Appellate Judge Dan Mancini is an American icon. Just ask him, pardner.
Our review of The Conqueror (2009), published July 26th, 2011, is also available.
"I have tried to live my life so that my family would love me and my friends respect me. The others can do whatever the hell they please."—John Wayne
Whether you love John Wayne as the seminal Hollywood action hero, hate him as a symbol of right-wing machismo and chauvinism, or fall somewhere in between, there's no question that he is an icon of the American cinema. There's also no question that the five films collected in this two-disc set from Universal don't offer the best demonstration of the reasons for his iconic status (he wasn't, after all, one of Universal's contract players). Still, John Wayne: An American Icon Collection contains some fine and entertaining films as well as a couple fascinating misfires.
Facts of the Case
Here are the five films you'll find in this two-disc set:
• Seven Sinners
Cabaret singer Bijou (Marlene Dietrich) drifts from one Indonesian island to another due to her talent for inciting riots among the men at the cafés where she sings. Raging fisticuffs at the Blue Devil Café get her deported to Boni-Komba along with two traveling companions, none-too-bright Ned (Broderick Crawford, All the King's Men), a lout ousted from the Navy, and a shady magician and pickpocket named Sasha (Mischa Auer, My Man Godfrey). The little island is a port for the U.S. Navy and a refuge for lowlifes, criminals, and ne'er-do-wells. Bijou lands on her feet with a job singing at the Seven Sinners Café, owned by her old friend Tony (Billy Gilbert, His Girl Friday). She also falls head over heels for a strapping navy lieutenant named Dan Brent (Wayne). There's trouble in low-rent paradise when Bijou's knife-throwing ex-flame Antro (Oskar Homolka, I Remember Mama) develops a jealous streak, and Lt. Brent's superiors find the idea of a naval officer falling for a rabble-rousing cabaret singer distasteful.
• The Shepherd of the Hills
Orphaned as a boy, Young Matt Mathews (Wayne) is a moonshiner living in the Ozarks with his Aunt Mollie (Beulah Bondi, It's a Wonderful Life) and his uncle, Old Matt (James Burton, Yellow Sky). Mollie's a bitter old soul who believes that the Mathews—and a piece of their land called Moanin' Meadow—were cursed by the disappearance of Young Matt's mysterious father. To lift the curse, Matt must find his Pa and kill him. The young man's obsession with his own fate prevents a potential romance with Sammy Lane (Betty Field, Peyton Place), the daughter of fellow moonshiner Jim Lane (Tom Fadden, Empire of the Ants). Local superstitions are upended, though, when a stranger named Dan Howitt (Harry Carey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) buys Moanin' Meadow and keeps a herd of sheep there. Howitt's willingness to live on cursed land, as well as his kindness and good deeds—helping to heal a dying child, paying for Lady Granny (Marjorie Main, Ma and Pa Kettle) to see a medical specialist who restores her sight, and turning the town into teetotalers by way of his good example—open the townsfolks' eyes to a larger, less insular world. Unfortunately, the revelation of Howitt's secret connection to the Mathews family may undo all of his selfless acts.
Disc Two, Side A:
Charles "Pittsburgh" Markham (Wayne) and John "Cash" Evans (Randolph Scott, Ride the High Country) are lowly coal miners until Pittsburgh's attraction to upscale Josie Winters (Marlene Dietrich) plants visions of wealth and power in his head. Pittsburgh cuts a deal with Morgan Prentiss (Samuel S. Hinds, It's a Wonderful Life) to supply his Prentiss Steel Company with coke for a fraction of what the old man currently pays. Markham and Evans have no mine or refining equipment, or capital to purchase either. This is a problem easily solved by some fraud and forgery on Pittsburgh's part. In no time flat, the Markham and Evans Colliery is up and running, and the boys are rich. Wealth and power prove a fatally addictive combination for Pittsburgh, who ditches Josie for Shannon Prentiss (Louise Allbritton, Son of Dracula) in order to increase his influence at the steel company, bullies underlings, and refuses to deliver on promises of a living wage and health care coverage for his miners. His own ruthlessness and greed get the better of him, though, when he's outsmarted by Morgan Prentiss, ending his career. But as America enters World War II, there is a need for the steel to supply munitions. Pittsburgh sees this new business opportunity not only as a way back into corporate power, but also as a way to right his previous wrongs.
• The Conqueror
In the 12th-century Gobi Desert, the Mongols vie for dominance with the Merkits, Tartars, and Karkaits. The Mongols have been in disarray since their leader, Yesugei, was murdered by Tartar chieftan Kumlek (Ted de Corisa, The Lady from Shanghai). A marriage between Kumlek's daughter Börte (Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!) and Merkit chieftan Targutai (Leslie Bradley, The Crimson Pirate) is meant to consolidate power between the two groups. But Yesugei's son, Temüjin (Wayne), disrupts the arrangement by kidnapping Börte. The woman both despises and is attracted to rugged Temüjin, and will prove a key element in his rise to power and transformation into Genghis Khan. As the Tartars and Merkits join forces against the Mongols, Temüjin proves as politically astute as he is militarily bold. Pushing his uncle, Wang Khan (Thomas Gomez, Pittsburgh), toward open conflict with the Tartars, he sets a military trap that will destroy Kumlek and ensure both his own rise to power and his possession of Börte. His plans may be at risk, though, as Wang Khan's manipulative advisor, Shaman (John Hoyt, Blackboard Jungle) has his own agenda, Temüjin's mother (Agnes Moorehead, Citizen Kane) disapproves of his match with Börte, and his brother Jamuga (Pedro Armendariz, From Russia with Love) considers betrayal in order to maintain a safe status quo for his people.
Disc Two, Side B:
• Jet Pilot
During a routine patrol, U.S. Air Force Colonel Jim Shannon (Wayne) picks up a bogie on its way toward Alaska from Siberia. The Soviet fighter is piloted by Lieutenant Anna Marladnova (Janet Leigh, Psycho), a hottie who speaks perfect English. Anna wants asylum, but doesn't want to betray her country by giving up military secrets. She and Shannon have an immediate sexual attraction, but are repulsed by each other's political ideologies. Is Anna's love for Jim real or is she trying to pry national secrets from him? For that matter, is Jim's love for Anna real or is he just bedding her for the sake of national security? In other words, who's zoomin' who?
Seven Sinners was made just a year after John Wayne broke the bonds of B-movie actor and began his rise to A-list star in John Ford's seminal western Stagecoach, so it's no surprise that Marlene Dietrich alone receives above-the-title billing. Directed by Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice ), Seven Sinners is a rambunctious comedy brimming with exotica, a rogues' gallery of picaresques, and a fairly potent romantic through-line. Dietrich reportedly spotted Wayne in Universal's commissary and decided she absolutely had to have him. Her insistence on his being cast in Seven Sinners led to an affair between the two that lasted a few years. Their off-screen chemistry is palpable on-screen. They play well against one another, and are combative and flirtatious even as their eyes register slow-burning lust. Their intensity anchors the film's meandering (albeit fun) plot.
Played by nearly any other leading man of the era, Lt. Dan Brent might have been a one-dimensional do-gooder naval officer, but Wayne's über-machismo adds needed substance to the character. He is clearly, effortlessly the alpha male among the crowd of rowdies. Every time he enters the Seven Sinners, he dominates the place with his physical presence and screen charisma. The only drawback to what Wayne's persona brings to Brent is that Oskar Homolka's Antro doesn't come off as a worthy opponent. There's never any doubt as to how a conflict between the two will turn out. Their undercranked fight sequence at the movie's climax is more goofy than exciting. Its end—which implies the men were equally matched—feels implausible.
Tay Garnett's direction imbues the picture with a maximum of lighthearted vigor, giving it a sort of Casablanca-lite flavor. In addition to its crisp direction, smoldering Dietrich-Wayne romance, and Wayne's onscreen power, Seven Sinners also delivers thoroughly entertaining comic performances by Mischa Auer, Broderick Crawford, and the always flummoxed Billy Gilbert. If that's not enough for you, Dietrich sings "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby," "I've Been in Love Before," and "The Man's in the Navy" as only Dietrich can. Seven Sinners isn't a top-shelf classic of Hollywood's golden era, but it's charming and entertaining. It's also the best picture in this set.
The Shepherd of the Hills—director Henry Hathaway's (True Grit) tale of backwoods moonshiners—is a Harry Carey vehicle more than a John Wayne picture. Carey not only plays the title character, he is the film's heart and soul, delivering a gentle performance imbued with unassuming nobility. It's a treat to see Wayne and Carey share the screen with one another as Wayne replaced (and eclipsed) Carey as director John Ford's go-to leading man. Wayne's respect and admiration for Carey was such that in the iconic closing shot of Ford's The Searchers, he mimicked Carey's mannerism of holding his left elbow in his right hand as a sly tribute to the actor, who had been dead a little less than a decade when the film was shot. Wayne's respect for Carey comes through in every scene they share in The Shepherd of the Hills, though Young Matt is mostly distrustful and antagonistic toward Dan Howitt.
Hathaway's picture is the third and most famous film adaptation of Harold Bell Wright's turn-of-the-last-century novel (a television adaptation was also produced in 1960). Wright was a minister-turned-novelist who drew heavily on John's gospel for the structure and content of his tale of hayseed redemption. But the film's final act offers a surprising reversal of Christ's statement that "the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." I have no idea if the finale comes straight from Wright's source material, but its results are mixed. On the one hand, it defies expectations set by the biblical subtext; on the other hand, it's implausible, a little goofy, and relies much too heavily on dialogue.
Despite the awkward ending, The Shepherd of the Hills entertains so long as one doesn't go in expecting verisimilitude. This is a Hollywood studio picture of 1941, not Deliverance. The flick's hillbillies are clean, attractive, and speak a stylized Li'l Abner-esque version of an old-timey Ozarks drawl. Beneath the cartoon veneer, though, Howitt, Young Matt, and the rest of the characters display a humanity rounded enough to involve us in their travails.
This set skips The Spoilers—a 1942 western starring Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne—but offers the third of the three films the duo made together, Pittsburgh (also 1942). Directed by Lewis Seiler (Guadalcanal Diary), the picture is little more than a long and rambling public service announcement honoring the patriotism of major industries rolling up their sleeves and pitching in for the war effort. Though much of the movie's running time is concerned with Pittsburgh Markham's descent into avarice and ruthless corporate politics, the main action is framed by sequences of Markham and Evans Colliery and Prentiss Steel proudly turning their efforts to the manufacture of tanks, planes, and armored vehicles—out of altruism, naturally; emerging revenue streams have nothing to do with it. The gently propagandistic nature of the film is perfectly understandable given how recently America had entered the war at the time of the film's production, but it doesn't change the fact that, as a result, over 60 years later Pittsburgh feels more like a curiosity than classic.
Sadly, there's more fizzle than sizzle between Dietrich and Wayne this time around. Dietrich, as a matter of fact, spends more of the running time romantically connected to Randolph Scott than Wayne, though it's clear her "Hunky" Winters is hopelessly in love with Markham no matter how dastardly he behaves. But Dietrich is more fun when playing a woman on the sexual prowl like Seven Sinners' Bijou than a doormat like "Hunky." Her turn here is bound to disappoint anyone looking for classic Dietrich style.
It's John Wayne's performance that makes Pittsburgh worth 91 minutes of your time. He does a fine job playing a character who starts off cocky and ambitious, and slowly devolves into a grade-A bastard. For most of the second act he's a tough and nasty son-of-a-bitch, using his wits and physical presence to devastating effect as he bullies, berates, and outright crushes anyone who stands in the way of his success. You'll have a great time hating Markham, even if you're a huge fan of John Wayne.
There's a 14-year gap between Pittsburgh and the next feature in this set, 1956's The Conqueror, infamous for its horrific miscasting of Wayne as Asian hellion Genghis Khan. Legend has it that director Dick Powell (The Enemy Below) wanted Marlon Brando in the role, but Wayne used his clout to insert himself into the production—an atrocious misstep on the Duke's part. I'm in the camp that believes Wayne is mostly underrated as a screen actor. Yes, his range was narrow and he'd never have succeeded as a stage actor, but he had the enormous presence, magnetism, and personal idiosyncrasies that make movie stars movie stars. Once you settle into the unique rhythms of his speech, they become transparent and his line-reads take on the quality of a kind of raw naturalism. No matter how you cut it, though, his attempt to flex his thespian muscles by playing the famed Mongol warlord was miscalculated. Wayne is awful in The Conqueror, just awful.
On the other hand, The Conqueror itself is awful, and would have been awful even if Brando had played the lead. Screenwriter Oscar Millard's (Angel Face) dialogue is uniformly bad. It's so stilted and phony that even Agnes Moorehead struggles with it. And Moorehead knew how to make with over-the-top camp when faced with lousy material. Moreover, the casting of the entire picture is so weird and westernized (ginger-haired Susan Hayward as a Tartar princess?) that the casting of Wayne seems a minor error in the grand scheme of the picture's blatant Hollywood artifice. Given the monumental stature of the film's badness, a strange thing happened as I watched it: I began enjoying it as a big, slick, gaudy Hollywood spectacle. The action sequences are crisp, coherent, and well-directed. The story is historical fabrication, but also so fast-paced it encourages you not to think too much or too often. A scene of veiled dancing girls in sequined costumes with zippers up their backs, clearly doing their thing under the guidance of a studio-hired choreographer couldn't be more fake, but it's also kind of fun and definitely pretty to look at. In its own weird way, The Conqueror works. It's not good, but it does manage to entertain, so long as you're game for a piece of unapologetic Hollywood fluff.
Shot in Cinemascope on location in the rugged terrain around St. George, Utah, the movie is a feast for the eyes. The folks who worked on the picture may have paid a huge price for the visual beauty, though. Large portions of the film were shot in Snow Canyon, which was dangerously close to Yucca Flats, Nevada where the U.S. government has tested an atomic bomb. An unusually large number of the film's cast and crew—including Wayne, Hayward, and Powell—contracted aggressive forms of cancer in the years that followed. Despite its containing the most infamous of his performances, The Conqueror didn't kill John Wayne's career, but it may have killed John Wayne.
The final film in this collection is 1957's Jet Pilot, which pairs Wayne with Janet Leigh. The picture has been pilloried as one-dimensional anti-Soviet propaganda, and I suppose it is, though it's better criticized as bad romantic comedy. Most of the propaganda serves humor surrounding mismatched lovers Jim Shannon and Anna Marladnova more than pro-American or capitalist polemic. It's kid glove stuff in the vein of Yakov Smirnoff's "In America you x, while in Russia we y" shtick. I can't imagine anyone finding it offensive.
The romantic story is as goofy as anything Doris Day or Rock Hudson ever starred in. Leigh's sultry, kittenish behavior is as corny as Wayne's going so gaga for her that he doesn't bother to wonder if there's an ulterior motive behind her bump 'n' jiggle. Adding to the absurdity, she doesn't even speak with a Russian accent. Apparently, Anna's a Soviet fighter pilot and spy from southern California. The good news is that Wayne and Leigh actually have some onscreen chemistry, despite their 20-year age difference.
Jet Pilot was the final movie released by director Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel), though it was actually shot in 1951, before his Macao and Anatahan (and before this set's The Conqueror). It's a less-than-stellar end to an often brilliant career. Nobody knows to what extent Sternberg had control over the final cut, but I'd guess not much. The movie screams of producer Howard Hughes's love for aeronautics. The romance between Wayne and Leigh is padded with lengthy test flight sequences that are pretty to look at, but offer little in the way of action (Chuck Yeager did some of the stunt flying, by the way—the movie even includes footage of "Glamorous Glennis," the Bell XS-1 in which Yeager broke the sound barrier).
Jet Pilot isn't good, but it should be fun for anyone entertained by formulaic romantic comedies. It's the sort of picture that attempts to distract you from questions of Russian accents and flimsy plot contrivances by thrusting Janet Leigh's breasts in your face. Sometimes the ruse works.
Seven Sinners and Pittsburgh are black-and-white films presented in full-frame transfers that approximate their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Seven Sinners' image offers superb contrast—blacks are solid, while whites don't quite sparkle but are white nonetheless. The gray range is full and subtle. Source damage is minimal and grain is controlled. There's a bit of haloing from edge enhancement, but no other digital artifacts are present. Grain is more prevalent on Pittsburgh's transfer, but contrast remains subtle. Detail is solid without the haloing present in Seven Sinners. Some moiré is visible in the fine checked patterns of the men's suits.
The Shepherd of the Hills, The Conqueror, and Jet Pilot are all color films. They're presented in their respective 1.33:1, 2.35:1, and 1.85:1 original aspect ratios (the two widescreen transfers are anamorphically-enhanced). Shot in eye-popping Technicolor, The Shepherd of the Hills may have a stylized, overblown palette, but it sure is a joy to look at. Detail is strong. The source was mostly clean and free of damage, though there are some minor pocks here and there. The Conqueror is similarly spectacular in terms of color reproduction, though it's plagued by some minor density problems and flicker. Grain is mostly fine, though more noticeable in many of the establishing shots of the Utah buttes. The image isn't quite as sharp as it should be. This is likely due to concessions in bit-rate necessary to squeeze both The Conqueror and Pittsburgh onto Disc One, Side A. Jet Pilot's transfer is mostly smooth with far more natural colors. Sternberg's jet footage sports more grain, but not enough to annoy. Video artifacts are minimal.
Audio is serviceable on all five films. The two-channel mono presentations of Seven Sinners, The Shepherd of the Hills, Pittsburgh, and Jet Pilot are hiss- and crackle-free, with the last film offering slightly more oomph due to its newer vintage. Specifications on the packaging mislabel The Conqueror as also having a mono audio track. In fact, the presentation is Dolby Stereo Surround. As such, the track is slightly fuller with a bit more bottom end.
Each of the films is subtitled in French and Spanish, as well as offering closed captions for the hearing-impaired in English.
The only supplemental material in the set is a trailer for each of the five films.
John Wayne: An American Icon Collection is short on iconic John Wayne performances, but it still offers a reasonable amount of entertainment. Readily available online and at brick 'n' mortars for around 20 bucks, it's also a steal.
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