The Duke. John Wayne. One of the big screen’s biggest legends. New from FOX, just in time for Father’s Day, comes The John Wayne Film Collection. This ten disc set gathers together a variety of films spanning Wayne’s career. Included are westerns and war movies. There are award winners, and even a movie that has never been released on DVD before!
The John Wayne Film Collection kicks off with Wayne’s very first starring role. The director of The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh, discovered Marion Morrison as a prop man, and gave him the famous moniker of John Wayne. In the film, originally released in 1930, Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a fur trader on the Oregon Trail seeking vengeance for a friend that was killed. Along the way, he not only finds the killers, but falls in love as well.
Although Wayne was praised for this portrayal, and the movie was an expensive, grand-looking epic, the release of it in mainly in widescreen doomed it to failure. The country was in the midst of hard times, economically speaking, and theaters didn’t want to pay to upgrade to the new, fancier screens. Thus, not many people saw it, and it would be about a decade before Wayne would land another starring role.
This DVD set actually contains the fullscreen version of The Big Trail, rather than the widescreen. The two different editions have scenes often shot at different angles from one another, and they sometimes use different takes. One version is also significantly longer than the other, and the widescreen variation contains fewer close ups. As such, it is almost as if two different films exist, and it’s hard to judge which is better, especially when only one version is included in this collection.
Skip forward almost two decades for the next movie, Red River. John Wayne is Thomas Dunson, a Texas cattle driver moving his herd along the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. Haunted by a tragic past, Dunson grows desperate trying to get his cattle North, as the South is too poor to buy them. This puts him at odds with the boy he raised, who is named Matt (four time Academy Award Nominee Montgomery Clift).
Red River is a widely lauded piece of cinema, nominated for a couple of Oscars. Not only does it feature incredibly memorable, nuanced performances by both Wayne and Clift, but the characters are complex. There is obviously real love between the two, no matter what comes between them. The plot flows along in a very natural way, but even when the two are at odds with one another, it’s hard not to wish for a peaceful resolution. Some have mentioned homoerotic undertones to the relationship between the two men, but others argue that it’s just a father-son bond. Whichever way one chooses to view it, the affection makes for a heck of a suspenseful showdown!
This version of Red River, like The Big Trail, is also in full screen, though the other eight movies in this set are presented in widescreen.
The crown jewel of The John Wayne Collection is arguably The Alamo (1960). Nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, John Wayne directs and stars as Davy Crockett alongside a truly all-star cast. There’s Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Frankie Avalon, and lots of others! With such a bevy of talented players, as well as one of the most compelling stories in American history, this was a surefire hit right from the get-go! As opposed to the 2004 movie version of the same battle, also featuring a cast of big names, which was a colossal flop. But I digress…
There is no need to rehash the story of The Alamo. It’s known far and wide. The behind the scenes tale of this film is a little less famous. Wayne put his heart and soul into the picture, and only agreed to act in it because his backers insisted. On set, he had to battle his former mentor, John Ford, who showed up and tried to take over, and a few actors with bruised egos who didn’t like being ordered around by one of their own. One cast member broke his foot, and another died during a domestic dispute. Through it all, Wayne persevered, and many of the people involved spoke very highly of his skills afterwards. His directorial fate did not match that of his character.
The result is a sweeping epic. The numerous performances are wonderful, the setting lovingly crafted in authentic detail, and the plot terrifically paced. The film is a positive reflection of Wayne, who is known for portraying the American spirit in movies, and manages to translate it onto the screen here in his own creation. It’s a masterpiece of film and truly worth watching.
These three films are the type John Wayne is known for making, but others stray a little further from that genre. Legend of the Lost (1957) finds Wayne playing a guide on a treasure hunt in the Sahara, with Sophia Loren as his love interest! This outlandish tale, written by a top Hollywood screenwriter and directed by the same man who would go on to make Wayne’s legendary True Grit, was not well reviewed, and with good reason. It’s unfortunate, given the incredible ingredients that go into the mix, but it is not one of the better films in this DVD set.
Another movie off the beaten path is 1958’s The Barbarian and the Geisha, which makes its DVD debut here. Set in 1850s Japan, this isn’t the cowboy fans are used to. Wayne is, instead, a diplomat, struggling to understand a hostile people. Luckily, he has a geisha companion to help him out, and eventually, he is able to understand these foreigners. Sadly, this is also not one of the greatest pieces of cinema, though it definitely shows another side of the actor, which is why this (along with the previous movie) is worth watching.
Rounding out the collection are Civil War-set The Horse Soldiers (1959), comedy North to Alaska (1960), The Comancheros (1961), World War II picture The Longest Day (1962), and The Undefeated (1969). Paragraphs could be written about each of these, too, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just list them. Suffice it to say, what is included in The John Wayne Film Collection is a wide range of the Duke’s work, giving fans an overall picture of his talent.
Because of the numerous cameras, of varying models and sophistication used, picture and sound quality is wildly different from film to film, which are each presented on their own disc. Add to that, each is in a different state of restoration. Some have been cleaned up lovingly, while others remain old-looking and grainy. On a entertainment system calibrated for high definition, expect some softness and lack of clarity in both the visual and auditory aspects. It would be impossible to be consistent, though, given the source material, so one should just be grateful for what’s given.
Grateful, except the lack of extras. Someone could have done better with providing bonus materials. That isn’t really excusable. But it’s priced cheaply, so you may not mind as much.
Overall, The John Wayne Film Collection delights and surprises. It will deliver some movies one might not be aware of, and also some better known films. It’s a good, interesting mix and will make a great Father’s Day gift!