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With: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Tim Holt,
Written by: Dudley Nichols, Frank S. Nugent, etc.
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: -99
Date: 18/03/2013

The John Ford/John Wayne Film Collection (2006)

4 Stars (out of 4)

I Make Westerns

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy John Ford Movies on DVD

Warner Home Video has done a great service to filmdom this week by releasing 13 John Ford films on DVD in two new box sets, filling several holes in the resume of a man many consider the greatest American filmmaker.

The first box, The John Ford/John Wayne Film Collection ($79.98) starts off with a classic, The Searchers (1956), re-mastered and re-released for its 50th anniversary. I will say right off that it's probably the finest DVD transfer I've ever seen. Not only is the film newly crisp and its colors newly bold, but also the Vistavision image actually appears deeper.

It's a bittersweet experience, because The Searchers is the most flawed of all American classics. It tells the story of one Ethan Hunt (John Wayne) who spends years searching for his niece (played at different ages by Lana and Natalie Wood), kidnapped by ruthless Comanche.

Ethan's obsession is so darkly violent and Ford depicts it visually in such breathtaking ways that it's easy for some to overlook the film's obvious failings: Ford's bawdy sense of humor. In other films, this dumb, drunken humor is perfectly acceptable, but in such a precision piece, it only juts out.

Nonetheless, the new Searchers two-disc set comes with lots of extras, including a new commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Ford in the final years of his life, as well as featurettes (interviewing Martin Scorsese, John Milius and other devotees of the film) and reproductions of the original press book and comic book.

Stagecoach (1939) has also been re-presented in a new two-disc edition. Credited as the film that revitalized and legitimized the Western genre, as well as making John Wayne into a star, "Stagecoach" is still a wildly entertaining ride.

Modeled after a story by Guy de Maupassant, Stagecoach throws together several passengers from all walks of life in the title transport, rumbling across dusty Apache territory.

Claire Trevor was the top-billed star, playing Dallas, a woman of ill repute who receives the scorn of her fellow travelers. Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his portrayal of a drunken doctor, but Wayne steals the show as the Ringo Kid; his arrival, a zoom-in as he twirls his rifle, says it all.

The Stagecoach disc also includes the excellent new two-hour "American Masters" documentary (which premiered on PBS), John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend.

The Ford/Wayne box continues with the first two chapters in the "Cavalry Trilogy" (the third, Rio Grande, is available on a separate DVD from Artisan).

Fort Apache (1948) stars John Wayne as a cheerful horse soldier and Henry Fonda as a bitter West Point officer, with an adorable teenage Shirley Temple as Fonda's daughter. It's an odd film, consisting more of sidetracks than an actual story, but it showed a new restlessness in Ford, and a willingness to question the norm. Former New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent wrote the screenplay, kicking off a long-standing partnership with Ford.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) came as a response to Ford's seeing Howard Hawks' Red River and discovering that Wayne could actually act. Ford cast him as an aging cavalry soldier on the verge of retirement and Wayne delivered. It also features dazzling color cinematography (by Winton C. Hoch) after a career filled almost exclusively with black-and-white.

The box set also includes The Long Voyage Home (1940) an eerily beautiful wartime film photographed by Gregg Toland (just before Citizen Kane) and based on a series of one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill. Wayne actually performs the entire film in a Swedish accent!

The sentimental 3 Godfathers (1948) and the war films They Were Expendable (1945) and The Wings of Eagles (1957) round out the set.

Ford (1894-1973) came to Hollywood following his brother and hoping for work as an actor. He earned a job as a director of quickie Westerns, but gained prominence with his 1924 film The Iron Horse.

He remained in the public eye for decades, gaining a reputation for artistry and excellence, but also a grumpy Irish temperament (and an intimidating eye-patch). Asked about his "artistry" or "visual poetry," Ford would clam up.

He would go on to win six Oscars, four for Best Director (a record still unequalled) as well as two more for his wartime documentary shorts.

Though he made a star of John Wayne, and Wayne would eventually tower over his friend and mentor, Ford made a number of great films independent of his star.

The second box set, The John Ford Film Collection ($59.98) highlights five of these. Made at RKO on a budget, the 74-minute action film The Lost Patrol (1934) tells the story of a platoon stranded at an oasis in the Mesopotamian desert, surrounded by a (mostly) unseen band of marauding Arabs.

Victor McLaughlin stars as the sergeant and Boris Karloff plays a wild-eyed religious nut. Ford and his longtime screenwriter Dudley Nichols center on character interaction and keep the action mainly off-camera for a startlingly tense film.

The Informer (1935) won Ford his first Oscar, as well as one for McLaughlin as a down-on-his-luck Irish hood who turns in his best friend for a 20-pound reward. The film's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography -- with its streams of fog and sparkling cobblestones -- gave audiences a new glimpse as to the potential artistry of cinema.

This second box also comes with Mary of Scotland (1936), upon which Ford fell in love with his feisty leading lady, Katharine Hepburn, and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Ford's penultimate film, a Cinemascope Western spectacle with an all-star cast (including James Stewart and Edward G. Robinson in glorified cameos).

Best of all, however, is Sergeant Rutledge (1960), an astonishing film not only for its sheer visual and narrative excellence but also for its early acknowledgement of race relations in America. It's strikingly similar to To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but two years earlier and a great deal angrier.

The tall, laconic Woody Strode stars in the title role, a soldier in the 9th Cavalry (a.k.a. the "Buffalo soldiers"), accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Jeffrey Hunter (also in The Searchers) plays the white attorney assigned to defend him.

The story takes place in the courtroom and proceeds in flashback as each testimony adds more detail. Ford cynically puts the case in the hands of a corrupt court, a batch of impatient, obnoxious white men with a taste for gambling.

Though certain issues of representation arise (such as the silly ending in which the white attorney gets to kiss the girl), Sergeant Rutledge gets enormous credit for its straightforward approach, its bravery long before Hollywood was ready for it, and its noble beauties.

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