Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blu Ray Review of The Comancheros

From: Big Hollywood.com

As they have annually since 1994, in January of this year, Harris Interactive conducted a poll that surveys a sample of 2300 adults across the country with a very simple question: “Who is your favorite movie star?” Ranking as number three this year (up from seven last year) was the only actor to make the list every year since its inception and the only actor to make it posthumously: John Wayne. Nearly thirty-two years after his death, the Duke still captures the American imagination in a way no other actor or movie star ever has or ever will.
The reasons for this are legion. First and foremost, Wayne was a second-to-none screen presence. There aren’t many actors who could blow the likes of Lee Marvin, Kirk Douglas, Montgomery Clift, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda or John Ford’s wonderful collection of character actors off the screen — but Wayne could without moving a muscle. He also personified the flawed but sympathetic hero, the loner who lived by a simple code and was rarely welcomed into the civilization that wouldn’t have been possible without his violence. And finally, John Wayne was one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen; the rare movie star who not only possessed range, but also a bottomless emotional depth in his well-known screen persona.  There will never be another John Wayne and that I have lived long enough to see our critical community finally (and in some cases, grudgingly) come to terms with that means more to me than I can express.

Something else the Duke did very, very right – again, better than any other movie star – was to make one damn fine film after another. After toiling away in quickie Westerns for over a decade, Wayne finally became a star portraying the Ringo Kid (greatest character introduction ever) in John Ford’s unqualified 1939 masterpiece “Stagecoach.” From there he never looked back or stopped working straight through to his fitting final role as a dying gunfighter in “The Shootist” (1976). In-between, though, he starred in nearly 80 films, a canon of work that – at least to us Wayne fans – contains surprisingly few clunkers.

Forget about the dozen-plus outright masterpieces like “The Searchers” and “Red River.” Discovering Wayne’s lesser-known, pre-1960 titles such as “Wake of the Red Witch,” “Seven Sinners,“ “Dakota,” and “Tall in the Saddle,” is to discover a treasure-trove of unpretentious, well-paced stories, perfectly staged around their star and surprisingly diverse in both tone and genre. For every dud like “The Conqueror” or “The Barbarian and the Geisha” there are three undeniable classics, five objectively terrific adventures, and two offerings only a Wayne devotee could love, like “Blood Alley” or “The Hellfighters.”  You can’t underestimate how much this large bounty of good material contributes to Wayne’s enduring appeal.

Many movie stars from the classic era have a pretty good batting average when it comes their legacy (especially when compared to today’s stars), but very few worked non-stop over five decades or starred in the kinds of films that never seem to age. Action-adventures and robust comedies always play well and Wayne’s have remained especially timeless due to enduring themes that examine everything from courage and honor to the poison of racism to what it means to be a man. Quality and quantity. Incredibly, however, Wayne’s batting average only improved as he got older.

From 1960 until his death, Wayne starred in nearly 25 films that to this day seem to loop endlessly on cable television – and for very good reason. These are the films that made me a fan. In my late teens, I spent an entire summer renting one VHS after another from the local library and was rewarded each time with rollicking adventure, good humor, and the kind of life lessons the smart-set now calls corny. But they’re wrong.

These films endure thanks in large part to deceptively complicated themes and characters. “In Harm’s Way” (1965), deals with rape; “The Green Berets” (1968), hot-button politics; “The Undefeated” (1969), national reconciliation and forgiveness; “Big Jake” (1971) and “The Cowboys” (1972) both contain children menaced by sadistic killers; “Cahill U.S. Marshall” (1973) pits a father’s values against his own son’s criminality and “The Shootist” (1976) deals with your time coming to end as poignantly as any film ever has. I could go on, but you get the idea. Which brings me to the reason you’re all here…
Directed in 1960 by one of the greatest studio directors of all time, the legendary Michael Curtiz (directing his lastfilm), in many ways “The Comancheros” set the template for the rest of John Wayne’s career. So it’s fitting that on its 50th anniversary this is one of the few Wayne films (thus far) to get a top-shelf Blu-ray release as a special edition with a ton of superb extras.

The year is 1843 and the place Texas. Wayne plays Texas Ranger Capt. Jake Cutter, a widower of two-plus years still in mourning over the untimely death of his beloved wife. Charged with bringing in Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a sophisticated, well-dressed ladies man (Frenchman to be more accurate) who killed a rival for a woman’s affections during a gentleman’s pistol duel, at first the two men engage in some standard snob meets slob comedy,  but this comes to an abrupt end once they enter Indian territory. Life with the Comanches was never easy in Texas but a renegade band of black market gun runners who call themselves the Comancheros have stirred things up and now innocent settlers are paying the price.

Regret escapes, Cutter has bigger things to worry about and goes undercover to infiltrate the brutal and secretive world of the Comancheros, and from there the plot moves with lightning speed and wraps up with one of my favorite closing lines from any movie: “Don’t forget to mend those fences!” You’ll have to see it to know of what I speak.
The widescreen Cinemascope transfer is absolutely gorgeous, Elmer Bernstein’s score contagious, and Lee Marvin’s few minutes of screen time as the trigger-tempered Tully Crow unforgettable; a future superstar being born before your very eyes. And like the films mentioned above, there’s also a number of complicated themes at work. The story opens with the kind of sexuality you rarely saw in 1960 and as was almost always the case in Wayne’s Westerns, the relationship and portrayal of the Indians was nowhere near as black and white as his critics would lead you to believe.

But best of all this is a John Wayne film, one that plays to his endless supply of strengths and never stops entertaining over 107 minutes. The extras are just as good and alone are worth the price of the disc. There’s feature-length commentary with, among others, Whitman and Wayne’s son Patrick (who has a small but memorable role); a two-part documentary , “The Duke at Fox,” that examines Wayne’s legendary feud with studio head Daryl Zanuck, and a historical look at the settling of the Southwest that’s shockingly non-PC. packaging is very nice, as well.

Frequently I’ve dreamt of a gizmo that could erase my already bad memory and allow me the pleasure of discovering any number of treasured films again for the very first time. This isn’t the case with Wayne, though. The pleasure has always been in rediscovering his films, returning to the comfort of them again and again. Great stories, great action, great dialogue and always in the subtext the challenge to become a better man.
Hollywood used to be great and thanks to DVD and Blu-ray it thankfully doesn’t matter what they are today.

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