John Wayne: The Epic Collection, on DVD, 40 movies on 38 discs, Warner Home Video, 2014, $149.98
That Warner Home Video calls this collection “epic” is understandable. It does contain 40 John Wayne films, and “ultimate” was already taken. In 2009 Mill Creek Entertainment released John Wayne: The Ultimate Collection, which comprised 25 Wayne features.
Epic does not mean complete, however, and many outstanding Duke performances are missing here, including Stagecoach (1939), the role that made him a star; Red River (1948), the role that revived his career; Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), the role that earned him his first Oscar nomination; and The Quiet Man (1952), the role that teamed him up with Maureen O’Hara for a second time (the first being in 1950’s Rio Grande, which you also won’t find). The explanation is that this is a Warner Bros. and Paramount compilation, with some RKO titles (distribution rights controlled by Warner) included. Stagecoach and Red River were released through United Artists, while Republic Pictures distributed Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande and The Quiet Man. Also absent are such entertaining Universal entries as War Wagon and Big Jake.
In the end, 22 Western titles made the Epic Collection cut, including RKO’s Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which along with Rio Grande make up director John Ford’s cavalry trilogy. The earliest Wayne films included are six from the 1930s, including Ride ’em Cowboy and Man From Monterey. The three Westerns of the 1940s include a lesser-known Ford picture that has long been underappreciated—3 Godfathers.
There is a special features disc, but it leaves much to be desired. It has no original content. The eight shorts were all lifted from the special edition DVDs of The Searchers and Rio Bravo, and the focus is on the making of those two films. One can learn more about directors Ford and Howard Hawks and actress Natalie Wood here than the man born Marion Mitchell Morrison. Watching Martin Scorsese and John Milius gush over The Searchers is a nice bonus segment, but in something called John Wayne: The Epic Collection, wouldn’t you expect to find documentary material centered squarely on, you know, John Wayne?
The Epic Collection is also only on DVD, a borderline appalling decision in 2014, considering Wayne fans have had about 15 years to build up their own collections in this format. The Searchers, for instance, was released on DVD in 1997, True Grit in 2000. Even the far more obscure 1932 film Haunted Gold appeared in 2007. It’s 2014. Film buffs already own these titles; this collection needs to be on Blu-Ray, which itself is more than 8 years old.
The decision to forgo Blu-Ray is a mystery, though it speaks to the longevity of the DVD in the home media market. Ultimately, this is a redundant box set that may be little more than a repackaging tool to get people to buy movies they already own. But it’s time to stop groaning about that—the Duke wouldn’t stand for it! So whether you’re unfamiliar with the star’s work, or your John Wayne DVD catalog is lacking, here are four absolute must-have Western movies included in The Epic Collection:
The Searchers (1956). One of the all-time greatest American films, it is considered John Ford’s magnum opus and John Wayne’s quintessential performance. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a racist and ruthlessly determined wanderer who embarks on a looping, obsessive, near Biblical quest across the Western frontier to find his niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been captured by a band of Comanche raiders led by Scar.
Rio Bravo (1959). Howard Hawks’ entertaining, breezy Western has John Wayne playing Sheriff John T. Chance who protects and serves the town of Rio Bravo, Texas, with the help of Dude (Dean Martin), Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Angie Dickinson, Ward Bond, John Russell and Claude Akins round out the loaded cast. Hawks’ pseudo-remake, El Dorado, with Robert Mitchum, James Caan and Arthur Hunnicutt, is included in the box set.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The last Western Ford and Wayne made together is also the first Wayne and James Stewart made together. And yet, it’s Lee Marvin, as the unrestrained villain Liberty Valance, who steals the show. This is the Western that features that oft-quoted line from a newspaperman: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Still sounds good.
The Shootist (1976). After a slew of mediocre releases in the early ’70s, Wayne finished his career with one of his greatest roles, alongside Stewart again with Lauren Bacall in this Don Siegel film. Wayne plays a gunslinger diagnosed with terminal cancer who would prefer to die at the wrong end of a six-shooter than at the hands of a crippling disease. Wayne had already lost a lung to cancer and would die of the disease three years later.