Perhaps the most prestigious of their GREATEST CLASSIC LEGENDS DVD series to date, Warner Bros., in collaboration with TCM, has released JOHN FORD WESTERNS. Four prime features on two two-sided discs, this economically-priced set comprise a quartet of the American maestro’s Westerns, including THREE GODFATHERS, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, WAGON MASTER and CHEYENNE AUTUMN. Spanning the years 1948-1964, these must-have platters utilize the previously-available gorgeous pristine 35mm transfers and include all the original extras. Two key on-camera highlights that cover all four movies are the sumptuous Monument Valley, Utah locations and the delightful presence of the excellent actor Harry Carey, Jr. – affectionately known throughout the industry as Dobe (a nickname christened by Ford for his then reddish-blonde hair). Carey, whose chronicles of these films and more were beautifully recorded in his 1994 memoirs, Company of Heroes (Scarecrow Press), likely the best first-hand account of working in Hollywood during the oft-cited Golden Era (and beyond), is a perfect addendum to owning these movies – and should be in every cinema buff’s reading library, as much as these Ford entries should be in every fan’s DVD library.
As to the movies themselves – descriptions and evaluations are unnecessary, as they are part of celluloid history. They’re a magnificent combination of art and entertainment – and should be watched, studied and enjoyed frequently. ‘Nuff said.
GODFATHERS– the finest version of the well-trod Peter B. Kyne tale (once made as a 1916 silent starring Harry Carey, Sr.) was Ford’s first Technicolor movie with star John Wayne; it was also the initial title to feature Dobe (although Hawks’ Red River was filmed first – it was delayed due to post-production legalities).
YELLOW RIBBON, the second in the famed cavalry trilogy, is a bona fide classic – with its ebullient Technicolor photography winning its deserved cinematography Oscar.
The robust WAGON MASTER, co-starring Dobe and real-life best bud Ben Johnson, bristles with shimmering monochrome photography, song-filled narrative and friendly laid-back performances – the ultimate visual punctuation of American humor and pluck. Reportedly, it tied with The Sun Shines Bright as the director’s personal favorite. The heavy influence of Ford on Sergio Leone is especially apparent here via the grotesque Clegg family whose social behavior and hygiene paved the way for Henry Fonda and his cut throats 19 years later in Once Upon a Time in the West. Fascinating icing on the cake is the audio commentary by Carey and Peter Bogdanovich!
The fourth title, Ford’s last Western, is the flawed but engrossing AUTUMN. As the sick child always requires extra care – so does this late work demand additional discussion. Lensed in 70mm Super Panavision (and released deceptively by the Cinerama company), this roadshow opus was unceremoniously trimmed by Jack Warner, who simply tossed out 20 minutes of the middle section (nevertheless this terrific anamorphic 156 minute transfer is the most complete version available to date). A plea for Native American rights, the all-star cast tells the true story of a mammoth migratory trek whose journey reaps both hardship and dignity in varying doses. The Native Americans who appear in the film, were duly impressed by the vast cast of stars, but queried Ford why John Wayne wasn’t in it. “Because this time you WIN!” snapped back the director, a comment which didn’t fare too well with visiting liberal members of the press. But this was merely the tip of the iceberg of this troubled production. Ford, feeling a bit unsure about his position in the rapidly changing cinema of the 1960s, chided female lead Carroll Baker about doing a full-frontal nude scene. To his shock, she agreed – a decision which concurrently excited and disturbed the director. As the “day in question” approached, Ford crustily backed off, citing that “They’ll only cut it out anyway” as his excuse. This didn’t stop him from going gung ho on a massive inappropriate comedic middle section, telling a fictional account of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as portrayed by James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy. In a barroom brawl just short of an episode of F-Troop, and rife with lovable whores and rascally plungers, it was this aforementioned sequence that Warner chopped the heart out of. Why any of it remained was due to the candle power of Stewart and Co. The only thing unintentionally funnier was the mind-blowing out-of-control histrionics of Karl Malden as a German martinet outpost commander. Like in How the West Was Won, it seemed that to Malden, the mere addition of the word “Cinerama” indicated that the usually fine actor had to somehow be bigger and wider than the process itself. His embarrassing emoting garnered a plethora of the decidedly negative reviews (and memorably spot on coverage in the hilarious Mad Magazine take-off). Adding to the woes was the loss of Spencer Tracy – signed to play Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. Before his scenes could be shot, Tracy bowed out – officially due to illness, but, quite possibly because of clashes with Ford. The two Irishmen had been at odds earlier on The Last Hurrah – and then there was the Katharine Hepburn connection, which likewise presented another tinderbox ever-ready to ignite. The late replacement of Edward G. Robinson, was downsized, legitimately this time because of the aging star’s ailments – and largely shot against rear screen projection plates, which rendered a phony quality to the otherwise spectacularly 100% authentic outdoor locations.
If you still haven’t bought these titles, here’s your chance to snag them at bargain prices. Even if you’re only missing one – it’s well worth the purchase.