John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.
Claire Trevor is marvelous as Dallas, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks surviving the only way available to her (was she ever again this good?), and John Carradine brings a convincing sense of nobility and soiled chivalry to his role as a fallen Southern Gentleman turned gambler, a trade he puts behind him when he chooses to escort the Lady to see her officer husband. Thomas Mitchell can overdo the boozy intellectual and social commentator, but with such personality that it’s forgivable. But it’s not simply about colorful character in the west. It’s how Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols take the conventions and stir them—and the characters—together and watch the relationships form and the mutual respect develop across class lines and cultural divides. The action scenes are thrilling, a blueprint of master moviemaking that Orson Welles studied relentlessly as he prepared to direct Citizen Kane, but it’s Ford’s portrait of strangers who rise to the challenge under pressure that makes the story so stirring. And for all its timelessness, the thieving fat-cat banker (Berton Churchill) offers a timely villain, decrying government regulation while he runs off with the deposits.
Previously available on DVD from Warner, Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray release is newly mastered from a 1942 nitrate duplicate negative (the original negative is believed lost) and, while exceedingly crisp and vivid, it shows serious wear and emulsion scratches in many spots, notably the opening minutes. Criterion also offers all-new supplements: commentary by western scholar Jim Kitses, an archival video interview with Ford from 1968, new video interviews with Dan Ford (biographer and grandson of the director), Peter Bogdanovich and respected stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong (discussing the legacy and achievements of stuntman Yakima Canutt), a video essay by Tag Gallagher on Ford’s visual style, a 1949 radio adaptation and the recently restored silent feature Bucking Broadway, directed by John Ford in 1917 and presented with a new score Donald Sosin. Also includes a booklet with an essay on the film and the complete original short story by Ernest Haycox.