The John Ford at Fox Collection
This 21-DVD/25-movie set of John Ford's work at Fox (and 20th Century-Fox) is one of the most tantalizing collections of its kind to show up from a major producer/studio, as of 2008; its only serious rival for sheer substance is Janus Films' 50-disc Essential Art House collection from 2006, which was devised on an entirely different scale and with a different goal in mind. Ford At Fox: The Collection is easily the most comprehensive assembly of work by a single director at one studio yet seen on DVD, eclipsing Warner Home Video's efforts on behalf of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, and Universal's work with their Hitchcock library. Yet fine as it is in conception and most aspects of its execution on a film-by-film basis, Ford At Fox: The Collection cannot be recommended without some important caveats, mostly involving the packaging -- which, of course, is the one factor that, in contrast to, say, the preservation quality of some of the films, is totally under the control of the DVD producers. For starters (and most obviously), this set should probably be avoided by anyone lacking either the stamina to cope with its 20-pound-plus weight or the shelf-space to store its 20"x5"x20" bulk. This is not a small addition to a film library, and one can imagine many potential purchasers not even having shelves capable of holding it safely. And this may seem a relatively trivial consideration, until one remembers that there are ways of devising these packages that are more convenient. What Fox has done with the John Ford-directed movies in this collection is admirable; but the packaging is a study in excess that, at best, makes it the DVD equivalent of a beautifully-produced coffee table book that is just a little too massive for its (or its owner's) own good. The box is large but also sturdy, so in that sense it's one-up on, say, Time Life's complete Man From U.N.C.L.E. set. And on opening it up, one encounters a hardcover coffee-table book of stills from all of the films from the box, well-selected and beautifully reproduced. As to the movie content, the seven best-known titles in this set -- Steamboat Round The Bend, Drums Along The Mohawk, My Darling Clementine, How Green Was My Valley, What Price Glory, The Grapes Of Wrath, and Young Mr. Lincoln -- have been available before on DVD, in nicely annotated editions. Most of the rest are making their DVD bows (though Wee Willie Winkie was previously available in England), and on that level alone this box is significant, even if the movies don't always seem so to modern viewers. Ford's appeal by way of those best-known movies is obvious and enduring, but the alluring subtleties of Ford's Will Rogers-starring vehicles Dr. Bull (which retains the look and style of a great silent movie) and Judge Priest may be lost to today's audiences. And the racial images in the latter require some explanation in terms of context and setting (as they did in his early 1950's remake, The Sun Shines Bright). But for those willing to make the leap into those titles, or even further back to the brace of silents included here, it's an experience well worth the taking -- this is a healthy cross-section of the work through which Ford developed his cinematic language, cutting through genres and across a period of 30 years: John Ford in love and war, drama and comedy, westerns and melodramas, with even a romantic tale or two thrown in. Though some will favor the well-known classics My Darling Clementine or Young Mr. Lincoln, or The Grapes Of Wrath, this reviewer holds Ford's 1924 western epic The Iron Horse (included in both its US and European editions) as the jewel of the set; it's still a thoroughly exciting western tale more than 80 years after its original release (and it's even better in a theater, incidentally), and reveals the origins of scenes, characterizations, and sensibilities that Ford would trade in across the next four decades of his career. It also comes with a new score by Christopher Caliendo (who did such a commendable job re-scoring Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee) and a commentary track. Pilgrimage is another major re-discovery here, a dramatic tale of family jealousy, conflict and betrayal across two generations, set against the backdrop of the First World War and its aftermath; and it, too has a full audio commentary. The quality of these presentations, and most everything else here, is first-rate, and while there are several discs that include disclaimers for the materials used for the transfers, there is nothing in this set that deserves an outright apology. In addition to the silents -- Just Pals, The Iron Horse, 3 Bad Men, Four Sons, and Hangman's House -- which are intrinsic rarities, the set contains a pair of early Ford talkies, Born Reckless and Up The River, which have not been widely seen in many decades; these, however -- although they are worth seeing (as is everything here) -- do suffer from the same technical weaknesses that marred most early sound movies; Ford's work simply makes them more interesting than the technical flaws are distracting. Tobacco Road (1941), which has also not been shown in decades, is also present, in a nicely transferred edition, containing special features -- it could be argued that its mere presence is a special feature, obscure as it has become across the decades. Made with less emotional investment than his best work, it is second-rate Ford, to be sure -- which makes it better than 90% of the other movies of its era -- though it's still of considerable interest for some scenes and a chance to see Gene Tierney in a very early role, and Dana Andrews in an unusual part as well, portraying a newly-impoverished southern Brahmin. And the major titles, including My Darling Clementine (in its official and pre-release editions) and How Green Was My Valley, come with the same commentaries and supplements that enhanced their earlier individual DVD incarnations. The chaptering is always generous and well-chosen, and the full-screen images are fine (nothing here dates after 1952, so 1.33-to-1 is the aspect ratio for everything), within the limits of the materials -- several of the transfers, including that of Drums Along The Mohawk, are far more successful than those that Fox previously released on DVD in the UK. And the entire package -- which does not include every movie that Ford made at Fox -- is bound together by Nick Redman's Becoming John Ford (2007), a full-length documentary about the director's life and career, which is augmented by Ford's warime documentaries The Battle of Midway, December 7th, and Torpedo Squadron, along with photo and poster galleries. And that brings us back to the design of this set. Fox Video has gone for a big, expensive package here, in part to justify longtime fans buying these titles anew. And would that they had paid attention to the details, they would have succeeded beyond equivocation. But as with several recent high-priced multi-disc packages in the DVD and CD fields, the makers here have fallen down on the basics, and maybe even fallen a bit hard here. This reviewer bought his copy of this set new, sealed, on the day of release, and was dismayed to see that almost half of the discs in the set had scratches on them, mostly owing to the way that they've been packaged. The DVDs are housed in an old-style photo-album-style book, the platters spread among several "pages" and each one held in place by a rubber center; and they have obviously been affixed there mechanically. The result is extensive circular scratches on many of these brand new platters (of which several are double-sided, which is doubling the opportunity for damage, and problems in playback). They're more an annoyance than anything else, a flaw that shouldn't exist, and for the high list price that Fox is asking for this set, one would expect better care in the design and assembly, as well as a way of contacting the company over this issue. (Those who buy this set are also cautioned with this type of packaging that removing the discs to play from those rubber spindles should be done carefully and gradually -- this reviewer has read of instances on other releases with similar packaging in which a too-firm pull on a platter has broken a disc). It's also mind-boggling that some of the most enthusiastic early reviewers of this set have not mentioned this flaw, which is a major flaw in a high-quality release at this price. For convenience sake, those with the extra shelf-space and the empty cases might consider removing the DVDs from that book and putting them in well-labeled jewel cases, for easier access and safer storage.