There's plenty in this set for Western fans to enjoy, but let's note that none of these movies rises to the classic status the box title claims. If the term "Western classic" is to mean anything--and it should--it has to be reserved for the likes of Stagecoach
, The Naked Spur
, Seven Men from Now
, and Unforgiven
. What we have here are half a dozen pictures that came out in mid20th century, have recognizable professionals going about their business, and agreeably remind us of how they made 'em before they stopped makin' 'em the way they used to. And for a pleasant weekend's viewing, that'll do nicely. The Civil Warera Escape from Fort Bravo
(1953), the first of director John Sturges's many Westerns, has flint-hard U.S. Cavalry officer William Holden riding herd on Confederate POWs in Arizona. Once Holden has fallen for his colonel's daughter's best friend Eleanor Parker, who's also secretly the fiancée of Rebel officer John Forsythe, the film itself is allowed to escape Fort Bravo and echo off the walls of some picturesque canyons well-supplied with hostile Indians. Sturges had a good eye for staging action, and the big climax involves a kind of Apache Agincourt, a patiently lethal military tactic on the part of the Mescaleros. Cameraman Robert L. Surtees was forced to abandon Technicolor for Ansco color, which has a pleasing palette for standard scenes but tends to go greenish and speckly in desert longshots. This was MGM's first production in modest widescreen (1.77:1), which your flat-screen TV may shave a mite. The other five films in the set, all full CinemaScope (2.35:1), look fine.
The Law and Jake Wade (1958) is another Sturges-Surtees picture, one of three vehicles for fading MGM star Robert Taylor. He's a reformed outlaw turned town marshal who springs former partner Richard Widmark from jail, thereby paying off an old debt. But as Widmark sees it, they still have unfinished business, best settled by dragging Taylor and fiancée Patricia Owens off to a ghost town haunted by old guilt and savage Indians. As a journey Western, the movie pales alongside the great Budd Boetticher films of the same era, but the felonious traveling companions include Henry Silva, Robert Middleton, and DeForest Kelley, and the derelict town and its Boot Hill make a memorable killing ground. The credits of Saddle the Wind (1958) feature two unlikely names to be connected with a Western: the script is by Rod Serling (preTwilight Zone), and the wind in need of saddling is personified by John Cassavetes, doing an 1860s variation on a 1950s juvenile delinquent. He's kid brother to Robert Taylor, an ex-gunfighter who's turned rancher with the blessing of range baron Donald Crisp. The peace of their valley is variously threatened by gunman Charles McGraw, an extended family of squatters (headed by Royal Dano in anguished righteousness mode), and most of all the volatile, gun-happy Cassavetes. Saddle the Wind turns out to be something of a discovery, thanks to Serling's metaphor-rich dialogue and intriguingly oblique direction by Robert Parrish. There's some facile '50s-TV psychologizing, but mood trumps plot, and the inevitable showdown takes a surprising turn. Plus it never hurts to have Julie London around to gaze soulfully and sing the title song.
The final Robert Taylor item, Many Rivers to Cross (1955), is the one out-and-out clinker in the bunch, an excruciating attempt at frontier comedy largely set against painted vistas à la Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. As it happens, both films were produced by Jack Cummings, a veteran of MGM musicals--only this is no musical, and the ill-cast Taylor seems poleaxed as free-living vagabond Bushrod Gentry (a rascal role that cries out for Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster). Eleanor Parker is fun as the fire-haired "she-fiend" who sets her cap for Bushrod, but really only James Arness hits the right note in a too-brief appearance about an hour in. Master Western director Anthony Mann is credited with Cimarron, the 1960 remake of the 1931 Academy Award winner. However, Mann left in mid-production ("creative differences"), and the movie seems more typical of the MGM contract director who took over, Charles Walters. Edna Ferber's novel of pioneer Oklahoma offers a plethora of themes--several species of prejudice, capitalism vs. charity, sons unhappily following in fathers' footsteps, and the irreconcilable tensions between a stability-craving wife and her footloose husband--but the action is front-loaded and the husband, Glenn Ford, is offscreen for years at a time. Most of the large cast comes and goes without establishing identities, and Maria Schell's Sabra Cravat is tiresome as both ditz and pill. However, the Oklahoma land rush gives grand spectacle. That leaves The Stalking Moon (1969), an odd-film-out since it's the only non-MGM production in the set and a decade more recent than the rest. Gregory Peck plays a scout trying to protect a white woman (Eva Marie Saint) and her half-breed son from an Apache warrior, the woman's captor-husband of ten years. The mostly unseen Apache is a veritable monster of determination, cunning, and bloodthirstiness: Peck and his charges doom entire Southwest communities to extermination just by passing through the neighborhood. This fierce amalgam of Western and horror movie was the last of seven collaborations between director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula--a distant cousin of their To Kill a Mockingbird. As a palm-sweater it's demonically effective, and fascinating as prelude to the great paranoid trilogy Pakula went on to direct, Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men. Robert Forster has an early role as a fellow, part-Indian scout. --Richard T. Jameson