Thursday, July 24, 2008

dvd review: fox western classics

Last year, Wolf and I created a list of 20 Influential Westerns of the 20th Century. The list was expected to expand by a couple of titles, but we never revisited the list again. Perhaps that time has come for us to make it 25 Influential Westerns. Since last year, several westerns on the list (especially The Iron Horse in the Ford at Fox Box set) have finally made it to DVD for the first time, or in a remastered format. Also since then a couple of westerns that we wanted to add to the list have finally made it to DVD. In fact, last month many westerns hit the DVD shelves from Fox and MGM in particular. One such set was the Fox Western Classics DVD set, which contained The Gunfighter, Garden of Evil and Rawhide. It is a welcome thing to see such great flicks finally on DVD. But as always, we at the Shelf have to dig deeper in our ongoing quest to answer the burning question: is it worth placing in the DVD collection, or your online DVD rental queue. Is Fox Western Classics worth your hard-earned dough? Read The Shelf review of Fox Western Classics to find out.

The Hard Facts:
Fox Western Classics
3 Discs in slimcases
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Black and White/Color
Full Screen & Widescreen
Original Studio: Fox
Release Date: 5/13/2008
Rated: NR
Stars: Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Gary Cooper
Tyrone Power, Richard Widmark
Directors: Henry Hathaway, Henry King

The Films:

The Gunfighter (directed by Henry King)A minimalist classic, The Gunfighter is a western long sought for on DVD by many film fans. It is more of a moral tale, one filled with regret and longing. Gregory Peck stars as Johnny Ringo, the aforementioned gunfighter. His name is legendary, and many a hot -headed fast gun has tried to earn their reputation as being the man who killed Ringo. Ringo has spent the last few years weary of the life, the killing and the constant need to defend himself. He has lived longer than other gunfighters, and has lived long enough to see the uselessness of his past. The film opens with Ringo at a Saloon getting a drink when he is challenged by a young man, who was warned to leave him alone. Ringo tries to get him to go away, but when the young man tries to shoot him, Ringo kills him. Ringo heads out of town, warned about the young man's brothers. He gets away and then catches the brothers (one of whom is played by Alan Hale Jr.)off guard- disarms them and sends their horses off without their riders. Figuring he has a good lead on the brothers and a chance to get away, Ringo heads for the next town.
But Ringo has other reasons for being there. He wants to see his estranged wife (Helen Westcott) and their small son. When he is recognized by the barkeep, the sheriff comes to confront him and ask him to leave. Ringo discovers that the sheriff is none other than his old friend (and a former partner) Mark (Millard Mitchell). When Ringo reveals his true intention, he tells Mark he leave as soon as he talks to his wife. It isn't long before the local young hot head with a gun also discovers Ringo is in town. With this kid, and to be sure, the three brothers closing in on Ringo, he feels not just the weight of his past, but the desire for a new future with his wife and son. The question is: will he live long enough to see it happen?

This is a great film, and it's easy to see why it influenced so many other westerns in it's time. It mostly takes place in the saloon, while the whole town and other characters swirl around it. It gives the closed-in and trapped feeling that Ringo is feeling. Trapped by his past, it's hard to see a way for Ringo to get a chance at a new life, but the story and cast bring a sense of hope to the audience that it could happen. All the while, director Henry King, expertly builds up the tension of the other guns closing in on Ringo from all sides. Peck gives a great performance as you have no doubt he could kill quickly, but you also feel his deep regret and hope. Karl Mauldin and Millard Mitchell give great supporting performances. The black and white cinematography is wonderful and the print is a rich black and white film. It is perhaps the standout film of the set.

Garden of Evil (Directed by Henry Hathaway):
Susan Hayward stars as Leah Fuller, a woman who discovers her husband(Hugh Marlowe)is trapped and injured in a gold mine. She contracts out 4 men to help her go to Mexico and rescue her husband. The men, Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), Daly (Cameron Mitchell) and Madariaga(Victor Manuel Mendoza)agree to help her for a share of the gold. They are able to reach the mine well enough and rescue her husband. The problem lies in getting back as the Apache are out looking to kill them. In order to survive they have to get through the area, titled The Garden of Evil. To complicate things more, the tension between the group escalates and you just know not all of them are going to make it.

While some feel this may be the lesser of the bunch here, I think it is a solid, enjoyable western. It's a great adventure/survival story beautifully produced in Cinemascope, and directed by Henry Hathaway. Widmark, Cooper and Hayward are all excellent here with Widmark and Hayward giving stand out performances. Everyone has some sort of agenda and motivation and an adventure story becomes a test of wills. It's best summed up by a great line in the film from Gary Cooper: "A cross isn't a bad thing to can be beautiful. And everybody has one." Good stuff.

Rawhide (Directed by Henry Hathaway):
Susan Hayward had previously worked with Hathaway in this great western flick that also stars Tyrone Power. Power is Tom Owens, an assistant at an isolated stagecoach relay station between the route from California to St. Louis. The stagecoach arrives one day with a woman and her baby niece as passangers, but they are warned that some recently escaped outlaws are in the area. The woman, Vinnie Holt (Hayward), is forced to stay behind at the station as the others think it will be safer there. They were wrong, of course, as the outlaws show up at the station and kill the stationmaster (the great Edgar Buchanan), and take Owens, Holt and her niece hostage. The only seeming advantage they have is that the outlaws, Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) and his gang (including Dean Jagger and a young Jack Elam), believe Tom and Vinnie are married. This keeps them together and alive for the time being. The outlaws plan to wait for the next morning and a certain stagecoach and rob it of it's gold bullion.
Tom and Vinnie are locked up and watched closely, but they need to overcome their hostility to one another and find a way out. Some of the outlaws don't seem to be as murderous in their intent, except for the wild card Tevis (Elam) who seems determined to take advantage of Vinnie. Zimmerman is barely able to keep them at bay and keep them together- and Tom and Vinnie struggle to find a way to exploit this and use their distraction to find a way out and find help.

Another excellent flick, and one of the few westerns Tyrone Power made, Rawhide really ratchets up the tension with the dialogue and near escapes. It's been described as a "western noir" and I think that is a fairly apt way to describe the drama. It could be redone (it has already in other forms) as a 1950's crime film noir gangster flick and no one would be the wiser. Hathaway's pacing is tight and it doesn't let up. There are very few slow moments in the film as it focuses on Tom and Vinnie's attempts to escape from the outlaws.

Bonus Features:
The Gunfighter- Featurettes: Arthur Miller Painter with Light & The Western Grows Up. Includes a restoration comparison the original theatrical trailer and advertising and still gallery.

Garden of Evil- Featurettes: Travels Of A Gunfighter: Making Of Garden Of Evil & Henry Hathaway: When The Going Gets Tough. Includes audio commentary by film and music historian John Morgan, Nick Redman, Steven Smith and William Stromberg, isolated Music Track, restoration comparison, original theatrical trailer, Interactive Pressbook, advertising & still gallery.

Rawhide - Featurettes: Susan Hayward: Hollywood's Straight Shooter & Shoot It In Lone Pine! Includes a restoration comparison, original theatrical trailer, Interactive Pressbook, advertising & still gallery.

Thankfully, Fox didn't forget the extras and included some nice featurettes in the set. Unfortunately there is no commentary on The Gunfighter or Rawhide, but the commentary on Garden of Evil is good.

The film prints are quite crisp and clear. The restoration work done on the films was excellent. It really displays the great cinematography of the film makers and the richness of the various outdoor shooting locations. Audio is also top notch with some great music for all the films.

The Bottom Line:
Fox Western Classics is a great set and a no-brainer for any western fan. I am particularly impressed that Fox was able to pull off some great restoration prints, pack them with some good features and make it a very reasonable purchase in the stores. It is a set you'll want to have in your collection to watch again, especially The Gunfighter. I hope they will continue to pull this great films out of their vaults, and I think the three film sets (as they have been doing with last years Fox Horror Classics and this year's upcoming Vol. 2) are great as it is affordable and you can keep adding to them to your collection. All I can say is keep it up, Fox! I can't wait for a Western Classics Volume 2!

Review Rating:
Individually grading the films and bonus features, the set would earn the following:
The Gunfighter: A+
Garden of Evil: B+
Rawhide: A
Bonus Features: A

Overall Rating:
Fox Western Classics is a MUST HAVE!
We give it a great 4 and a half stars (Groucho glasses)

Stay tuned- we've got more reviews, news and other great stuff lined up. Don't miss it!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Yeah, I heard about you. I heard you're a cheap, no-good bar-room loafer. If I didn't have somethin' else on my mind I'd take them guns away from ya and slap ya cross-eyed.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like this set would be a wonderful set to be drawn for a free one?!!!

J.C. Loophole said...

Yes it would. Unfortunely we just preview sets for Fox- they don't currently run any contests with us. However you can find this set for under $20 in the store and an even better deal online on Amazon! Don't hesitate to pick one up! And keep watching for more contests.

Anonymous said...

Ordered it this afternoon. I didn't realize they put Gunfighter out on disc. I had a tape, but lent it and never saw her again. I'm looking forward to it- I can remember seeing it as a kid in the theater. Good article

The Siren said...

The Gunfighter is one of my top ten all-time Westerns, a beautiful movie and later commemorated in a Bob Dylan song, to boot. This may be heresy to some but I always considered it to be Peck's greatest performance, even better than Atticus.

Anonymous said...

a wonderful set indeed. This will be fun

J.C. Loophole said...

Didn't know about the Dylan song- that's pretty cool. I'm also inclined to agree with you about Peck. It's very much a powerful performance from a young Gregory Peck. The best part is that he made the character somewhat understated and yet perfectly balanced between the world-weariness and glimmer of hope attitude. Sometimes over-the-top performances, which seem to be de jour are just wrong for the character.

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Jack Elam is always the wild card, isn't he? Thanks for the review, always looking for more westerns. I have 4 boys.

J.C. Loophole said...

If that is the case, Robert- you'll want to check back for our next review that I'm currently working on: The Big Trail.
Speaking of Jack Elam, I'm sure you've seen my favorite Elam flick- Support your Local Sheriff! That was a hit with my 3 boys.

Chris said...

Great reviews. I've been waiting for some of these for a long time. I'm glad I found your blog. May I link to yours from mine. I would love it if you'd take a look at my blog, too. I'm reading a bunch of Louis L'Amour and recording my thoughts about it. Amusing stuff.

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Yes the kids loved Support Your Local Sheriff, and Elam is great in Rio Lobo, and Hot Lead Cold Feet.


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