Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection
Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) / Many Rivers to Cross (1955) / Saddle the Wind (1958) / The Law and Jake Wade (1958)/ Cimarron (1960) /The Stalking Moon (1968)
|Studio: Warner Brothers
Film Length: Various
Aspect Ratio: 16:9/2.55:1/2.4:1
Release Date: August 26, 2008
Warner has opened their vaults to release a collection of six Westerns from the 1950s and 1960s. Five of the six titles are from the MGM library, and were it not for the inclusion of the independently produced The Stalking Moon from 1968, they could have titled this collection "Classic Oaters from the Dream Factory". While one may be disappointed that they did not include any westerns from their classic Warner Bros. studio library, they also concurrently released a separate box set of Errol Flynn westerns (review forthcoming) which taps into that source, making for a great August for fans of classic westerns.
Escape from Fort Bravo (1953 - MGM - 99 minutes)
Directed By: John Sturges>
Starring: William Holden, Eleanor Parker, John Forsythe, William Demarest
In the Civil War set Escape from Fort Bravo, William Holden plays Union officer Captain Roper stationed at a remote southwestern outpost used as a prison for Confederate soldiers. Roper has a reputation for toughness, derived largely from his ruthless pursuit of anyone foolish enough to try to escape into the surrounding harsh country with its punishing desert and hostile Indians. His icy demeanor is thawed somewhat when he meets Carla Forester (Parker), a friend of his commanding officer's daughter who arrives at the Fort ostensibly to attend her wedding. What Roper does not know is that Carla also has a past romantic relationship with prominent inmate Captain John Marsh (Forsythe), and has been conspiring with nearby Confederate sympathizers to spring him from the prison.
John Sturges' flair for action and William Holden's ruthless tough guy portrayal of Captain Roper are the strengths of this film. While the romantic betrayal at the center of the film is undermined somewhat by a lack of chemistry between Holden and Parker and John Forsythe is somewhat unconvincing as a Confederate officer, none of this matters when the film reaches its exciting climax involving an extended Indian siege against a barely sheltered group of the film's main characters.
The character parts in the film are also filled out better than usual with a highlight being the humorous interplay between William Demarest's cranky old Confederate and his cohorts.
Many Rivers to Cross (1955 - MGM - 94 minutes)
Directed By: Roy Rowland
Starring: Robert Taylor, Eleanor Parker, Victor McLaglen, Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, James Arness
In the post-Revolutionary War set Many Rivers to Cross, Robert Taylor plays legendary free-spirited trapper Bushrod Gentry, who is an expert at both trapping animals and extracting himself from romantic commitments. He meets his match in more ways then one when he is rescued from an attacking Indian by Mary Stuart Cherne (Parker), the only daughter in the large family of Scottish immigrant patriarch Stuart Cherne (McLaglen). Injured in the attack, Bushrod accepts an offer to convalesce under the Cherne's roof, but every time he is ready to be on his way, his attempts to leave and escape Mary Stuart's romantic devices on him are thwarted by increasingly extreme tricks, most of them landing Bushrod in a brawl with either her rival suitor, Luke Radford (Hale, Jr.) or her father and brothers.
This slice of eighteenth century Americana hooey appears to have been MGM's bid to carve out a piece of Disney's lucrative Davy Crockett pie. While throngs of children did not wind up rushing to stores to purchase Bushrod Gentry merchandise and the script at times tips the scales more in the direction of Li'l Abner than Davy Crockett, director Roy Rowland manages to turn in a fairly amusing "battle of the sexes" comedy in a frontier setting. Eleanor Parker chews up all available scenery, with Mary Stuart Cherne bordering on the sadistic in her efforts to keep Bushrod from wandering off. The presence of Victor McLaglen is always welcome, but is also a reminder of how John Ford would have handed this type of material better. James Arness makes a fun impression in the film's second half as a hulking kindred spirit to Bushrod.
Saddle the Wind (1958 - MGM - 84 minutes)
Directed By: Robert Parrish
Starring: Robert Taylor, Julie London, John Cassavetes, Donald Crisp, Charles McGraw
In Saddle the Wind Robert Taylor plays reformed gunfighter turned rancher Steve Sinclair. After years working steadily for wealthy land owner Dennis Deneen (Crisp), Steve and his younger brother, Tony (Cassavetes) have been rewarded with their own plot of land, the "Double S", in which their cattle are allowed to roam freely across both their own and Deneen's property. When the impressionable Tony guns down a man from Steve's past who was looking to do him harm, he becomes increasingly obsessed with gunplay, leading to a tragic series of events that pit brother against brother and threatens to destroy everything they have built.
While John Cassavetes is not entirely convincing as a western rancher/gunslinger and his post James Dean juvenile delinquent take on the troubled Tony seems a little out of place in a traditional western setting, the film still manages to work thanks to the sturdy performance of Robert Taylor as the reformed big brother unable to either turn his back on his sibling or successfully steer him along the straight and narrow. Throw in Donald Crisp's violence-averse father figure, and you have the stuff of classical drama, and that is just how Robert Parrish arranges the film. Julie London appears to have been added to the cast list primarily to sing the title song and provide some eye candy. She has some decent scenes with Taylor, but the possibility of an additional romantic rivalry between the brothers is never explored.
The Law and Jake Wade (1958 - MGM - 86 minutes)
Directed By: John Sturges
Starring: Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelly
Robert Taylor plays the title character in The Law and Jake Wade, a Sheriff with a hidden outlaw past that comes back to bite him when, out of a sense of obligation, he breaks his former criminal associate, Clint Hollister (Widmark), from a jail where he is facing a death sentence. Far from grateful, Hollister re-assembles his gang, tracks Wade back to his new home, kidnaps his fiancée, Peggy (Owens), and forces him at gunpoint to lead them to the location where he buried the money from their last job together. Facing certain death at the end of the journey, if not during it due to the presence of hostile Indians and borderline psychotic gang members Rennie (Silva) and Wexler (Kelly), Wade looks for any and every opportunity to save Peggy and himself.
Released only three months after Saddle the Wind, Robert Taylor once again plays a reformed man haunted by his violent past. At this point, Richard Widmark had been playing variations on this kind of dangerous but strangely charismatic snickering villain for over a decade, but he was so good at it that it always seemed to work. This case is certainly no exception as he makes an excellent foil for Taylor's resourceful but out-maneuvered Jake Wade. Similar to Saddle the Wind, the film suffers a bit due to a weak female lead. Patricia Owens has a little bit more to do than Julie London did in the earlier film, but not very much, and she comes across more as a piece of attractive set decoration than a character essential to the plot.
Cimarron (1960 - MGM - 147 minutes)
Directed By: Anthony Mann
Starring: Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Arthur O'Connell, Russ Tamblyn, Mercedes McCambridge, Vic Morrow
Cimarron tells a decades spanning tale of the settlement of the Oklahoma Territory through the experiences of the Cravat family beginning just prior to the land rush of 1889 and continuing through into the era of World War I. Glenn Ford plays Yancey Cravat, a man with a rough and tumble adventurous past who marries Sabra Venable over the objections of her more refined family. Yancey's dream is to establish a stake by claiming some prime land during the 1889 Oklahoma land rush, but through a variety of circumstances, finds himself the editor of the "Oklahoma Wigwam" newspaper instead. This line of work gels nicely with one of Yancey's defining characteristics, which is his uncompromising sense of justice. Unfortunately, his other defining characteristic is a pioneering thirst for adventure, and his wanderlust eventually comes into conflict with his family commitments. As the region is transformed by the discovery of oil and the associated new wealth, Sabra works to keep her family afloat in the face of multi-year absences by her husband, a relationship between her son and a Native American Indian woman that forces her to confront her own racism, and several unsuccessful attempts to settle Yancey into a more comfortable life which are always foiled by his inability to compromise his principles.
For eighty minutes or so, Cimarron has all of the elements of a classic Anthony Mann western. The staging of the Oklahoma land rush is outstanding and Glenn Ford's characterization of Yancey is a winning and intriguing representation of the positive and negative sides of the frontier spirit. There are generous helpings of visceral Anthony Mann-style violence such as when Yancey confronts two outlaws holding hostages in a schoolhouse or when he jams a racist villain's head between the wheel and axle of an overturned wagon.
Unfortunately, the wheels come off of the film's own wagon when Glenn Ford's character of Yancey takes off and leaves his family for a five year period. This leaves the audience alone with Sabra who, as characterized by Maria Schell, is beautiful to look at, but a fairly unpleasant person to be around. She starts off weak and simpering and evolves into a tougher but nagging spouse who constantly is demanding that her husband abandon his principles in order to meet his family obligations. Sabra is just not as fully realized a character as Ford's Yancey, whose contradictions were interesting more so than annoying. Whether a miscalculation on the part of the writers, the actress, or the director, Schell's take on Nancy makes the audience wish they could leave her for extended periods just like Yancey does.
Whether another actress could have made the film work better or not, Mann seems less in control of the proceedings as the plot turns more towards soap opera and politics. Mann was reportedly dismissed from the production before it was completed and replaced with an uncredited Charles Walters, but I have never heard an explanation of what the reasons were for his dismissal or exactly which pieces were shot by Walters.
While the other films in this collection of westerns take the traditional Hollywood approach to Native American Indians by portraying them as either hostile forces of nature disrupting the activities of white characters or as domesticated comic relief,Cimarron takes a much more modern view, particularly via Yancey's progressive views on Indian rights and his disgust at how they are cheated and mistreated by the wealthy and powerful.
The Stalking Moon (1968 – National General - 109 minutes)
Directed By: Robert Mulligan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Forster, Noland Clay, Russell Thorson, Frank Silvera
In The Stalking Moon, Gregory Peck plays retiring Army scout Sam Varner. On one of his last official assignments, his troop captures a group of Apache Indians and is surprised to find among them a white woman named Sarah Carver with her unnamed "half-breed" son. When Varner ships out to begin his new life as a New Mexico rancher, Sarah begs him to take her and her son along at least far enough to get to a train station. As unsettling reports of death and destruction arrive from every previous stop along their journey, Carver learns that the boy's father is the fierce Apache Warrior, Salvaje, and that he is following them all the way along their journey.
In 1968, six years after To Kill a Mockingbird, director Robert Mulligan and actor Gregory Peck re-teamed for this very different film. Conceptually, it is an almost experimental hybrid of traditional western and horror concepts, with its protagonists being stalked by a murderous force that remains unseen for most of the picture. I found this mix to be quite effective. Robert Forster adds a much-needed degree of levity as Nick Tana, the pragmatic but loyal "half-breed" friend of Peck who gives the audience something to smile at as well as someone else to worry about when he shows up in Salvaje's crosshairs.
As much as all films should be seen in their original aspect ratios, The Stalking Moonreally needs to be seen in its 2.4:1 Panavision ratio. I think one of the reasons that some people have seen it on video and not liked it as much as they remembered in theaters is that the panning and scanning of previous television and video presentations really messes up the film, even more so than with most films of the era. The space between and around the characters is extremely important, whether making them seem exposed in the first half of the film in the wide open Arizona desert, or making the audience sense the potential for menace behind every rock, hill, and tree in the mountainous New Mexico setting of the second half of the film.
The VideoAll films are presented in 16:9 enhanced video.
Escape from Fort Bravo looks pretty terrible, which is about par for the course when you see "Ansco Color" in the credits. In terms of the video presentation, I got the sense that they likely had to put a lot of hard work into it to get it to look as passable as it does. Heavy grain turns to massively heavy grain during opticals, but the color timing remains steady. The whole palette seems to want to tilt towards magenta, but they manage to hold it off for most of the presentation. Contrast is very high, but they manage to eek enough detail out of dark areas of the screen for it to work, etc. One thing that does seem to be off with the video transfer is that it appears slightly over-matted at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The news is better on the other titles, all presented with 16:9 enhanced transfers at their CinemaScope or Panavision aspect ratios of either 2.55:1 or 2.4:1. Color stability and density wavers a bit on Many Rivers to Cross, Cimarron has some noticeable edge ringing that is distracting during brightly lit exteriors, and Saddle the Wind is a touch noisier than the best titles in the collection, but all are more than acceptable except for Escape from Fort Bravo, which is primarily a victim of how it was produced as a film.
The AudioAll of the films come with very good sounding Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks except forEscape from Fort Bravo and Cimarron which are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-Logic surround. All tracks are encoded at a 192 kbps bitrate. Escape from Fort Bravohas wide stereo music across the front channels with very little bleed to the surrounds. Dialog and effects have barely any directional element at all until the climactic siege segment where gunshots and arrow sounds are spread aggressively across the front soundstage. Fidelity for Escape from Fort Bravo is not quite up to the levels of the other films in the collection, although it is by no means bad. Cimarron has a very nice sounding matrixed stereo mix with noticeable surround activity coming primarily from the score and occasionally during set-pieces such as the Oklahoma land rush early in the film. All of the mono titles sound like they were derived from high quality magnetic sources, with The Stalking Moon having the best fidelity of the bunch. There are no alternate language tracks, although French subtitles are available for all titles in the collection.
ExtrasAll films except for The Stalking Moon come with their original theatrical trailers included on disc. None of them are especially remarkable, although it is worth noting that the trailer for Many Rivers to Cross makes a big deal about its presentation in stereo sound. Apparently the tracks for this stereo soundtrack have been lost to the dustbin of time. [Note: Apparently not - see discussion thread]
There are no extras beyond the trailers.
PackagingThe discs come packaged in standard-sized Amaray cases with no inserts. Cover art is derived from vintage photographs from the films emphasizing the cast in a similar way as was done with the recent Frank Sinatra Collections. The discs in turn are packaged in a thin cardboard box with a picture of Richard Widmark in character as bad guy Clint Hollister from The Law and Jake Wade on the front and a small image of John Cassavetes gunning down a man from a key scene in Saddle the Wind on the back accompanying text and graphics listing all of the titles in the collection.
Disc menus are laid out sensibly, avoiding annoyances like requiring the user to select a "special features" menu to access the trailers.
SummaryThese 50s and 60s titles will be welcome additions to the DVD collections of classic western fans. I found all of the films in the set entertaining and would rate Escape from Fort Bravo, The Law and Jake Wade, and The Stalking Moon as excellent. Video and audio presentations are outstanding save for some heavy source flaws inherent toEscape from Fort Bravo and some visible high contrast edge ringing noticeable during significant portions of Cimarron. Extras consist solely of trailers for five of the six films. All of the titles are available individually as well as in this box set collection.