We run into John Wayne fans everywhere we go in this great nation of ours, and by New Year’s Day, after the holiday gifts have all been exchanged or traded in for something better (hey, it happens!), we bet a lot of them will have big smiles on their faces.
The John Wayne family has given us all an incredible gift by opening up its photography archives for the release of John Wayne: The Legend and the Man, published by powerHouse Books.
In this first-ever authorized photographic record of the Duke’s life, you won’t know where to flip to first, which is fine, because whichever page you land on, you will find something incredible. Mixed in with the cinematic shots we all know and love are never-before-seen images from backstage snapshots and family albums. You’ll see the Duke in his football years at USC, aboard his converted wooden naval mine sweeper, the Wild Goose, and traveling with his family and friends in places ranging from Alaska to Mexico.
Director Martin Scorsese got it right in his introduction: “This wonderful collection of photographs gives us John Wayne the figurehead, John Wayne the actor, and John Wayne the human being.”
Thanks to this treasure of a book, fans can truly get a look at this giant of American cinema from every angle.
Our Favorite Movies, TV Series & DVDS
GOOD FOR NOTHING
Two of the best Westerns this year were produced independently. The first, Good for Nothing, came out of New Zealand and is a wry look at the relationship between a completely uncivilized outlaw and a proper young British girl, fresh to the West, who he kidnaps. It’s an odd work, but it’s funny, and it takes some clever turns.
REDEMPTION: FOR ROBBING THE DEAD
The other first-rate movie to be found in 2012 is Redemption: For Robbing the Dead, a historically-based story about a Utah sheriff and a grave robber who was tattooed and exiled to an island in the Great Salt Lake. The robber’s demented wife features a truly unexpected and fearless performance by Margot Kidder.
Lawless is a moonshine picture and a very close cousin to Hatfields & McCoys. Based on the true account of the Bondurant family, three Virginia brothers who did battle with the Syndicate in the Depression era, Lawless has the best ensemble cast in a movie this year and includes Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce and Jessica Chastain.
Justified is probably the best and most consistent Western-themed television series, and the fourth season kicks off on FX in January. Based on crime writer Elmore Leonard’s novels and stories featuring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), the show makes television worth watching.
HELL ON WHEELS
Hell on Wheels, the story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, has become a surprisingly good program, and quite a great many viewers feel the same. This is one of the most interesting Western stories on television, as much as anything because of its unpredictability.
For an Old West-style stoic lawman who has seen it all, Sheriff Walt Longmire truly wears his heart on the sleeve of his duster. Longmire is a solid character, but equally interesting are the fine supporting players, including Lou Diamond Phillips. With 4.3 million viewers tuning in for the series finale, A&E’s most-watched drama will return for a second season.
Dennis Quaid made a fine Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp, and he knows his way around a horse. In CBS’s Vegas, Quaid plays fourth-generation cattle rancher-turned-sheriff Ralph Lamb, Michael Chiklis is Lamb’s adversary, the Little Caesar of Vegas, and the series has a solid writer in Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas). Fans enjoy watching the sleepy cowtown spin off into a cultural miasma.
FORT APACHE/RIO GRANDE
It’s hard to imagine, but while many movies briefly featured the cavalry, the three John Wayne movies directed by John Ford—1948’s Fort Apache, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 1950’s Rio Grande—are the first Westerns that were entirely about the cavalry. Fort Apache and Rio Grande have arrived in fine Blu-ray editions. The visual definition in the black-and-white Fort Apache is spectacular, with stunning, sweeping vistas of Monument Valley.
Also available for the first time is the digitally re-mastered Blu-ray edition of Hondo. Originally released in 3D in 1953, the Louis L’Amour story is among the best Westerns of the ’50s, which is saying quite a lot, and John Wayne is particularly great.
WESTWARD THE WOMEN
I have a soft spot for William Wellman’s 1951 movie Westward the Women, as do a great many people in the Westerns-loving world. That it was hard to find only made the hunger greater, and, finally, it’s been made available as part of the Warner Archive. Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel are wonderful, the Utah scenery is incredible and the picture belongs among the best movies ever made.
THE LAST HUNT/BITE THE BULLET
Richard Brooks only made three Westerns, each one 10 years apart, and each one completely wonderful and unique. The 1956 movie The Last Hunt, part of the Warner Archive, is a lot like a darker sister-film to The Searchers. Both movies were released at the same time, both movies feature rabid Indian-haters (Robert Taylor and John Wayne), and they even use the same theme music.
Brooks also directed 1966’s The Professionals (available in Blu-ray), which pointed the way to ensemble Westerns like The Wild Bunch and took place in the early part of the 20th century.
But Brooks’s third Western is even more remarkable, and only now has it been available in a truly worthy Blu-ray edition. The 1975 movie Bite the Bullet is a unique, tough picture about a 700-mile horse race, based on a race that actually took place in 1908, and it features James Coburn, Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen and Ben Johnson in one of his most poignant performances. Limited to 3,000 editions, the DVD features a stand-alone musical track and a booklet.
HIGH NOON/HANGING TREE
Gary Cooper’s last decade offered 1952’s High Noon at one end and 1959’s The Hanging Tree at the other, and both pictures were outstanding. High Noon is now available as a Blu-ray, and The Hanging Tree, which hasn’t been available since the mid-90s, has finally come out in the Warner Archive. It’s a dour, adult movie based on a novelette by Dorothy Johnson, who also wrote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the film, Cooper offers one of his best roles as the cranky gunfighter and gambler, Doc Frail.
LITTLE BIG MAN
Little Big Man, now on Blu-ray, is a textbook version of what people refer to as a revisionist or anti-Western, but it’s better than that. It’s an epic Western comedy, and the movie is willing to throw a Bronx cheer at George Custer, along with a lot of old Western myths and stereotypes.
RANDOLPH SCOTT WESTERNS
People who love Westerns love Randolph Scott, and most of them know that Scott’s best Westerns were directed by Budd Boetticher. Those movies were all released between 1956-60; all but two of them are collected in a set, but now Sony’s archival series, Choice Collection, is releasing them, on-demand, in individual discs. Sony has started with: Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Buchanan Rides Alone and Decision at Sundown. The best? Probably Comanche Station, but they’re all terrific.
MASTERSON OF KANSAS
Also new to the Sony catalog is Masterson of Kansas, a 1954 movie that featured George Montgomery as Masterson, and with him is Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. It’s Masterson’s name on the title, but as usual, Holliday steals his thunder.
Something Big is one of those genial Western Comedies we saw a lot in the 1970s. Dean Martin is too genial, by far, as a guy who runs a largely Mexican outlaw gang, but the picture has its moments. Still, the movie almost seems as a parody of The Wild Bunch, as Deano wipes out a couple of thousand Mexicans with a Gatling Gun.
Robert Redford is entirely too pretty to be believed as the mountain man known as Liver-Eatin’ Johnson, but Jeremiah Johnson is still a beautiful film, and one of Redford’s best.
SPRINGTIME IN THE SIERRAS
Springtime in the Sierras is one of Roy Rogers’s toughest post-war Westerns, and it’s finally being released in the uncut version with the Trucolor intact. This is one of a series directed by William Witney,
and it’s also incredibly gritty, with a woman who kills an older forest ranger at point-blank range.
Heaven’s Gate is one of the most controversial Westerns ever made. One, it cost far too much and made far too little money. Two, it’s rather dull, and it lasted three and a half hours. The studio cut it back, but the damage was done. However, Criterion has worked with director Michael Cimino to remaster the film. Say what you will, it’s an incredibly good-looking movie. You’ll find a great many extras on this double disc, plus the film offers a look (although, admittedly, largely fictional) inside the Johnson County War. It’s worth the effort, that much is true.
Unforgiven was released once again, in 2012, but this time in a book edition, in Blu-ray. If you’ve never seen this movie in high-definition, you owe it to yourself to get a copy and look it over.