Review of "Westerns Collection (Blu-ray)"

published 21/07/2014 | hogsflesh
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Good
Pro Three great films
Cons Two stinkers
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"Best of the West?"

The Wild Bunch head to their final showdown

The Wild Bunch head to their final showdown

This box set from Warner Brothers is about £14 on amazon.

Westerns aren't really my favourite genre, but there are a handful of classics that I like very much. A few of them are collected in this set.

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers is directed by John Ford, the most revered director of Hollywood Westerns, and features his usual star, the iconic John Wayne.

The Searchers is regarded as Ford’s masterpiece, and is one of those films so monolithic in its reputation that it’s difficult to admit that I find it very slightly underwhelming. Wayne plays Ethan, a grizzled civil war veteran who returns to his family just in time for his brother and sister-in-law to be murdered by a Comanche raiding party. They kidnap Ethan’s young niece, and Ethan and young Martin set off to search for her. For years and years.

It’s surprisingly horrific considering its age – one character is (it is strongly implied) gang raped before being murdered. Ethan himself is a nasty piece of work – he’s spent his time since the end of the war as a bandit, and is terribly racist. This makes him impossible to like, but no one seems to have told Wayne that – he plays it exactly like all his other roles. He has a few effective darker moments (there’s a lovely bit where he realises what’s about to happen to his family and that he can’t save them). But if you don’t like John Wayne’s screen persona then the film will be hard going.

And that’s without the racism and mawkish comedy. The film treats the Comanche as murderous brutes without any redeeming feature, and we are apparently meant to applaud the final raid on a Comanche settlement that includes women and children. They’re referred to as ‘them childish savages’ and there’s a really uncomfortable sub-plot, played entirely for laughs, in which Martin ends up accidentally acquiring a Comanche wife.

The comedy is even worse – there’s always a strain of sentimental nostalgia in Ford’s movies, and that really comes to the fore in the supposedly endearing scenes featuring Vera Miles as the girl Martin leaves behind. The film seems to believe that life was better when folks were simple and didn’t need to know how to read.

If you can look past the objectionable stuff there’s a lot to admire. though, and the film is better than the sum of its parts. The best thing about it is the scenery – Ford loved Monument Valley, and it features heavily as a backdrop (although I doubt you’d really want to start up a farm there given that it’s basically desert). This – along with it taking place over several years – give it the kind of epic feel it needs. The final shot is incredibly famous, and pretty much makes up for all the bits of the film that don’t work.

There’s a tonne of extras, and they’re way too reverential for my taste (Peter Bogdanovich does a commentary). The picture quality is amazing, though. This is how classic films should look on Blu-ray – the image is enhanced incredibly, and still looks natural and non-digital. It leaps out of the screen at you, and more than does the film justice.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Probably my favourite pre-60s Western, this one has John Wayne as the sheriff of a small town. He’s locked up the brother of a local rancher for murder, and the brother’s men have besieged the town. Along with two dodgy deputies – an alcoholic and an old cripple – and some help from an unproven kid, Wayne has to see off the bad guys and reluctantly win the girl.

Director Howard Hawks (whose classic films are criminally under-represented on blu-ray) made this as a riposte to High Noon. That film had the increasingly frantic sheriff running around town trying to drum up support for the final showdown among scared townsfolk. Hawks didn’t like the idea of a hero asking for help. So Rio Bravo has a hero who repeatedly turns down offers of help and still ends up with half the town assisting him anyway – even the Mexican hotelier turns up in the final showdown.

It’s basically a big, heart-warming tribute to every Western cliché that had gone before, and is probably the last truly great traditional Western – subsequent great Westerns tended to be Italian or openly revisionist (or both). John Wayne is the epitome of cool as Sheriff John T Chance, giving a far more comfortable performance than in The Searchers, but then it’s a far more comfortable film. Dean Martin is great as the alcoholic deputy, reinventing himself after years as Jerry Lewis’s straight man. Early rock n roll heartthrob Ricky Nelson is likeable as the kid, Angie Dickinson is terrific as the girl who wins Wayne’s heart, and Walter Brennan is brilliant as the annoying old man. The depiction of the Mexican characters is racist, but not to the extent that it really mars the film.

While The Searchers is quite slow, Rio Bravo piles loads into its two-hour-twenty running time. Most of the things you expect in a small-town Western happen here, but they happen with such élan that you don’t notice they’re clichés – or if you do, you don’t mind. There are gunfights and awkward romantic interludes and male bonding. The scene where Ricky and Dean start singing is a bit out-of-nowhere, but if you’ve got two singing stars in your movie you might as well get your money’s worth out of them.

To be blunt, if you don’t like Rio Bravo, you should seriously reconsider the direction your life is taking. It is perhaps a little self-conscious, but that doesn’t diminish its charm one iota.

Plenty of extras again, mostly rather too respectful again (happily Angie Dickinson is still alive, so at least there are some proper reminiscences in the ‘making of’ documentary). The picture quality is lovely – a little softer than The Searchers, but not noticeably any worse.

How the West Was Won (1962)

Turns out the West was won slowly and extremely tediously. We follow a boring family for about 50 years as they head West, get involved in the Civil War, help build railroads, and fight outlaws.

This was made in a novelty widescreen format called Cinerama, in which three full sized images were placed side by side on a huge curved screen to give the illusion that the audience was really in the image. Like Imax, only a bit smaller. It was part of 50s Hollywood’s attempt to beat TV by giving audiences things that TV couldn’t show. The Blu-ray has flattened the image, but you can still make out the joins between the three sections of the screen. After a while it becomes a bit distracting that the image is obviously composed of three boxes, and most of the attention in the quieter moments inevitably focuses on the middle chunk of screen.

The quieter moments aren’t really the point, though. The film is a showcase for Cinerama. There are some pretty good aerial shots of mountains and suchlike, and some very well realised action scenes (the buffalo stampede is genuinely impressive). But that’s basically all the film has going for it – it’s the cinema of pure spectacle, much like the very earliest films. We’re meant to be wowed by what we’re seeing, but I didn’t find any way to connect with it emotionally.

The characters are very sketchily drawn, so they’ve pulled together a huge cast of well-known stars to try to get us to root for them anyway. Problem is, most of them aren’t stars I particularly like. Jimmy Stewart and Debbie Reynolds I’ve nothing against, but the likes of Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and John Wayne are strictly squaresville. The main hero in the last half is George Peppard (who looks a lot older than Carroll Baker, who plays his mother). He’s bland enough to richly deserve the mediocre TV career heading his way.

Karl Malden gives an absolutely wretched performance, and most other headline stars (the likes of Lee J Cobb, Carroll Baker, Richard Widmark and Eli Wallach) fail to make much headway. The minor characters do at least include a few people I regard with genuine warmth (Harry Morgan from MASH, Lee van Cleef, Walter Brennan and Thelma Ritter). The best performance is a three-minute cameo by Russ Tamblyn as a Confederate deserter. The human moments in the film kind of huddle between the big set-pieces, failing to engage the audience at all.

The whole mess is narrated by the eternally dull Spencer Tracey. I’ve never seen a bad film with such pretensions before. This has lengthy musical interludes (called things like “Overture” and “Entre’Acte”) in which we are treated to pompous choral music. The way it treats Native American characters isn’t as bad as I’d expected (although they’re referred to as “primitive man” in the opening narration). There isn’t a black face to be seen anywhere, though, and the narration rather glosses over what actually caused the Civil War.

At three hours the film is a real feat of endurance. But at least it looks nice in high definition. The image was designed to be curved, though, so presenting it flat leads to some distortion, especially when the camera is moving. Cinerama was a novelty, and presumably seeing it on a big screen was meant to be enough of a treat that the lack of story or engaging characters wouldn’t have mattered. Sadly to a modern eye watching on a TV, it matters very much. The best extra is a lengthy documentary giving a history of the Cinerama process. To be honest, you could probably just watch that and imagine the film pretty well. You’d save yourself a lot of time you could be using to do something more useful.

The Wild Bunch (1968)

This is my favourite Western. Sam Peckinpah didn’t get to make many films like he really wanted to, but this one is pretty much as he intended (at least, it is now we’ve got the director’s cut). A bunch of ageing outlaws try to find a purpose in a West that is changing, as they are pursued by bounty hunters led by one of their old pals.

This was most famous in its day for the levels of blood-spurting violence, which are still enough to earn the film an 18 certificate. There are two big set piece gun battles, one at the start and one at the end, and they’re fantastic to watch. It’s the editing rather than the blood that makes them great – they’re visceral and disorienting, although the end result is never in doubt.

It’s also a very romantic film, with a wistfulness about these men who know their time has passed but who know of no other way to live. They now live in a world of cars and gatling guns, where the German imperial army props up bandit regimes in Mexico and big business sends hired killers across the border to hunt fugitives.

Some of the humour doesn’t quite work, and the film is slightly too long (most Westerns are a bit too long). But its pleasures more than make up for that. The cast is superb – William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Edmund O’Brien are as iconic a bunch of old cowboys as you could hope to encounter. The Wild Bunch is a masterpiece, both realistic and mythic at the same time.

It looks fine on Blu-ray. Unlike The Searchers or Rio Bravo, it has a slightly murkier look. I think this was produced in the early days of Blu-ray, and doubtless could be improved on. But there are no problems, and it’s an obvious leap in quality from the old DVD versions. There are plenty of extras; the best is an 80-minute documentary about Peckinpah, which is excellent, if a little depressing (the director never really fulfilled his potential).

Pale Rider (1985)

This is the odd one out. Even How the West Was Won can claim some kind of iconic status, if only for having a name everyone knows. But this is a largely forgotten Clint Eastwood Western that isn’t very good. Eastwood plays a mysterious preacher who turns up out of nowhere to help a beleaguered camp of gold prospectors fight off attacks from a local robber baron, who wants their land.

It’s basically a remake of Shane, which I always thought was the least essential ‘classic’ Western. It rips off Shane’s two most famous moments. As in Shane, a struggling family is brought together and saved by the arrival of a gunfighter. But unfortunately, where Shane is hero-worshipped by the family’s young son, Clint in Pale Rider is lusted after by the family’s teenaged daughter. This leads to a fairly horrid scene in which a 14-year-old girl begs 55-year-old Eastwood to deflower her. This is even worse when you consider that he directed the film himself.

Actor-directors inevitably fetishise themselves onscreen, but in this Eastwood is infallible in every way. He just turns up, sorts everything out, and then leaves, seemingly untouched by everything around him. There are hints (from the film’s title on down) that he’s some kind of Biblical angel of vengeance, but that’s not played up nearly enough to work (it might have made for a more interesting film).

It only works if you already know Eastwood’s onscreen persona from other Westerns, since he’s playing exactly the same character. We’re supposed to applaud him for gunning down cardboard-cut-out villains and for his high moral stature. Hooray! Clint heroically resisted the temptation to hump a teenager! It’s not a very high bar to clear, let’s be honest.

The film looks pretty good, and is well acted by the supporting cast (which includes Chris Penn from Reservoir Dogs and Richard Kiel from various Bond films). The music is terribly unsubtle, but otherwise it’s easy on the eye and ear. It’s just that it’s a star vehicle in the way none of these other films are – The Searchers and Rio Bravo both subtly undermine Wayne’s hero image – and you might as well not bother if you don’t think seeing Clint on a horse is a good thing in itself.

Eastwood did finally find the right balance between realistic and mythic in Unforgiven, which would have been a much more worthy addition to this set. It’s mystifying they chose pale Rider when Warners also has the rights to Unforgiven.

The film looks decent on Blu-ray, anyway, although 80s films never tend to look as good as films that came earlier or later. The shadows are a bit too shadowy, but that might be deliberate. There’s a couple of trailers, but no extras otherwise.

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The set is packaged in a slipcase and two DVD cases. The disks themselves have not been reprinted specially for this set, and are just repackaged versions of existing products. This is an inexpensive way to get hold of three classic Westerns on Blu-ray, and if you end up with two wretched ones as well, you can’t complain too much. You don’t have to watch them, after all.

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Comments on this review

  • jaygami86 published 11/09/2014
    Great review
  • alliewallie published 17/08/2014
    Brilliant review and congratulations on the diamond!!
  • kojak123 published 17/08/2014
    Brilliant! Well deserved diamond review, congrat's.
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Product Information : Westerns Collection (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Eastwood, Clint

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Genre: Western

Classification: 18 years and over

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