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Case Number 14768

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Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection

Escape From Fort Bravo
1953 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Many Rivers To Cross
1955 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
The Law And Jake Wade
1958 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Saddle The Wind
1958 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Cimarron
1960 // 147 Minutes // Not Rated
The Stalking Moon
1968 // 109 Minutes // Rated G
Released by Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // October 17th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Ben Saylor thinks Warner Home Video should rethink its definition of "classic."

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Cimarron (published June 9th, 2006) and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Westerns (published June 17th, 2010) are also available.

The Charge

Somebody at Warner Home Video must really like Robert Taylor.

Opening Statement

Warner Home Video continues its rollout of old films in themed box sets with the Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection. With films by directors such as Anthony Mann and John Sturges, and performances by the likes of William Holden, Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark, the set certainly has an impressive pedigree. But how do the movies themselves stack up?

Facts of the Case

Escape From Fort Bravo: Ruthless Union Capt. Roper (William Holden, Stalag 17) is known for his rough treatment of the Confederate prisoners at Fort Bravo, a prison outpost in the Arizona territory. But when the hardhearted Roper allows himself to fall for a comely blonde (Eleanor Parker, The Sound of Music) with a secret, the distraction affords some prisoners a window of escape. However, even if the prisoners can elude Roper, they'll also have to contend with the Mescalero Indians who take no sides in the war between the states…and no prisoners, either.

Many Rivers to Cross: Trapper Bushrod Gentry (Robert Taylor, Quo Vadis) is perfectly content with his life of traversing Kentucky and making a living on the fur trade. But when the vivacious sharpshooter Mary Stuart Cherne (Eleanor Parker) deems Bushrod husband material, a battle of wills ensues as Mary attempts to woo the decidedly marriage-averse trapper.

Cimarron: In April of 1889, the United States government opens Oklahoma for settlement. Tens of thousands of prospective settlers stream across the border, among them the charismatic jack-of-all-trades Yancey Cravat (Glenn Ford, Gilda) and his wife Sabra (Maria Schell, Le Notte bianchi). When the land Yancey covets is snatched up by jilted former lover Dixie (Anne Baxter, All About Eve), he takes over the newspaper started by his friend Sam (Robert Keith, The Wild One). As the years go by, fortunes rise and fall among the citizens of Osage, and Yancey and Sabra drift further and further apart.

The Law and Jake Wade: Town marshal Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) thought that his outlaw days were behind him. But when his old partner Clint (Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death) kidnaps his fiancée Peggy (Patricia Owens, Sayonara) and forces him to divulge the hiding place of loot from a past robbery, Jake finds himself riding with his old gang once more.

Saddle the Wind: Reformed gunfighter Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) has eschewed a life of gunplay for that of a rancher. But his hotheaded younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes, The Dirty Dozen) lacks Steve's maturity and common sense, and soon, his itchy trigger finger gets both him and Steve into trouble.

The Stalking Moon: When Sam Varner (Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird) retires from his career as an Army scout, all he wants to do is go home and raise cattle. But when a former Apache captive (Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront) begs him to escort her and her half-Indian son (Noland Clay) to safety, he reluctantly agrees. Hot on the trail of Varner and his charges is Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco), a feared killer and father of the boy under Varner's care.

The Evidence

Despite all the well-known names that populate Warner Home Video's Western Classics Collection, this set is really a mixed bag. To look at these titles more closely, I'll borrow a (revised) template from a truly classic Western.

The Good
The Stalking Moon: This is by far the best film in this set. Skillfully directed by Robert Mulligan (who had worked with Peck on To Kill a Mockingbird), The Stalking Moon is a very effective mood piece, particularly once Varner becomes aware that he is being pursued by Salvaje. Mulligan wisely makes Salvaje an unseen entity for most of the film; for a while, all we see are the aftermaths of his rampages. Even once we have laid eyes on Salvaje, the film retains its suspenseful edge in some masterful scenes of the Apache killer laying siege to Varner's home. Mulligan's beautiful widescreen compositions are perfectly complemented by Charles Lang's gorgeous cinematography, making The Stalking Moon tops in the visual department as well (a caveat: Some of the scenes at the end are marred by poor day-for-night photography).

If The Stalking Moon is rather lacking in characterization, the actors nonetheless acquit themselves admirably. Peck, who used words to such great effect in Mockingbird, here registers strongly despite his character's laconic nature. Ditto Saint, whose character hasn't spoken for years. Both manage to convey a lot with a little, especially considering the film's dearth of close-ups. Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) also turns in a solid supporting performance as Nick Tana, an Indian scout friend of Varner's.

Cimarron: I've never seen the 1931 screen adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel, which I've read is better than the 1960 remake helmed by genre stalwart Anthony Mann (Man of the West). The version in this set, however, while certainly flawed, is nonetheless a fascinating film.

The scope of Cimarron is really something to behold, as the film basically attempts to show the complete evolution of a city from settlement in the 19th century to the swift developments that come in the early 20th century; the narrative spans the years 1889 to 1914. And while it's great to watch as the town of Osage moves from being a few thrown-up buildings in the middle of nowhere to a sprawling city with multi-story buildings and automobiles, the film's 147-minute runtime just isn't enough to tell the film's story adequately. Arnold Schulman's screenplay tries to chart the path of many different characters, but he spreads himself so thin that their progression is generally hard to believe, particularly with the supporting cast. Russ Tamblyn, for example, plays a friend of Yancey's who rather suddenly turns into a bank robber and killer. While the preceding scenes with his character certainly paint him as a ne'er-do-well, the film jumps to this aspect of the character far too abruptly. In many ways, Cimarron feels like a compressed miniseries.

Other characters get more screen time, but their fates reek too strongly of contrivance. Sol Levy (David Opatoshu), who goes from selling candy out a backpack at the beginning of the movie to owning a booming mercantile business, is one of those such characters, as is Tom Wyatt (Arthur O'Connell, Fantastic Voyage), a good-natured loser who, like Yancey, fails to get the land he wanted but ultimately finds oil on the property he winds up with. His transformation from simpleton to well-heeled oil baron is never really believable.

And then there's Yancey and Sabra. Yancey in particular is an interesting character. While certainly a nice person by disposition, Yancey is also rather selfish, as he has no qualms about abandoning his wife and child for years at a stretch without so much as an occasional letter. Yancey's problem is wanderlust, and a never-ending quest for adventure. Eventually, his character vanishes from the narrative altogether, and by the end of the movie Sabra hasn't seen Yancey for more than 10 years. As Yancey, Ford gives a nicely understated performance (you might want to turn on the subtitles, however, to make out some of what he is saying) in what must have been a tricky role. For her part, Schell is great as the long-suffering Sabra, taking what is usually a thankless part and adding substance.

It should come as little surprise that Cimarron was the last film (and in fact last Western) Mann directed before embarking on his epic phase for producer Samuel Bronston. Indeed, in addition to its sprawling narrative, Cimarron has the directorial and visual sweep that one can see in El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Cimarron has at least two great sequences that make it worth seeing: the land rush scene at the beginning, and a showdown sequence where Tamblyn's character and his gang (one of whom is played by Vic Morrow) hole up in a schoolhouse during a shootout. Mann's ample use of camera movement and nicely framed widescreen compositions, together with Robert Surtees' very strong cinematography, make Cimarron an undeniably beautiful movie.

The So-so
Escape from Fort Bravo: One of two films in this set from The Great Escape director John Sturges, Bravo is a reasonably enjoyable entertainment, but one with a lot of flaws. While William Holden turns in a characteristically strong performance as the embittered Capt. Roper (a great part for the actor), most of his fellow cast members come up short. Eleanor Parker is just plain bland as the love interest/spy Carla, as is her boyfriend, Confederate Capt. Marsh (John Forsythe, The Trouble With Harry).

The love triangle the three form never feels more than half-baked, and Parker's acting is so opaque that it's impossible to tell that she feels anything about either man, or, indeed, about anything at all. The love triangle was a bad idea in the first place, and the movie would have worked better if Carla had not developed feelings for Roper, although I suppose that would have got in the way of the expected-of-the-time happy ending, which (literally) has the cavalry arriving just in the nick of time.

Still, Escape from Fort Bravo is not without its merits. The idea of setting a story at a Union prison camp deep in unfriendly territory is a novel one, and this device nicely sets up the movie's strong third act, where Roper and the Confederate escapees have to fend off an onslaught of hostile Mescaleros that heavily outnumber them. While Sturges doesn't have quite the same handle on filming the action as he would in later projects such as The Great Escape, these sequences are still fun to watch.

The Law and Jake Wade: The other Sturges picture in this set, Wade opens promisingly, with a man breaking Richard Widmark's Clint out of jail at gunpoint. We, the viewer, assume the guy doing the jailbreak must be a villain, but it turns out to be Wade himself, our protagonist. (Wade feels that by busting Clint out, the two former partners in crime will be square, as Clint once did the same for him.) If only the rest of the film were this surprising and entertaining. Unfortunately, it's not. Most of the film, which involves Clint's gang transporting Wade and Peggy to where the loot is buried, is fairly entertaining but nothing spectacular, and offers nothing to match the uniqueness and interest of the film's opening. Thankfully, the movie redeems itself slightly with a climactic ghost town-set shootout between Clint's men and some fierce Comanches.

The film doesn't do itself any favors by having Taylor in the title role either. I had never seen Robert Taylor in anything before this set was delivered to my house, and having seen three of his films now, I have no desire to see any others. In Wade, as he is in Saddle the Wind and Many Rivers to Cross, Taylor is a total stiff, completely free of charisma or any notable point of interest beyond his admittedly impressive widow's peak.
Luckily, Wade contains an enjoyable performance by Widmark as the heavy type that he played so well, along with memorable support from Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate) and Bones himself, DeForest Kelley, each playing members of Clint's gang. Overall, though, this is an average Western at best, one that will probably be of most interest to Sturges fans.

The Ugly
Saddle the Wind: This one intrigued me initially because Rod Serling is credited with the screenplay, and because one of its stars is John Cassavetes. Sadly, those two factors are the chief problems with Wind. Serling's script is a boring, surprise-free battle of wills between the Sinclair brothers that stretches to a very trying 84 minutes. Most of the movie consists of (or feels like it consists of) Tony and Steve arguing, with occasional interludes for Tony or Steve to argue with Tony's fiancée Joan (a vacant Julie London), all leading to a rather predictable, underwhelming conclusion.

Cassavetes is another major reason why Wind fails. His performance is filled with histrionics, and while the character he is playing is a total jerk, the actor could have tried to make him a little more sympathetic. Instead, all we get is a mean, nasty young man who doesn't care who he hurts to get what he wants.

Unfortunately, Cassavetes is playing off Taylor, who is admittedly a contrast to Cassavetes' overplaying, but so much so that it's alternately boring and exasperating to watch scenes between the two actors.

Saddle the Wind is also the ugliest film of the bunch, which is somewhat odd, because its d.p., Robert Surtees, also worked on Cimarron. The look of Wind is very flat for the most part, with way too much coverage that is further hampered by lots of obviously fake backgrounds.

Many Rivers to Cross: This is hands-down the worst film in the set. I'm really not sure why it was even included, beyond upping the Robert Taylor quotient. This "comedy" is lifelessly filmed and acted (at least by Taylor) and has odd moments of tonal conflict; at one point, during a supposedly humorous showdown between Bushrod, Mary and some Shawnee Indians, Bushrod hangs one of the Indians with his whip. Hilarious, right?

I will say this about the movie: At least Parker turns in a performance with some life in it. Unfortunately, it's in the service of playing a silly, annoying character whose repeated wailing of the name "Bushrod" is incredibly aggravating. The only aspect of this movie that is at all noteworthy is the fact that Alan "Skipper" Hale Jr. and Russell "Professor" Johnson are both in it. Warner Home Video should have just left this one out of the set and knocked a few bucks off the price.

The DVD presentations of these films are about as mixed as the films themselves. None comes with a scene selection menu, which was somewhat surprising to me. In terms of visual and audio quality, The Stalking Moon and Cimarron look and sound the best. The Law and Jake Wade, Saddle the Wind and Many Rivers to Cross are decent, if not great, and Escape from Fort Bravo is the worst, with muted, grainy images and average sound quality. In terms of extras, every film but The Stalking Moon has a theatrical trailer. That's it.

Closing Statement

In the court's opinion, the only films in this set really worth owning are The Stalking Moon and Cimarron. The other four titles merit a rental at best for the curious. And even though the titles in the Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection aren't that great, they still should have been treated better, or WHV should at least have offered a lower MSRP for the set (although the price is considerably lower if you order directly from their site).

The Verdict

Overall, this set is guilty of containing mostly average films with less-than-stellar treatment from Warner Home Video.

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Genres

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• Western

Scales of Justice, Escape From Fort Bravo

Video: 75
Audio: 80
Extras: 5
Acting: 80
Story: 75
Judgment: 77

Perp Profile, Escape From Fort Bravo

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Escape From Fort Bravo

• Theatrical trailer

Scales of Justice, Many Rivers To Cross

Video: 78
Audio: 80
Extras: 5
Acting: 70
Story: 65
Judgment: 68

Perp Profile, Many Rivers To Cross

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Many Rivers To Cross

• Theatrical trailer

Scales of Justice, The Law And Jake Wade

Video: 78
Audio: 79
Extras: 5
Acting: 85
Story: 80
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, The Law And Jake Wade

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Law And Jake Wade

• Theatrical trailer

Scales of Justice, Saddle The Wind

Video: 78
Audio: 80
Extras: 5
Acting: 65
Story: 65
Judgment: 68

Perp Profile, Saddle The Wind

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Saddle The Wind

• Theatrical trailer

Scales of Justice, Cimarron

Video: 93
Audio: 94
Extras: 5
Acting: 88
Story: 83
Judgment: 84

Perp Profile, Cimarron

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 7.1 Master Audio (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 147 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Cimarron

• Theatrical trailer

Scales of Justice, The Stalking Moon

Video: 93
Audio: 93
Extras: 0
Acting: 90
Story: 90
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, The Stalking Moon

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Rated G

Distinguishing Marks, The Stalking Moon

• None








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