H. Bala | Carson - hey, we have an IKEA store! - CA USA | 05/26/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"John Wayne didn't really tame the wild, wild west; it just seems like he did. The man is larger than life and about as iconic as it gets. JOHN WAYNE - THE FOX WESTERNS doesn't come close to showcasing his best films, with two of the four - THE COMANCHEROS and THE UNDEFEATED - being merely passable fare. However, a third entry NORTH TO ALASKA is a good-natured, rollicking film, while THE BIG TRAIL is a little known but historically momentous cinematic gem.
Plenty to say about THE BIG TRAIL. Back in 1930, Marion Morrison was 23 years old and working as prop man on the movie lot when legendary director Raoul Walsh saw him and took an enormous chance. Marion's name was changed to John Wayne, and he was given the lead in Walsh's ambitious, sweeping western epic THE BIG TRAIL. Note that even though director John Ford had already planted Wayne in several films, it was as an extra. Wayne was very raw here, in his first starring role; but that doesn't mean he wasn't good.
In THE BIG TRAIL John Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a scout who guides a wagon train of settlers 2500 miles, from the Mississippi banks thru the western wilderness to a remote valley beyond Oregon. All the while Coleman attempts to ferret out his best friend's killers; he even finds time to romance the beautiful pioneer girl Ruth (Marguerite Churchill). One of the early talkies, this film is still relevant today and contemporary enough in its sensibilities that you get caught up in the story, which is involving and exciting and at times humorous (I quite enjoyed the "Looks like barrels grow on trees around here." sequence). Even back then, most of the characters were already cliched, yet the sound performances pull it off - the shifty Southern "gentleman" who strives to tempt Ruth with talks of his plantation in Louisiana; the dirty, no-good bear of a trail boss (Tyrone Power's dad, by the way); Zeke, Coleman's grizzled sidekick; the good-natured settler with the Swedish accent, brought in for low comic relief and constantly bullied by his brutish mother-in-law. As Breck Coleman, John Wayne looks dashing in his buckskin outfit. His acting is pretty good, even if the script calls for him to make stilted speeches. When the settlers were wont to turn back, here's Wayne: "No, you're not! We can't turn back! We're blazing a trail that started in England..." Even Duke's natural acting style can't make that speech sound off-the-cuff. It's also interesting to note that, in his first Western starring role, John Wayne's primary weapon is a knife, not a gun.
Filmed in 1930, THE BIG TRAIL reportedly cost around 2 million to make, and it shows in the product. This is an age-old western story: "Prairie schooners rolling west. Praying for peace - but ready for battle." The film depicts these hardy settlers enduring backbreaking hardships and privations as they face murderous climates, unforgiving landscapes, Indian attacks, and dearth of water. This film offers grand spectacle and is as much about the presentation of the frontier lands as it is the people. We are treated to several awesome sights here, as the caravan navigates perilous terrain and fords treacherous waters. There are grievous losses, of human casualties and ruined covered wagons smashing against the face of the steep cliffs or being swept away like leaves on a raging river. Also worth taking in is the circle of wagons shootout with the Indians. In its sheer panoramic storytelling, this film cries out to be seen in widescreen. Remember, though, that this western is over three quarters of a century old, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the audio at times is inaudible or muted.
A bit about the failed experiment. In 1929 Fox Studios introduced the Fox Grandeur 70 mm widescreen process to the film industry. But, used to 35 mm sized pictures, most theaters back then simply didn't have the capability to show 70 mm films, and it would've cost too much to convert equipment. Factor in the Great Depression, and the widescreen format just never stood a chance. THE BIG TRAIL never really stood a chance. Making the film truly was a massive undertaking, as each scene had to be filmed twice, for the 70 mm camera and for the 35 mm camera. To make it even more painstaking, different casts had to also shoot the movie (respectively, for the German, Italian, and Spanish markets).
Imagine the stones on Raoul Walsh, to take a chance on a nobody like John Wayne, who wasn't even really an actor at the time. And imagine how much credibility and prestige Walsh lost when THE BIG TRAIL flopped. It was equally devastating for John Wayne, as he was exiled into nine years of drudgery in B-western features and serials. In 1939, STAGECOACH came along and finally catapulted him to stardom. But, really, THE BIG TRAIL should've done the job.
There are two discs here for THE BIG TRAIL. Disc 1 has the much vaunted Fox Grandeur 70mm Widescreen Version of the film, with audio commentary by Film Historian/Author Richard Schickel and these very decent featurettes: "The Creation of John Wayne" which covers John Wayne's early life and how THE BIG TRAIL impacted his film career; "Raoul Walsh: A Man In His Time" (as a gruesome trivia, you learn how he lost his right eye); "The Big Vision: The Grandeur Process" and "The Making of The Big Trail" (both interesting); and a photo gallery. Disc 2 has the Academy Aspect Ratio 35 mm Full Frame version of The Big Trail. I must mention that the bonus features on the dvds of the other included films consist of theatrical trailers and brief promotional movie spots. Shabby.
Thirty years later, in 1960, John Wayne starred in NORTH TO ALASKA, a rugged and boisterous comedy-adventure about love and the Alaskan gold rush. Having struck it rich in Alaska, George Pratt (Stewart Granger) sends his best pal Sam McCord (Wayne) to Seattle to fetch Jenny, George's French bride-to-be. However, when McCord finds out that Jenny is already married, he ends up in the Hen House, a house of ill-repute, to drink his blues away. There, he meets the lovely soiled dove Michelle (nicknamed "Angel") who happens to be French (you see where this is going?). A misunderstanding then crops up. Although McCord proposes to Angel on George's behalf, Angel believes that McCord is the intended husband. And she falls for him. How do you say "awkward" in French?
This is the type of cinema John Wayne did occasionally to show the world he can look comedy straight in the eye. In the same lighthearted vein as Hatari!, McLintock! (Authentic Collector's Edition), and Donovan's Reef, NORTH TO ALASKA is pretty funny, in a robust sort of way. Certainly, it gives the cast a chance to let their hair down. The film is bookended by two all-out, knock-down brawls, with plenty of laughs in between. Pop idol Fabian, here to lure in the teenaged girls, does his Rio Bravo (Two-Disc Special Edition) Ricky Nelson thing, even managing to sing a tune. Very good movie, this, with the Duke at his comedic cantankerous best. Capucine is stunning.
1969's THE UNDEFEATED is a sprawling story starring the Duke and Rock Hudson. Set in the backdrop of post-Civil War, just retired Union Army Colonel John Henry Thomas (Wayne), battle-weary and broke, gathers what remains of his former troops and head west to round up and then sell wild horses. There, they run into James Langdon (Rock Hudson), a former Confederate Colonel who is enroute to Durango, Mexico with his men and their families to make a new start. Threatened by marauders and Mexican rebels, the two expeditions are forced into an uneasy alliance.
- Mrs. Langdon (as Thomas returns from a palaver with a bandit, whom he was forced to kill): "You went out there to talk. Why did you have to shoot the man?" - Thomas: "Conversation kind of dried up, ma'am."
THE UNDEFEATED may be the third best film here, but I liked it. It's entertaining enough and a bit sad but also funny. It lays out several rousing action-packed moments, yet it's more than your typical shoot-em-up. I expected THE UNDEFEATED to be more somber and contemplative, what with the subplot about the North and the South, post-war. There is a bittersweet undercurrent to the film, and specifically coming from the Rebel side, as borne out in early scenes of the film. Hudson excels in scenes where he has to demonstrate restrained anger and dignity in the face of abject defeat. But the film also holds a surprisingly jovial tone. There are even two love stories going on, one an interracial romance, the other involving Wayne's more measured wooing of a Confederate widow. John Wayne and Rock Hudson show off some good buddy chemistry here, and provide some amusing moments. Stay tuned for the cheery 4th of July fisticuffs, and fans of the old L.A. Rams should be on the lookout for Merlin Olson ("Little George") and, in a larger role, Roman Gabriel ("Blue Boy"). Meanwhile, Lee Meriwether (only the best Catwoman ever) has a meager role, but Ben Johnson, that old hand, is as reliable as ever.
The film I like least in this collection is THE COMANCHEROS, which released in 1961. The plot has a Texas Ranger (Wayne) arresting a gambler (Stuart Whitman) who is wanted for murder. The two later join forces to foil a nasty band of weapon smugglers called the Comancheros. Simply put, this film is forgettable. John Wayne is his usual dependable self, but Stuart Whitman is not good and has no chemistry with Wayne. This is horrible, considering the amount of scenes these two have together. THE COMANCHEROS is subpar John Wayne stuff; I just don't dig it.
JOHN WAYNE - THE FOX WESTERNS is a no-brainer, a must for admirers of John Wayne and fans of good westerns. And three out of four films ain't bad. It's quite interesting to observe the Duke metamorphose from acting infanthood (1930) to cinematic dotage (1960-1969). The acting chops may not have been there at the start, but that big presence was palpable from the get-go. Rating these products is so subjective. This one, I believe, merits four or five stars. And since I have such fond memories of THE BIG TRAIL and NORTH TO ALASKA, and even of THE UNDEFEATED, I'm gonna drop five stars on this bunch of oaters. These films may not be considered the Duke's most classic stuff, but they'll do, yessir, they'll do. Here's to you, Marion Morrison."
A very good set for the price....real Wayne bookends...from
Richardson | Sunny California USA | 05/16/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This set contains an absolute GEM...which is the 2 disc THE BIG TRAIL from 1930(the 2008 Widescreen edition) and three lesser 1960's era Wayne colour widescreen films. The Big Trail is a must have for western, film or wayne fans and the three others are certainly fun later Wayne films that don't add much price to the package. I should add that earlier editions of these three films had nice / fun featurettes that have been elminated from this offering ..so if you have them I'd get the new BIG TRAIL on its own."
4 favorite Duke westerns
G. Hancock | Baltimore, Maryland | 08/09/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Not a collection of his greatest, but that are a lot of fun. The Commancheros is certainly an old favorite, Big Trail is a collector's item, North to Alaska is very funny, and the Undefeated is worthwhile. Nice to have them all in one set."
Nicholas Donvito Sr. | Camillus, NY | 04/24/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"What more can you say about John Wayne, all were his usual great movies. Thanks Big John for so many years of entertainment. We need more of him!!!"
John Wayne The Fox Westerns.
Thomas M. Kivlin | Philadelphia, PA | 02/20/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"As a BIG John Wayne fan, what else can you say but they were typical Duke cowboy movies. The Big Trail was the movie that started the Duke on the road to stardom. I watched both disks to compare the quality of the film. Watching the movie in Fox Grandeur 70 MM film was beautiful. It was WAY before it's time. North To Alaska, The Comancheros & The Undefeated ALL had the typical fight scene, the typical Duke & best friend riding together & of course a Patriotic speech by The Duke. The cast had All the familiar faces. A very good value!"