, Trailer

The Searchers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Introduction by Patrick Wayne, Commentary by Director Peter Bogdanovich, Trailer, The Searchers: An Appreciation; A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers; Behind the Cameras: Meet Jeffrey Hunter, Monument Valley, Meet Natalie Wood, Setting Up Production
The Wings of Eagles rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer

Packaging: Seven keep cases and one box in a Card Box
Reviewed: June 1, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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