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John Wayne Westerns Film Collection (Fort Apache/The Searchers/Rio Bravo/The Train Robbers/Cahill: United States Marshal)
The five films included in the new John Wayne Westerns Film Collection are so unconnected in terms of the eras in which they were made, their thematic content, their varying levels of "classic"-ness, and their newness to Blu-ray (two are actual new releases, one has been updated, and two are the same as their old stand-alone releases) that it would be more fitting for Warner Bros. to have included an "A" before their chosen title. Indeed, this is a collection of John Wayne westerns, and not a bad one at that, but it's not exactly a career "Best of" or even a balanced survey of Wayne's westerns made under the WB shield.
Those concerns aside, these five flicks are attractively and safely packaged in a mock storybook, and if you pick this box up from the right store, you get a better deal on the set than picking up a few of these titles on their own. Maybe that's not a resounding endorsement, but it is accurate for this oddly conceived semi-new release/semi-repackage job.
Fort Apache (1948)
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First up in the box is the first entry in director John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy" (the others are She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande). Though John Wayne plays the more sympathetic major character, the film is actually centered around Henry Fonda's stiff, glory-hungry Col. Owen Thursday. Thursday is annoyed that he has been sent to take over the command at Fort Apache, which he considers a poorly disciplined outfit far from where the real action is. Now the fellas of the fort, including great old character actors and Ford regulars like Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Jack Pennick, Pedro Armendariz, Dick Foran, and Hank Worden, do indeed tend to enjoy themselves and maybe even bend an elbow now and again, but they're all good soldiers. They certainly have a better understanding of their little corner of the world than their new C.O.
The film also overflows with subplots sketching in life throughout the fort. A nearly twenty-year-old (!) Shirley Temple appears as Thursday's upbeat daughter Philadelphia, who falls for a young lieutenant played by her then-husband John Agar. Col. Thursday objects naturally, but the rest of the camp cheers them on. The training of new recruits is another through-line that is often played for laughs -- and pretty good ones at that.
The relationship between Col. Thursday, and Wayne's character, Captain York, is the thematic core of the film. Thursday refuses to adjust to his new surroundings and essentially walks around with tunnelvision, while York assesses both his friends and enemies with thoughtfulness and an unbiased eye. Neither of these men are dummies, but by closing off his heart, Thursday is arguably the lesser man, destined to achieve only Pyrrhic victories.
It's no surprise that John Ford can make a hell of picture, and Fort Apache is surely one of his best.
This disc is identical to the 2012 standalone release. On the technical side, the disc offers an inconsistent but often excellent AVC-encoded 1080p 1.37:1 video transfer. For the most part, this presentation offers excellent fine detail, with a satisfyingly nuanced grayscale and deep blacks. There are certain stretches, however, that must have been taken from lesser materials, because of isolated incidents of print damage, out-of-whack contrast, and softness. The main DTS-HD MA mono audio track has been cleaned up well and, despite the limitations of its age, it sounds very good. The disc also offers a lossy Spanish Dolby mono audio option and English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The bonuses are a mix of old (from the DVD release) and new:
- Audio commentary by F.X. Feeney - The former Z Channel critic provides a nice relaxed mix of anecdotes, critique, and history.
- Monument Valley: John Ford Country (14:41) - A well-made featurette about John Ford's use of Monument Valley for location shooting, starting with Stagecoach in the late '30s and continuing for decades.
The Searchers (1956)
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While arguably the three older films in this box set are all first-rate classics, John Ford's The Searchers is in a class by itself. Made in the era of the "psychological western," The Searchers features a cruel, racist, shattered man as the protagonist at the center of its drama, and if that isn't perverse enough, it casts American icon John Wayne in that role. His Ethan Edwards is the kind of main character that captures the imagination of both film lovers and PhD students. A brief Google search I just did on The Searchers turned up thinkpieces both on how the film continues to be an influential masterpiece that has become an essential part of the American cultural tapestry and on how it's an overrated, outdated relic of a less enlightened time.
If The Searchers doesn't connect with you, then I'm not going to spill a bunch of virtual ink to change your mind. I can only add my endorsement to the pile of accolades heaped on the film over time, and you can do with it what you will.
After a Comanche war party wipes out his family, mean bastard Ethan Edwards decides to track down his remaining living relative, his young niece Debbie, who was kidnapped by a war chief called Scar. Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an orphan who was taken in by Ethan's kin, also joins the search. Martin is one-eighth Cherokee, though, so that makes him a half-breed lesser-than in Ethan's eyes. Unlike a lot of movie odd couples, they don't exactly warm to each other as their journeys stretch out over the years; they just become resigned to each other's company. When they finally catch up to Debbie, played as a teenager by Natalie Wood, Ethan and Martin become pitted against each other more fiercely, as Martin still wants to save her and the anti-"Comanch" Ethan figures Debbie would be better off dead after Scar has made her one of his wives.
The complexities and contradictions of The Searchers are rich and varied. It's a film that puts character motivation before plot for most of its running time, but then it hinges on a lot of ambiguous or unspoken choices that seem to contradict the characters as we've come to understand them. *SPOILER* The most dramatic of these, of course, is Ethan's decision not to kill Debbie at the end of the film. It's a seemingly out-of-left-field choice that some folks, like this fella from Slate, consider a commercially motivated cop-out. But the moment eloquently illustrates Ethan's tormented existence; the love of his family is able to trump his all-encompassing hate, if only for a moment. *END SPOILER*.
The Searchers is not a perfectly constructed movie, but it packs an emotional and intellectual wallop that far outstrips dozens of other films with better structure. It's the kind of movie that burns itself into your memory and lives there forever. The tough, obsessed lead performance by Wayne, and the weird emotional purgatory in which he remains stranded from the first frame of the film until the last, makes this a uniquely vital piece of work unlike anything else in his filmography.
On the technical side, the version of The Searchers included in this box is identical to the Blu-ray that Warner put out in 2006. This is not horrible news, as this nearly ten-year-old presentation is quite good. Even so, there is definitely room for improvement. The VC-1-encoded 1080p 1.78:1 presentation is clean, stable, and has consistently crisp fine detail. Skin tones seem a little extra brown, but it's not a big distraction. The only major drawback I spotted was some background blockiness and digital noise that could have used some remedying at this late date. More annoying is the audio. It actually sounds excellent, which seems like a minor feat considering that we only get a lossy Dolby mono audio track (192 kbps). Warner upgraded the sound on Casablanca from lossy to lossless a few years ago and Rio Bravo just got the upgrade with this set. Is The Searchers such a drastically less popular film that it can't get a nice bump up after all this time? In addition to the main audio, the disc also offers French Dolby mono and Spanish Dolby mono. Subtitle options: English SDH, French, Spanish.
Most of the bonuses were created for the film's 50th Anniversary releases and offer plenty of supplemental entertainment:
- Audio commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich - Bogdanovich, who has interviewed John Ford, made a documentary about him, and written about him extensively, clearly has thought about The Searchers quite a bit, and he spends a lot of time breaking down Ford's use of the camera and marveling at his economy. For would-be know-it-all filmmakers, this is essential.
- Introduction by Patrick Wayne (1:52) - A highly polished intro, in which Wayne jam-packs tidbits from the time he spent on set into these 2 brief minutes.
- The Searchers: An Appreciation (31:01) - A trio of filmmakers -- Martin Scorsese, John Milius, and Curtis Hanson -- discuss their personal connection to this film and the ways that it has influenced their work. Much like Bogdanovich, they break down the elements of Ford's staging that is so unique and electrifying.
- A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne, and The Searchers (33:10) - A thorough look at the making of the film with an atypical style. Recommended.
- Behind the Cameras (21:49 total) - Four clips from different episodes of TV's Warner Brothers Presents, hosted by Gig Young. The clips highlight Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Monument Valley, and the pre-production process.
- Trailers - one for this film and one for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Rio Bravo (1959)
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Rio Bravo honestly shouldn't be as great a movie as it is. Though it's not as aimless as some European art films, the film's simple plot doesn't justify its nearly two-and-a-half-hour length. The previous film in the set, The Searchers, proves that the Western can be about relationships and not so much about plot, but even by that standard, Rio Bravo is in no hurry. Director Howard Hawks claimed to be inspired by TV westerns of the time, which he saw as being more personality-driven than story-driven. And that's where the magic comes in. The cast of Rio Bravo is outstanding: John Wayne as a slightly over-the-hill small-town sheriff; Dean Martin as his gunfighter buddy, looking to reclaim his dignity and skill after years spent inside a bottle of booze; Angie Dickinson as a stranger in town trying to outrun her past and maybe find some comfort with a small-town sheriff; Ricky Nelson as a young gunfighter who sympathizes with the sheriff but is cautious and aloof; and Walter Brennan at his ornery best as a cranky, crippled jail guard. Seeing the way these characters interact is a pure delight from start to finish; one easily sees why Quentin Tarantino considers this one of the all-time best "hangout movies."
Now, I don't mean to make it seem like absolutely nothing happens in this film. There is a plot, constructed by screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, at Hawks's prodding, to "answer" the premise of the Gary Cooper vehicle High Noon. Cooper's sheriff tried to get townspeople together to help him fend off a posse of bad guys, but Wayne's sheriff sees no benefit in bringing in untrained civilians to fight against professional killers. He flat out refuses this type of help. If the only human resources Wayne has to depend on are a recovering drunk with intermittent shakes and a crank with a bum leg -- both of whom know how to handle a gun -- then so be it. This unruly trio are forced to hold off a barrage of hired thugs and killers who want to break a prisoner out of their jail, the brother of a gentleman with enough cash to continue hiring gunmen till the cows come home -- or the U.S. Marshal shows up for the prisoner.
Hawks structures the long standoff of the film around a series of smaller episodes -- you know, like the TV -- which keeps things fresh and interesting as he gradually grows the bonds between his characters. The big shootout at the end even pulls off the nifty trick of being noisy, explosive action and subtle character development all at the same time.
Hawks basically remade this story two more times in the following decade, as El Dorado and Rio Lobo. I have not seen either of these films, but I expect neither can match Rio Bravo. The joy this film produces has so little to do with its concept that reproducing that concept is to utterly miss the point. This film is the product of a wonderful cast hanging out. It's lightning in a bottle. As the bottler, you would have thought Hawks understood that.
On the technical side, this disc is an update of the old 2007 release but not significantly so. The VC-1-encoded 1.78:1 transfer is precisely the same, with strong, vivid colors but also some inconsistency in terms of fine detail. Even so, it's a clean, above average transfer. The main audio mix has been upgraded from lossy to lossless with a DTS-HD MA mono audio track that gives the show a little more dynamic range. The dialogue remains clean and clear, with the music and explosive sound effects all relatively present in the mix. The alternate audio options are French Dolby mono, German Dolby mono, Italian Dolby mono, and Castilian Spanish Dolby mono. There are a heap of subtitle options too: English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian SDH, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Latin Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish.
The bonuses have actually been reduced from the old release, with the "Men Who Made the Movies" documentary and bonus John Wayne trailers relegated to the digital dustbin. Here's what remains:
- Audio commentary by critic Richard Schickel and filmmaker John Carpenter - Both commentators break down the history and style of the film. Much like Bogdanovich on the Searchers commentary, Carpenter points out Hawks's different approaches to visual storytelling for the camera throughout. Since these two men were recorded at different times and spliced together, that can make the track oddly hectic in places, as the sound editor tries to cram in both of their relevant anecdotes near simultaneously.
- Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (33:23) - A talking-heads making-of with a few filmmakers on hand -- Peter Bogdanovich, Walter Hill, and John Carpenter -- to provide history and background on the film, contextualizing it and explaining its importance to the western film genre. There's some overlap with the commentary, but it's a good featurette.
- Old Tucscon: Where the Legends Walked (8:34) - A brief history of the studio where the film was made.
The Train Robbers (1973)
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A half-million in stolen gold is the jackpot being sought by Wayne and his band of friends and hired guns in The Train Robbers. However, since Wayne is an old-fashioned Western hero even when he's a mercenary, he and his partners are not seeking the loot for themselves, but to turn it in to the authorities for the much less impressive $50,000 reward. It's all on account of this young widow, played by Ann-Margret, who wants to erase the black mark from her late husband's name, so her young son (whom we never meet) doesn't have to grow up ashamed. Ann-Margret's late hubby had partners of his own, the train robbers of the title, whom Wayne and Co. must outmaneuver to reach the gold first and get away alive. There's also the issue of a mysterious man played by Ricardo Montalbán, who seems to be on the trail of both parties, maybe to hijack the group who ends up being the victor.
Though it has its share of suspenseful standoffs and tense shoot-outs, The Train Robbers is largely a character study, in which a bunch of old fogey gunfighters reflect on their past adventures together and ponder their limited future. Rod Taylor and Ben Johnson are well-suited to their roles as fellas who have been following Wayne on crazy missions since they served under him years ago in the army. Christopher George, Jerry Gatlin, and singer Bobby Vinton all get their own little moments too, as the younger generation of traveling guns who have to wrestle with whether they want to be good or wealthy. (The film's humorous surprise ending undermines some of this soul-searching, but it's not completely unearned.) The film hints at a potential love story between thirtysomething Ann-Margret and sixtysomething John Wayne, but his character eventually dismisses her advances: "I've got a saddle older than you."
A film like this depends on the chemistry of its cast, and the small ensemble of The Train Robbers is effective and likable. The film may not be an all-time classic, but it packs enough entertainment that I wouldn't mind revisiting it again somewhere down the road.
The Train Robbers is one of the two titles in this box new to Blu-ray. On the technical side, the Blu-ray boasts an above-average AVC-encoded 1080p 2.35:1 transfer that offers strong colors and rich blacks. Fine detail is often crisp, though it is slightly inconsistent. There is minimal print damage and no major compression issues. The DTS-HD MA mono audio has been beautifully restored, offering a dynamic mix that nicely serves Dominic Frontiere's musical score, as well as the dialogue and effects. Alternate audio options: French Dolby mono, Latin Spanish Dolby mono, and Castilian Spanish Dolby mono. Subtitle options: English SDH, French, Latin Spanish, Castilian Spanish.
The bonuses on this disc are carried over from the 2005 DVD of this film:
- John Wayne: Working with a Western Legend (10:35) - A featurette with the film's stuntmen discussing their work.
- Wayne Train (4:09) - A vintage promo piece, consisting of a bunch of B-roll on the set, tied together by snappy narration and music.
Cahill: United States Marshal (1973)
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The final film in the box set is definitely the relative runt of the litter, although John Wayne remains as watchable a presence as ever. Wayne plays the title character, but the title's emphasis on his job is a bit misleading -- even more misleading than The Train Robbers (at least, the main characters were up against train robbers in that film). After a wham-bang opening, in which Cahill single-handedly captures five criminals, the movie turns out to be about the troubles of being a single father who works all the time. In the case of J.D. Cahill, the problem is that it inspires his two boys, aged 17 and 11, to get snookered into collaborating with a band of no-good bank robbers headed up by the alternately jovial and menacing Mr. Fraser (George Kennedy). Cahill's older boy Danny (Gary Grimes, Summer of '42) helps with the break-in while the younger boy Billy Joe (Clay O'Brien, The Apple Dumpling Gang) buries the loot. After the robbery, during which the sheriff and a deputy are killed, Cahill goes off and finds a group of do-badders in the woods that circumstantially fit the profile of the robber-murderers, which turns out to be enough to get them convicted. Danny doesn't want semi-innocent men to hang for his crime, so he and Billy Joe decide to square things monetarily with Fraser and then turn themselves in. Papa Cahill meanwhile parses out his boys' involvement in this whole dern thing and begins tailing them with the help of a tracker named Lightfoot (Neville Brand).
Cahill has some good performances -- the relationship between Cahill and Lightfoot is appealingly chummy and George Kennedy gives Fraser more layers than the role really deserves -- but the whole thing is based around a so-so premise. Why would Cahill track his sons after he realized they were involved instead of confronting them about it and getting to the heart of things? And why would these young boys go to the trouble of getting wrapped up in a freakin' bank robbery just to get back at their absent lawman dad? I know males aren't great about talking about their feelings, but this plot seriously strains credulity.
Cahill: United States Marshal is the second title in the box that is new to Blu-ray. Like most of the titles in the box, it is technically strong, but a wee bit shy of perfection. The AVC-encoded 1080p 2.35:1 image is clean and stable. It has saturated, earthy colors and rich blacks with good shadow detail. Fine detail is on the inconsistent side, but that's basically par for the course in this set. The main DTS-HD MA mono audio mix is good. Elmer Bernstein's music is presented with a pleasing fullness. The dialogue sounds a little boxy and dated, but it is essentially clean and clear, and the effects (rain, gunshots, etc.) are appropriately dynamic. Alternate audio options: French Dolby mono, German Dolby mono, Castilian Spanish Dolby mono, Latin Spanish Dolby mono, Portuguese Dolby mono. Subtitle options: English SDH, French, German SDH, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Portuguese.
It looks like the previous DVD release of Cahill was bare bones, so these bonuses are all exclusives:
- Audio commentary by director Andrew V. McLaglen - Cahill is McLaglen's fifth and final film with John Wayne, in a collaboration that also included the surname-titled McLintock!. His director's commentary track for this film is the kind of thing you can put on while doing chores, because it's not intensely focused. There are long stretches where McLaglen just watches the film, but when he talks, it's in concentrated bursts of information. He runs down actors' other credits, some production background, his history with John Wayne, and the like.
- The Man Behind The Star (7:47) - A vintage TV promo, with some interesting on-set B-roll and hard-hitting narration.
If you like John Wayne, you're going to like this box. Sure, it would have been nice if the selections had a better rhyme or reason for being together (like that John Wayne/John Ford DVD box of old), or even just stuck to the same era. But fortunately, all five films are entertaining to various degrees. If you already own the older classics in this box, the two newer movies are available separately (considering their low price, I would give them both a mild "Recommended" rating on their own). And if you don't already own the classics, it's nice to have them all in one place, with the later films as an additional bonus. If you look at it that way, this set comes Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new single, Don't Depend on Me, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.