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The Searchers

John Ford on DVD
reviewed by Donald Melanson

July 07, 2006 | For the past couple of weeks the majority of my movie watching has consisted of the works of John Ford, most of which I was seeing for the first time. And thanks to Warner Bros.'s  recent release of two Ford DVD box sets, I'm guessing that countless other people have done the same, or will be soon.

The larger of the two sets is The John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection, which collects eight of the films Ford made with Wayne, including what are undoubtedly the pair's two most well-known and highly-regarded films, Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). Also in the set is the The Long Voyage Home (1940), They Were Expendable (1945), 3 Godfathers (1948), The Wings of the Eagles (1957), and two parts of Ford's cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). The third film in the trilogy, Rio Grande, isn't owned by Warner Bros. but is available on DVD from Republic Pictures.

The second set, simply called The John Ford Film Collection, packages together three films from early in Ford's career: The Lost Patrol (1934), The Informer (1935), and Mary of Scotland (1936), with two from late in his career: Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

Taken together, the two sets provide a fascinating, if not comprehensive, overview of Ford's career, and should be cause for a fresh reappraisal of his work --  some of his lesser known films in particular.

The standout DVDs here are, of course, the aforementioned Stagecoach and The Searchers, each of which have received two-disc special editions from Warner Bros, replacing the earlier bare-bones releases. Warner has especially gone all out for The Searchers, packaging it in a lavish "Ultimate Edition" that includes reproductions of the original comic book, press book, and studio correspondence, along with ten postcards featuring behind-the-scenes photos and  a mail in offer for a full size movie poster (which, unfortunately for me, looks to be for U.S. residents only).

Most importantly, the DVD itself is fantastic. Some, however, have complained that the color timing is off and, indeed, it is different than than earlier DVD, although I can't say which is more faithful to the original film elements. In every other respect the new DVD is far superior to the earlier one, especially since the film is finally framed properly -- something I wasn't even aware was a probably with the original DVD but is glaringly obvious now.

The DVD's extras are also impressive, including a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, a 30 featurette titled "The Searchers: An Appreciation" featuring Martin Scorsese, John Milius, and Curtis Hanson, and a number of other short features.

Stagecoach lacks the nifty bonus items of The Searchers but the DVD itself is just as impressive, especially when it comes to the special features. The centerpiece of which is the fantastic American Masters documentary John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker & the Legend, directed by Sam Pollard and narrated by Sydney Pollack. For anyone not familar with Ford at all, it might not be a bad idea to watch this documentary before the films, although there are a few spoilers in some of the film clips.

The two films themselves are nothing less than conerstones of the western genre, inseparable from later films from Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and others. Stagecoach not only introduced John Wayne in a whole new light, but the majestic Monument Valley as well, which Ford would return to again and again, never more impressively than in The Searchers, where it's rarely looked better or been better suited to a film. The same can also be said for Wayne, who delivered his best, most complex performance in the film.

The Long Voyage HomeOne of the most remarkable of the remaining films in in the Wayne/Ford collection is The Long Voyage Home, which actually only has John Wayne in a supporting role. Based on four of Eugene O'Neill's one-act plays, the film is bleak portrayal of the life of sailors on a shipping vessel, updated to a World War II setting. It's particularly notable for Gregg Toland's incredible cinematography, which displays many of the techniques he would use a few years later in Citizen Kane.

In fact, there really isn't a weak film to be found in the set, with the two entries in Ford's cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, probably the most notable of the remaining lot. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in particular, which features some striking use of color, again looking great on DVD.

In the John Ford Collection, I found the two earliest films to be particularly interesting. The earliest, The Lost Patrol, stars Victor McLaglen, Wallace Ford, and Boris Karloff as members of a group of British soldiers who become stranded in the Mesopotamiam desert after the only member of the patrol that knew what their mission was is killed. Blindly forging ahead, the members of the patrol are then slowly picked off one by one by an unseen enemy, increasingly driving McLagan and Ford to desperation and Karloff to religious fervor. A little prescient to be sure, and deserving of more attention than it's received in the past.

Released just a year later, The Informer won Ford his first of four Oscar for best director, and once again stars Victor McLaglen, this time as a member of the IRA who sells out his friend for 20 pound. Like a number of other American films from the 1930s, the influence of German Expressionism is readily apparent here, with a heavy use of shadows and inventive camera angles.

Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn, the two later films in the set, are notable as well, most often characterized as Ford's attempts to make amends for the treatment of African Americans and Native Americans in his earlier films.  Sergeant Rutledge has its flaws but benefits greatly from Woody Strode's strong performance as a soldier on trial for rape and murder. And like most of the other films here, it simply looks great, with Monument Valley once again serving as the backdrop.

Cheyenne Autumn

In terms of presentation on DVD, Cheyenne Autumn is one of the best looking in two sets, with an absolutely stunning transfer showing off the film's fantastic 65mm cinematography (the screen shot above really doesn't do it justice). It's also the only film in the box set to get a commentary, from Ford biographer Joseph McBride.

If you buy only one set, The John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection is obviously the way to go, but I'm sure that once you get through it you'll find yourself wanting more, and The John Ford Film Collection is a great next step. 

Donald Melanson is the editor-in-chief of Mindjack and a freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Mindjack, his work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Engadget, and MovieMaker Magazine, among other publications.

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