Video Picks & Passes







The Searchers: Disturbing situations including kidnapping, murder and implied rape; recurring shootouts and battle sequences; treatment of racist attitudes. (mature viewing). Stagecoach: Frontier gunplay and cowboy-Indian type violence; much drinking from a perpetually boozy character; oblique references to a character’s history as a prostitute (teens and up). Dumbo: Comic accidental inebriation and mildly ominous imagery (okay family viewing).

This week, new DVD special edition sets of the classic John Wayne-John Ford Westerns The Searchers and Vatican pick Stagecoach are available separately or as part of the John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection box set, also including Fort Apache, The Long Voyage Home, The Wings of Eagles, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, They Were Expendable, and 3 Godfathers.

The Searchers’ reputation as a classic but troubling Western in which Wayne plays an Indian-hating racist is so widely accepted that it’s a bit of a surprise to discover that the film, and the character, are in fact more complex than the reputation suggests. From the start, it’s clear that Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is far more ambiguous than the typical Western hero. Wayne’s character in Stagecoach may have been an escaped outlaw, but he was wrongfully convicted for doing no more than defending his family. Ethan, on the other hand, is a Confederate ex-soldier who seems to have gone AWOL at the end of the Civil War.

Obviously there’s a racial dimension to Ethan’s hatred of the Comanche. Yet his behavior may be less indicative of mere bigotry than of harsh, “war is hell” battlefield lawlessness extended to an enemy against whom Ethan harbors deep personal grudges. Ethan’s point of view is not that of the film itself. In a genre that traditionally regarded its heroes as good almost by definition and Indians as one-dimensional adversaries, The Searchers broke new ground in casting no less than the Duke himself as a flawed protagonist, almost an antihero. It’s a rare classic Western that invites viewers to ponder ambiguities and even its hero and the Western mythos itself.

Stagecoach is not the greatest Western of all time, but has been called the first great one, and played a key role in the status of the Western as the quintessential American genre. It gave the classic Western one of its greatest directors, Ford, and its most iconic star, John Wayne, until then an obscure B-movie actor. Stagecoach also established another crucial recurring “character” in Ford’s films: the stunning Monument Valley landscape, with its massive mesas and needle-like spires.
Instead of rote good-guy/bad-guy conflict, Stagecoach emphasized characterization, social commentary and moral drama. And the extended Indian attack scene toward the end established a new standard for stuntwork, echoing in later films for decades (most famously Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Available this week in a new “Big Top” DVD edition, Disney’s Dumbo, though widely regarded as a classic, is both the weakest and the cruelest of the early Disney features. Made at the height of Disney’s early brilliance alongside Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi, Dumbo is the odd weak link in the chain. At a mere 64 minutes, Dumbo feels stitched together and padded to barely feature length, with a string of early songs (“Look Out for Mr. Stork,” “Song of the Roustabouts,” “Circus Parade”) that seem better suited to short subjects than a feature film.

Even the death of Bambi’s mother doesn’t quite compare to the heart-wrenching chaining of Mrs. Jumbo in solitary confinement until the final seconds of the film. But the sweet characterization of the silent title character continues to charm and the surreal “Pink Elephants on Parade” number is among animation’s most memorable sequences.

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