John Ford Film Collection
This five-disc set from Warner Home Video, which avails itself of the catalogs that Warner has acquired over the past decade, covers over 30 years in the career of director John Ford in one fell swoop, as well as making four highly collectable laserdiscs obsolete. Frankly, it's amazing that John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge (1960) never made it to laserdisc -- one would have thought that the Japanese fascination with American Westerns alone would have made the effort seem a no-brainer in that market. But it has made it to high-end video at last, on DVD, as part of Warner Bros.' John Ford Film Collection, alongside The Informer, The Lost Patrol, Mary of Scotland, and Cheyenne Autumn. Although nominally a courtroom drama set in the post-Civil War West, the movie was as topical as any made in 1960, telling the story of the "Buffalo Soldiers" (i.e. African-American cavalrymen) and of racial injustice, just as the civil rights movement in America was coming to a boil. Dismissed by some as minor Ford because of its lack of major stars, the movie is actually one of the director's most heartfelt late efforts and a deceptively complex and sophisticated one. Ford seemed to delight late in his career in fooling audiences and critics alike, telling what seemed to be simple, straightforward stories that opened out to broader, more complex currents, dramatic and otherwise. That's certainly the case here; his use of flashback or, what might better be described as cut-back in the theatrical sense, takes some getting used to, but it provides the story with a separate set of twists in its structure. A commentary would have been nice, as Constance Towers is still with us (at the time of this release) and worked in some very important late-era Ford films. The movie has been given a whopping 28 chapters, very generous for a 111-minute feature and adequate to the complexity of the narrative and content. The image, mastered in the proper non-anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1, looks beautiful, and is almost too sharp for its own good, betraying the studio-generated settings. It's a little too clean, although as the movie itself is rather theatrical in its structure, that's hardly an added detriment of any kind. And once the action gets going at a quarter of an hour in, the viewer will never care about studio vs. location shooting, etc. The original trailer is also included, which is a fascinating cultural document in itself; in selling this movie, the studio apparently decided to jump right into the thick of the subject matter, racial and dramatic, and also showing off Ford's effort at grooming Jeffrey Hunter as a successor to John Wayne. As part of his tenure with RKO, Ford made Mary of Scotland (1936), starring Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March, and utilizing seemingly every Gaelic-related and English actor on the lot. The 126-minute movie has been given 31 chapters, but includes no trailer or other supporting materials. Still, the movie looks so good that it is still attractive as a DVD. The source material is so clean and sharp that it glistens, and the transfer is crisp enough to capture the luster of the original release -- it is almost too sharp, in the sense that the boundaries of studio re-creation, as in the scene where Mary lands in Scotland, are run up against in ways that were never intended. This is a side of Ford's filmmaking that was soon forgotten amid more personal projects, but it shows just how commanding a directorial presence he was in the 1930s. Sound hadn't come in that long before, and the book was still being written on how to make this kind of movie in an engaging manner; Michael Curtiz later came to dominate the field, but that was only after Ford ceded the territory in favor of other genres and fields. This movie shows what might have been, had he not found his career path in another direction. Cheyenne Autumn (1964), John Ford's penultimate film, has arrived on DVD in its 156-minute version, complete with its original "Overture" sequence as an introduction and all other ancillary sections of the movie and a raft of bonus materials. The most notable of these, and one that, by itself, justifies the price of The John Ford Movie Collection of which it is a part, is Joseph McBride's commentary track. McBride ranges freely across Ford's entire career and covers just about every aspect of the director's career, the motives and motivations behind the direction that it and his movies took, and the way that Ford crossed more than 40 years in Hollywood to get to this point in his career. The commentary is supported by the presence of a featurette, "Cheyenne Autumn Trail," made at the time of the movie's production and narrated by James Stewart, which is a bit dramatic by today's standards but still a fascinating documentary. Some modern viewers may hesitate at the use of "Indian" rather than "Native American," and its somewhat simplistic view of the cultural and economic aspects of life on and around the Montana reservation where it starts. But coupled with the superb film-to-video transfer of the film, in its authentic 2.35:1 Super-Panavision aspect ratio, the package -- which includes an original trailer as well -- makes for a compelling experience of not only one of Ford's most ambitious movies but also one that helped cap his career as a chronicler of the American West. The Lost Patrol (1934) hasn't been perfectly preserved across 70 years -- there are some missing frames here and there, which sharp-eyed viewers will pick up, and some marks across the desert scenes, but what is here looks sharp and sounds better. Given the limitations of some of the wide shots, the full-screen (1.33:1) picture looks amazingly good, and the audio has been mastered at a reasonably high volume. The 72-minute movie holds up amazingly well despite being overscored and, by today's standards, overacted. The movie has been given 18 chapters, which is just right for the breakdown of the story -- there are no extras or bonus features. The Informer (1931) may be the oldest talking picture for which there is a trailer on DVD (at least, it's the earliest one that this reviewer recalls seeing in recent years, even if it is for the re-release). It's notable, but not the main bonus feature on the Warner Home Video DVD of The Informer; that honor belongs to the documentary short "The Informer: Out of the Fog," which heavily relies on John Ford scholar Joseph McBride, with help from cinematographers Allen Daviau and Robert Elswit, and director Peter Bogdanovich. The movie itself looks fantastic, in a full-screen image (1.33:1) that has the texture of silver sprayed on black, and the sound is better than it was in television showings of the film in the 1960s and '70s. The 92-minute movie has been given 25 chapters.