The John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection boxes together eight films from a star-and-director team rivaled only by Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Maybe. Revisiting the set—which, even with its major omissions, gathers the lion's share of the Wayne/Ford collaborations—it's tough to consider any rivals. The liberal Ford and the conservative Wayne had nothing in common politically, but artistically, they're perfectly in sync. Wayne was a second-tier actor when Ford cast him in 1939's Stagecoach, where he looks fresh-faced as the not-so-bad baddie who isn't looking for redemption, but finds it anyway when he joins a passenger coach full of flawed characters. By the time of The Searchers—nearly two decades and one world war later—Wayne had toughened to match Ford's darker vision. Redemption is still out there, but it has to be fought for, and sometimes winning it doesn't make anyone happier.
The other Westerns fall somewhere between. The fairy-tale-like 3 Godfathers casts Wayne as one of a trio of outlaws charged with caring for a baby, and discovering responsibility and perhaps his soul (the two go hand-in-hand for Ford) in the process. Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon both dwell on the problems of leadership, balancing out a respect for classic American frontier virtues with a less generous assessment of how those virtues were applied. Fort Apache ends with a virtual sigh, recognizing that the bloody misadventures of Henry Fonda's Custer-like commander will be remembered long after the more sensible, battle-averse Wayne has been forgotten.
Respect for the little guy informs the set's non-Western titles, too. The Long Voyage Home uses a Eugene O'Neill script and brilliant Gregg Toland photography to pay tribute to sailors. (A miscast Wayne plays a Swede with a fondness for "yin-yer" beer. The great They Were Expendable focuses on the sacrifices made by World War II PT boat crews, and the sweet, awkward biopic The Wings Of Eagles recalls Ford's buddy, the pilot-turned-writer (and Expendable scribe) Frank Wead.
But in Ford's vision, we're all little guys, even larger-than-life types like Wayne. It's there in his signature shot—men and women dwarfed by his Monument Valley's timeless, towering peaks, living in the shadow of eternity, knowing it, but carrying on and finding meaning anyway.
Key features: Plenty of docs and commentaries on Stagecoach and The Searchers.