Judge Joe Armenio deals with Pappy and The Duke.
Our reviews of John Wayne Westerns Film Collection (Blu-ray) (published October 19th, 2015), The Searchers (published April 11th, 2000), The Searchers (Blu-Ray) (published October 11th, 2007), The Searchers (HD DVD) (published September 11th, 2006), Stagecoach (1939) Criterion Collection (published May 25th, 2010), Stagecoach (1966) (published October 13th, 2011), Stagecoach (1939) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published May 20th, 2010), and TCM Greatest Classic Legends: Maureen O'Hara (published April 23rd, 2015) are also available.
"I never knew the big son of a bitch could act."—John Ford to Howard Hawks, after seeing Red River (1948)
John Ford, as was his contradictory tendency, tended to bully his closest friends and John Wayne was no exception. He also helped to make Wayne a star, although Ford had known the former Marion Morrison for more than a decade before he cast him in the lead of his 1939 film Stagecoach. Wayne is so iconic a figure, his achievement so lost in the simplified stuff of legend-making, that actually watching the big son of a bitch act is a revelation: he was, of course, a magnificent physical presence, the smooth matinee-idol looks of his youth gradually giving way to a weathered, solemn, granite-like thickness that matched the timbre of his voice. He was also marvelously subtle actor, capable of conveying great tenderness and humanity through the smallest gestures, his face registering layers upon layers of thought, but he could also be elemental and volcanic: his raging Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is one of the greatest acting achievements in all of film.
Ford and Wayne made 14 films together (not counting a few pre-Stagecoach bit parts), 8 of which are included in this box from Warner Bros. For the record, the films not included are Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962: Ford directed the segment called "The Civil War" and Wayne played General Sherman), and Donovan's Reef (1963).
Only three of the films in the box are new to DVD (The Long Voyage Home, Fort Apache, and The Wings of Eagles), while two acknowledged classics, Stagecoach and The Searchers, are presented as two-disc "special editions." One could see this as either a generous and handsomely presented tribute or a gratuitous exercise in double-dipping; at least all of the films are available individually, so one can pick and choose.
Facts of the Case
Stagecoach: Wayne stars as the Ringo Kid, an escaped criminal with a heart of gold, as he and an ensemble cast travel through Monument Valley under the threat of Native American attack.
The Long Voyage Home: Ford's adaptation of four one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill focuses on the difficult lives of civilian seamen asked to transport TNT from the South Seas to Britain in the difficult early days of World War II; Wayne is Ole Olson, a good-natured Swede whose only desire is to return home.
They Were Expendable: The film that Ford made immediately after his return from Navy service in World War II is a somber exploration of the impossible tasks facing American seamen in Asia immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
3 Godfathers: A 1948 Technicolor Western about a group of bandits who are forced to care for a baby while trying to escape arrest.
Fort Apache: The first film of Ford's loose "Cavalry Trilogy" features Henry Fonda as a Custer-ish martinet who takes over a frontier outpost and becomes determined to lead his men into a disastrous tangle with the Indians.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Film two of the "Cavalry Trilogy" stars Wayne as retiring solider Nathan Brittles, determined to avoid war but willing to fight if necessary in the days following Custer's demise.
The Searchers: In post-Civil War Texas, the pathologically single-minded Ethan Edwards attempts over a period of years to track down his niece, captured in a Native American attack in which her father, mother, and sister were murdered.
The Wings of Eagles: A biopic of "Spig" Wead, a Navy pilot who became a screenwriter after being paralyzed in an accident.
Where to start with these films? Stagecoach, while not the most thought-provoking or profound of Ford's films, is perhaps the greatest example of what Peter Bogdanovich calls Ford's "economy of style," his ability to tell a complicated story with a minimum of dialogue, close-ups, or cross-cutting, with an emphasis on subtly layered compositions and discreet camera movements (when he moves the camera more showily, as in the famous star-making first close-up of Wayne, or the quick pan to the Indians on the ridge, the effect is even more effective and startling for being rare). The directorial style of Stagecoach is intricate but transparent, never drawing attention to itself. Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols also imbue the characters, who are mostly stock types, with a rare depth and humanity; I defy anyone not to fall in love with Claire Trevor's kind, long-suffering prostitute Dallas (her profession is given only by implication because of Production Code requirements). The drunken Doc Boone, another cliché, becomes something more moving than comic relief through the artistry of Nichols, Ford, and Mitchell.
By contrast, the style of The Long Voyage Home is flashier and makes a case for the cinematographer as auteur: the film was shot by Gregg Toland and it bears more resemblance to other Toland films (like Ford's The Grapes of Wrath and Welles' Citizen Kane) than to anything else in Ford's work. Toland's odd camera angles, his depth of focus, and his extreme contrasts of light and shadow are still somewhat startlingly experimental. Consider also that this is a film much more concerned with images and the creation of mood than with narrative, and it's no surprise that audiences in 1940 were mystified by it. Although Toland's artistic fingerprints are everywhere, this is also unmistakably a Ford film, especially in its brooding obsession with the past, and with loss; many Ford films are set in the past and many others feature characters who are death-haunted, grieving, obsessed with something that's vanished. In The Long Voyage Home, the perfection of the images begins to suggest a fetishization of the past, a need to capture in an image a moment of time that's lost forever, a theme that I talked about a bit in my review of Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. At one point John Qualen's character, mourning the death of a fellow sailor, says in seeming disbelief, "He's gone, gone, Smitty's gone," and the effect is reminiscent of Henry Fonda's infinitely sad "Ann died too" in Young Mr. Lincoln. Wayne, as the innocent Ole Olson, is touching and his Swedish accent is quite believable (really, it is!).
They Were Expendable is as experimental in narrative as The Long Voyage Home is with its images. Made immediately after Ford's return from Navy service and written by former Navy man "Spig" Wead, the film is reverent towards the soldiers and sailors it depicts, but is solemn and rather relentless in portraying war's costs. The movie's full of frustrations, of battles that are either lost or not quite decided, of people losing each other in the chaos of battle and only maybe meeting again. Wayne and Robert Montgomery give low-key performances as PT boat commanders. Apparently Ford rode Wayne relentlessly during the shoot about his failure to serve in the war (Montgomery and Ford had both been Navy men) and perhaps it's telling that Wayne's character spends the film's first hour in the hospital romancing a pretty nurse played by Donna Reed. As ever, Ford makes his points with a minimum of speechifying, through small gestures, offhand remarks, and casually brilliant compositions. In this context a tiny moment like Reed's tearful "they're all such nice guys" becomes pregnant with a great and unconsolable sense of loss.
I'm still not at all sure how I feel about 3 Godfathers, a Western in which some of Ford's most ravishing images (shot by Winton Hoch, whom Ford referred to as a "pedantic cameraman" but kept hiring) are put to the service of a banal, maudlin script. 3 Godfathers can be seen as a reflection on some of Ford's early work; it's dedicated to his first star, Harry Carey, is based on a 1919 Ford/Carey film called Marked Men, and features Harry Carey Jr. as one of the titular godfathers. Wayne, Carey, and Pedro Armendariz are bank robbers who escape to the desert to avoid sheriff Ward Bond's posse and, through plot machinations too involved to recount, make a vow to a dying mother to take care of her baby. The characterizations are nearly devoid of nuance; these are three of the best bad men in the history of movies, rather relentlessly wholesome after their initial burst of violence at the bank. The script is filled with pointless and ham-handed biblical allusions as well as easy jokes built around the incongruity of desperadoes being forced into the child-care business. This is also, for much of its running time, a film about three men slowly dying of thirst in the desert and Hoch's Death Valley vistas have a remarkable bleak splendor. It's a strange film.
I feel no ambivalence about Ford and Wayne's other 1948 film, Fort Apache, one of the director's greatest achievements. Ford loved the cavalry because it was full of immigrant outsiders, forced in the rough conditions of the frontier to form a new community and improvise the rites of civilization. Some of the film's more moving scenes are those capturing the dances held by the troops to solidify their sense of community and the attempts of young Philadelphia Thursday (Shirley Temple) to create what she sees as a proper home; Fonda's Owen Thursday represents, by contrast, an institutional inflexibility, a humorless narrowness, an ultimately tragic inability to relate to the community. See, for example, the great sequence in which the NCO dance is interrupted by the argument between Thursday and Fonda's Captain York, who disapproves of Thursday's vicious, racist plan to deceive the Native Americans; the dance breaks up and Ford cuts to Philadelphia and John Agar's sergeant, who have been forbidden from marrying by her father. Outside, in the dark, they share a wordless, shadowed dance and then they kiss, their bond representing the community that Thursday seems determined to destroy. It's a quiet, sublime moment, pure poetry.
The ending of Fort Apache, in which York lies about Thursday's heroism to the press, has been seen as a cop-out, but it actually deepens the film's ambiguity. York may be encouraging the press to avoid the unpleasant facts of American empire-building (to "print the legend," a famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but as Tag Gallagher points out, Ford has just spent two hours showing us the facts of Thursday's homicidal, suicidal ambition and racism. The final scene actually deepens Wayne's character: he is both rebel and good soldier, a man who opposed his commanding officer but ultimately is trapped in the system, unable to make substantive change, and unable to leave his livelihood. In addition, he seems now to believe himself in Thursday's heroism! Or is he simply putting on a good show, giving in a system he knows he can't beat? It's a fascinating ending to a majestic and profound film.
The next cavalry picture, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, is less profound; the main attractions here are Wayne's tender performance as the aging Nathan Brittles and Hoch and Ford's typically eye-filling Technicolor Monument Valley compositions. Brittles' reticence toward war is moving, but I agree with Joseph McBride that there's something easily nostalgic and thoughtless about Ford's identification with the older generation and his dismissal of the young, encapsulated in Brittles' conversation with the Indian elder Pony That Walks (played by Chief John Big Tree, one of the few real Native Americans to have a speaking role in a Ford film). Howard Hawks' Red River, made in 1948, also featured Wayne as an older man with a disdain for the young, but he's portrayed in that film in a complex and disturbing way; in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon it's taken for granted that the old folks are always right. Still, I'll take She Wore a Yellow Ribbon over most films, if only for the mixture of wisdom, humanity, sadness, and courage with which Ford and Wayne are able to imbue Brittles.
There's not much left to say about The Searchers, a mild hit in its day that has since become the most canonized and revered of Ford's films. It deserves all the study and praise that it's gotten: the film has a masterful intensity, a rich ambiguity, and a depth of subtext almost unmatched in classical Hollywood. Wayne is terrifying both when exploding (see the brilliant scene after he finds his niece's body and has to inform Harry Carey Jr. of her death) and simmering (the exquisitely underplayed sequences at the beginning of the film in which Ethan's love for his sister-in-law is established, without a single close-up or reaction shot or direct word on the subject). In the final shot of the film, Wayne is framed against the homestead's doorway, then turns and walks alone back into the frontier; here is the iconic image of the outsider, the violent man who does the work of "taming" the frontier (work that is often unspeakable, violent, and racist) but cannot participate in its results, who because of his violence must remain alone, undomesticated.
Since I don't have much to add to the praise that's been heaped on The Searchers, would it be heretical to mention some of its flaws? I've never quite understood Jeffrey Hunter's character, who is a voice of reason, moderation, humanity, and courage throughout the film, but who also tends to act like a petulant kid and is monumentally clueless with regard to his relationship with Laurie (Vera Miles). This seems like a fault partially of the script (the slow-burning romance is obligatory) and partially of Hunter's performance: when summoned to anger all he can do is act peeved and bratty. I'm also not usually one to complain about Ford's "comic relief," which he usually handles with a masterful command of tone, but in this case Ken Curtis, playing Charlie, seems to be auditioning for Hee Haw 20 years too early and I find his performance irritating and jarring.
Finally, we have The Wings of Eagles, which strikes me as one of the worst of the Ford/Wayne films. I found the first 45 minutes, in which Wayne as "Spig" Wead engages nonstop in tedious macho daredevilry, almost intolerable and if I didn't have to watch the film for review I probably would have turned it off. The character's stupid antics and disregard of his family are played for laughs in a sequence that seems to embody all of Ford's least attractive qualities. Eventually, as Wead recovers from his accident and eventually gets involved in the movie business, things get a bit better and Ford fans will relish Ward Bond's affectionately mocking portrayal of director "John Dodge," a variation on Pappy himself. There are also some movingly underplayed scenes involving Wead's relationship with his wife, played by Maureen O'Hara, but ultimately the film is too tied up in the tired tropes of the biopic, hopping from triumph to tragedy and back again, to be much good and the screenplay is relentlessly corny.
The transfers on all of these films are outstanding, with the Technicolor films 3 Godfathers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon looking especially brilliant. The two older films, Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home, show some signs of print damage, but the images are sharper and clearer than in any previous release. My biggest complaint would probably be that The Searchers occasionally looks a bit too dark, but overall the transfers from Warner Bros. are typically strong.
As for the extras, the two-disc edition of Stagecoach features a commentary by Ford expert Scott Eyman, who does a fine job of putting the film in context, talking about its production history and also providing some scene-specific commentary which illuminates Ford's methods. Although not quite as good as Joseph McBride's commentary on Cheyenne Autumn, it's well worth listening to. The second disc contains an 84-minute episode of the PBS American Masters series titled "John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend." The film hits all the high points of Ford and Wayne's biographies, and features talking-head commentary from usual suspects such as McBride, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, and Peter Bogdanovich. Really, there's nothing here that someone who's read Joseph McBride's biography won't already know, so the only real attractions are the film clips and archival photos used as background. I also found the tone of the piece rather tediously reverent; aren't we allowed to deepen our understanding of our favorite artists by criticizing them, too? I found it a breath of fresh air when critic Richard Schickel admitted to not liking The Quiet Man, one of the only critical comments in the whole film (I also happen to not value The Quiet Man very much). The featurette Stagecoach: A Story of Redemption mostly repeats information contained in Eyman's commentary, with the exception of a few words about Andy Devine. Finally, there's an audio-only feature, a half-hour radio adaptation of Stagecoach from 1946, featuring Claire Trevor in her original role and Randolph Scott as Ringo.
The elaborately-titled "50th Anniversary Ultimate Collectors' Edition" of The Searchers has a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, who as usual is good at describing directorial technique (he given an excellent lesson in Ford's "economy of style") and telling behind-the-scenes stories from his days as an interviewer/historian/friend/nag to the great directors. He's less adept and analyzing themes and ideas, which is a shame for a film as rich in theme as The Searchers. On the second disc, The Searchers: An Appreciation, a half-hour film, contains interviews with Scorsese, Milius, and Curtis Hanson, talking about their memories of seeing The Searchers and doing some nice, close analysis of individual scenes. I find Milius's overwrought, macho mythmaking annoying, but Hanson and particularly Scorsese have some good insights. A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne, and The Searchers is a half-hour film from 1998 which (again, somewhat repetitively) goes into some detail on the film's production history and Monument Valley shoot; the recollections of actors Lara Wood and Pippa Scott are especially interesting. Behind the Scenes is a series of four five-minute promotional spots which ran on TV in 1956; they are narrated by an oily, smirking host and contain corny interviews with Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood.
There are a few other brief extras scattered across the other discs. Since all the films are available individually, there is some repetition. The Long Voyage Home has a ten-minute featurette called Serenity at Sea: John Ford and the Araner in which McBride, Eyman, et al, discuss the director's relationship with his yacht, accompanied by some photos and home movies. On the Fort Apache disc there's a similar featurette called Monument Valley: John Ford Country, which says nothing about Ford's favorite location that one can't get elsewhere in the set. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon contains a pointless biographical sketch of Ford and Wayne (in text), as well as four minutes of home movie footage shot by Ford as he and Wayne scouted locations in Mexico (he lingers nicely over some Mexican musicians).
This is one of the most important collaborations in film history, of course, although fans will have to decide on their own whether this set is strictly necessary. The extras are repetitive and a bit bland, and many of these films are already available. At the very least one should see Fort Apache and The Long Voyage Home, finally available on DVD.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Stagecoach
Perp Profile, Stagecoach
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Stagecoach
• Commentary by Scott Eyman
Scales of Justice, The Long Voyage Home
Perp Profile, The Long Voyage Home
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Long Voyage Home
• "Serenity at Sea: John Ford and the Araner"
Scales of Justice, For They Were Expendable
Perp Profile, For They Were Expendable
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, For They Were Expendable
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Fort Apache
Perp Profile, Fort Apache
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Fort Apache
• Monument Valley: John Ford Country
Scales of Justice, 3 Godfathers
Perp Profile, 3 Godfathers
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, 3 Godfathers
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
Perp Profile, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
• Cast and Crew
Scales of Justice, The Searchers
Perp Profile, The Searchers
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Searchers
• Introduction by Patrick Wayne
Scales of Justice, The Wings Of Eagles
Perp Profile, The Wings Of Eagles
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Wings Of Eagles
• Theatrical Trailer
• IMDb: The Wings of Eagles
Review content copyright © 2006 Joe Armenio; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.