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An excellent collection
on 14 October 2010
This collection contains the following:
* HONDO (1953; director John Farrow)
* McCLINTOCK! (1963; director Andrew V. McLaglen)
* TRUE GRIT (1969; director Henry Hathaway)
* RIO LOBO (1970; director Howard Hawks)
* EL DORADO (1966; director Howard Hawks)
* BIG JAKE (1971; director George Sherman)
* THE SHOOTIST (1976; director Don Siegel)
* THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965; director Henry Hathaway)
* THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962; director John Ford)
I bought this collection about two years ago and it has provided me with hours of great entertainment. These are quality films, some of them genuine classics. I will briefly review some of them here (excluding three I have not yet seen):
* THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is one of John Ford's often overlooked but very great films which expertly explores themes like the handling of violence, machismo, order, and Civilisation versus Lawlessness. James Stewart plays an attorney, new in town and unarmed, and John Wayne is the bullish local rancher, both up against forces of crime in a small town. Stewart becomes a local schoolteacher and also teaches reading and writing to the illiterate members of the adult population. The film mostly revolves around his attempt to use US law to deal with a criminal making trouble in town (which is at odds with Wayne's method - the gun). This film is in beautifully shot black and white (all of the other films in this set are in colour) and belongs to John Wayne and James Stewart equally.
* THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER was a surprise to me, I had never heard of it before and after reading that it was a Western loosely based on King Lear I wasn't sure that I would like it. Westerns that grapple with Shakespeare have never worked for me as they are usually either absurdly bad or good but too earnest (and as an unfortunate result, dull). However, this film (along with another superb 'Shakespearean' Western, also based on King Lear: BROKEN LANCE) is entertaining, moving and exciting with good characterisation and a storyline that satisfies to the end. I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.
* EL DORADO. What's not to love? A film rich in humour, action and memorable characters. Robert Mitchum is my favourite as the sheriff, giving a convincing performance both as a lonely, jaded drunk, and as a highly skilled and professional gunman. However, he needs a lot of help, support and coffee to transform him from the former to the latter! John Wayne plays a professional and fatherly gunslinger, and James Caan is good fun as 'Mississippi', an angry, roguish and misguided young dude seeking vengeance on the man who killed his old friend but also subconsciously seeking a father figure and some decent shooting lessons (guess who provides these). He is also prone to quoting Edgar Allen Poe's Eldorado poem:
"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,
The shade replied-
"If you seek for Eldorado!"
This film is the second of Howard Hawks's two remakes of his great revisionist Western, RIO BRAVO (1959). The last remake was RIO LOBO in 1970 which I have not yet seen. Wayne stars in all three (of course!) but between this and RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO is my personal favourite. It is at least as well acted as the original and funnier too. I feel that RIO BRAVO suffered from miscasting the squeaky-clean Ricky Nelson as Colorado Ryan (similar to Caan's Mississippi). Ricky, if you don't already know, was a pop idol of his day who simply doesn't cut it for me as an inhabitant of the Old West or a member of Wayne's gang. His performance is lacklustre and forgettable. Caan, on the other hand, plays an almost identical character here but is far more convincing. He would go on, of course, to play a similarly hotheaded character in The Godfather later.
Don't watch EL DORADO expecting a masterpiece but enjoy the interaction of the characters played by actors who are so obviously having a rollicking good time. N.B. it's great to watch in the evening with nacho crisps and a little whisky!
* TRUE GRIT is a good family movie, based on the novel of the same name by Charles Portis which was at the time considered to be so great that it was to be entered into the American literary canon - that is, before Hollywood made it into this film, after which the literary elite turned their backs. John Wayne famously won his only Oscar for his performance here as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. The story is of a young girl whose father has been murdered by his hired worker seeking revenge, enlisting Cogburn to help her to do so. I haven't watched it for many years but I did see it on TV as a kid with my parents and I enjoyed it. These days the cowboy humour is a little corny for me and I prefer the brilliant remake (directed by the Coen Brothers) which was made a couple of years ago and starred Jeff Bridges. Watch that one for historical accuracy and faithfulness to the source material, excellent modern cinematography and action. Watch this one to enjoy with family, for rainy day entertainment or just to compare to the remake.
* HONDO starts off very well, leisurely and carefully, as a stranger (Wayne) wandering through the land with only his rifle and a dog for company comes across a homesteader woman living alone with her young son. She gracefully gives him accommodation in her home and he in turn helps her with daily work. A bond grows between he and the boy as Wayne, again, provides a father figure to a fatherless youngster, and is also good company for the wife, who insists that her husband will soon return (Wayne believing otherwise). What I really love about this film is the dialogue between these two characters, corny but often poetic, sometimes prickly and sometimes warm, more like a play in places that a movie. One example:
Angie: And then you come along and you're good and fine... and now in your vanity, you want to spoil Johnny's chances and mine.
Hondo: When the Indians finish up their squaw-seekin' ceremony, they only say one thing: "Varlabania". It means "forever". Forever.
After the first third of the film or so the action gets going and hardly stops until the end. It's good for action lovers but for me it dragged after five minutes, and almost seems to have been put there to make up for the slower and wordier opening scenes. For me, this film is at its best when it is concentrating on the story between the characters and the overall theme i.e. what a good man is, whether as an all-round human being or specifically in the role of father and husband, and not in an overly idealistic or sentimentalised fashion, but in everyday reality. I liked it very much for this and have seen it twice.
* THE SHOOTIST was John Wayne's last Western and was created as an elegy to the Old West. Wayne plays an old gunfighter who is dying from cancer, James Stewart gives a quality turn as his sympathetic but honest doctor and Lauren Bacall plays a lonely widow whose room Wayne books to live the remainder of his days in. As you can expect however, this particular gunman does not intend to die in bed but outdoors and in fastpaced action, and he gets an idea of how to go out with a bang instead of a whimper. It's well acted, slightly predictable and feels too short but is very enjoyable.
* McCLINTOCK!, RIO LOBO and BIG JAKE I have not yet seen, and the reviews I have read of them are mixed, but they look entertaining enough to watch on a wet weekend.
* BONUS MATERIAL: Aside from the films themselves there are some wonderful extras included too, well worth checking out and unmissable if you love old Westerns. HONDO in particular is studded with them, including an introduction with Leonard Maltin, a documentary on the film itself and another very insightful documentary on the screenwriter (and director) of Hondo, James Edward Grant, who was a frequent John Wayne collaborator/friend and very respected in his time. This one in particular is my favourite, being highly informative and engaging. Off the top of my head I believe there is also a portrait documentary of Ward Bond in this collection somewhere, who was a regular co-actor and friend of Wayne, as well as a famous Western stalwart. These are not slapdash mini-documentaries or 10-minute features of the kind that you get with so many DVD's, but well researched and extensive features that told me a lot I didn't know. I don't believe you can find them anywhere else, so something to remember if you want another reason to buy this.
I bought this for myself as a further introduction to Wayne's Western titles, having seen only a couple of his other 'oaters' (or 'horse-operas', as Westerns are sometimes called). I have now watched more than eighty Westerns over the last three years and I can say that this set was in part responsible for making me both a John Wayne fan and a Western enthusiast (along with Sergio Leone's excellent Dollars Trilogy, also worth a look). If you have also seen and enjoyed any of his movies and would like to go further you cannot go wrong with this, especially considering how many films are included and the fair price. Highly recommended.