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DVD Review: The Searchers/John Wayne-John Ford Collection

By Glenn Abel

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photo No one needs an excuse to revisit the "The Searchers." Here's one anyway: Warner's newly restored and remastered version of the 1956 John Ford-John Wayne masterpiece finally brings home the film in an approximation of its original theatrical glory. Colors are remarkable, and images seem complete. Owners of previous versions should upgrade without hesitation.

Any old "Searchers" DVDs are rendered obsolete, including Warner's widespread and notorious 1997 release, which forced viewers to pick their poison: either a pan-and-scan crop job that stunted the film's magnificent landscapes or a "widescreen" treatment that scalped the verticals.

Director Martin Scorsese, who counts "The Searchers" as one of his favorite films, insists that no contemporary home video or theatrical presentation can match his boyhood experience of watching "The Searchers" in its original VistaVision theatrical format.

"I (don't have the words to) tell you what that VistaVision looked like projected," he says of the long-gone system that yielded fine grains, endless depths of field and extra-wide images. "There's nothing today that can equal that." The cinematic poet and landscape artist Ford made the most of the format and Technicolor with endless longshots of his beloved Monument Valley.

Scorsese is joined by directors Curtis Hanson and John Milius in a half-hour appreciation of the film included as a DVD extra. All three dwell on the dark side of the film, which tells of an aging Civil War veteran and mercenary (Wayne) who stalks a Comanche warlord who slaughtered his brother's family and made off with his niece (perhaps his daughter).

The film's treacherous crosscurrents include rape, sexual slavery, the slaughter of innocents, Old Testament vengeance and omnipresent racism. Few films burrow so deep into the audience's primal places.

Even today, after viewing the restored film, Scorsese finds it "very disturbing."

"The violence in the film is so dark and effective because we never see it," Hanson says. "Questions of race run through every minute. We see the violence and racism of our society." When Wayne looks down with disgust and hatred on white girls turned Comanche, "it's like looking into the eyes of hell."

Peter Bogdanovich, the dependable (and prolific) DVD commentator, says "The Searchers" is "as good a Western as Ford made, maybe the best."

"It's amazing how it was overlooked in its day," Bogdanovich says. "It was sort of dismissed (by the press) as another John Ford-John Wayne movie." He adds, "Time is the best critic." The film's offspring are legion, of course, from Leone to Peckinpah to "Star Wars" to "The Proposition."

"The Searchers" comes in two double-disc sets with identical content on the DVDs. The "Anniversary Edition" retails for $26.99. The "Ultimate Collector's Edition" ($39.92) adds print materials, including reproductions of the 1956 tie-in comic and the original press book, along with some unremarkable memos and postcards.

New-to-DVD extra features are the Bogdanovich commentary, a needless introduction by Patrick Wayne and the excellent half-hour "An Appreciation." Ported over from previous videos are the jittery Ken Burns-like docu "A Turning of the Earth" (Milius narrates) and a handful of "Behind the Cameras" TV puff pieces from 1956 with Gig Young.

The older extras lean on clips from the Ford crew's filmed diary, an early stab at a serious making-of docu. Warner had no alternate takes or deleted scenes to display, typical of the efficient Ford, Bogdanovich says.

There is a good deal of repetitive material in the extras for the releases reviewed here -- images, clips, stories -- but most viewers won't mind. Unfortunately, there's nothing on the music in Ford's films, such as Max Steiner's score for "The Searchers."

Buy "The Searchers Ultimate Collector's Edition" at 30% off.

photo "The Searchers: Ultimate" also comes complete on the highly anticipated boxed set "The John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection," along with seven other films (retail $79.92). A double-disc upgrade of "Stagecoach" and the DVD debut of "Fort Apache" join "The Searchers" as the best reasons to pony up.

Much is made of Ford's "cavalry trilogy" -- "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (included) and "Rio Grande" -- but a good argument can be made for "Stagecoach," "Apache" and "Searchers" as a Monument Valley triptych that emerged from Ford's evolving attitudes toward Native Americans.

"Stagecoach" (1939) includes commentary from Ford biographer Scott Eyman, who says: "The modern Western begins here." Eyman delivers his talk flat, lecture-style, but provides plenty of detail and thoughtful analysis.

Ford rescued Wayne from the B-movie mill of Republic Pictures because the director "sensed Wayne could command a scene simply by entering it," Eyman says. To make sure, Ford gave Wayne one of the great entrances in screen history, using a dramatic dolly shot to rush up on the cocky Ringo Kid. Still, Wayne was Ford's favorite target for tirades, and "Ford kept picking on Wayne for 34 years," Eyman says. (As Bogdanovich put it, "There was a certain tension on a Ford set, to put it mildly.")

The men's tense yet affectionate and enduring relationship is chronicled in the recent "American Masters" profile "The Filmmaker and the Legend" (HR 5/10). The informative but padded docu runs 90 minutes. (It contains numerous spoilers.) The 2006 half-hour docu "Stagecoach: A Story of Redemption" includes testimony from Bogdanovich, who dubs it "the first psychosexual Western." A bonus "Stagecoach" radio drama includes co-star Claire Trevor.

Images from the trailer and docu clips give a pretty good idea of what the restorers were up against with "best available film elements." Video quality is OK despite the wear. ("Stagecoach" is available individually for $26.98.)

DVD newcomer "Fort Apache" (1948) looks great, with minimal wear on its crisp black-and-white images (from original nitrate elements) and bugle-brisk audio. The film, ironically, finds Henry Fonda playing the maddeningly hawkish cavalry commander against Wayne's humanistic officer willing to risk all for peace and justice.

"Fort Apache" is available separately for $14.98. The (single) DVD has no documentary on the intriguing film, a shame. It does include a 15-minute piece on Monument Valley, covering Ford's significant and seemingly beneficial role in the Indian reservation's history. The Navajo, paid good wages for their appearances, called him "Giant Soldier." "I've kissed more babies than a politician," Ford said.

"Part of his vision of the world was that we're all very small in the scheme of things," film historian Joseph McBride says. "I think (Monument Valley) gives a dimension of moral seriousness to his work that was intensified as he went along."

"It always seemed like plagiarism to shoot in Monument Valley after Ford," Bogdanovich says.

"All I've got is an eye for composition," Ford once said.

Buy "The John Ford-John Wayne Film Collection" at 31% off.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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