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At times, heroes' white hats come in shades of gray

May 13, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Our heroes have always been movie cowboys. But our movie cowboys haven't always been heroic.

Sure, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Johnny Mack Brown always played the good guy in the white hat who saved the damsel in distress or an entire town from the bad guys in the black hats. But for every Gene Autry, there was the flawed western hero -- edgy, angry and conflicted. They were often men with a past or embittered individuals seeking revenge.

Several vintage westerns making their DVD debuts illustrate the breath and depth of the movie western hero.

One of cinema's best and most complicated sagebrush stars was Jimmy Stewart, and several of his best horse operas are now available from Universal Home Video ($15 each). One of his earliest western vehicles was the rip-roaring 1939 comedy "Destry Rides Again." With an amused grin and a lanky stride, Stewart is a real charmer as a mild-mannered deputy sheriff who won't use guns and likes to whittle napkin rings as a hobby.

The film, directed by George Marshall, also resurrected the career of Marlene Dietrich, who was then considered box office poison after the failure of several of her ornate costume dramas. She displayed a great flair for comedy as a sultry saloon singer named Frenchy.

Stewart, though, really hit his stride in westerns in 1950 when he teamed up at Universal with producer Aaron Rosenberg, director Anthony Mann and writer Borden Chase for a series of lean, gritty westerns that relied more on landscape and atmosphere than dialogue to tell their stories.

The best of the lot from Universal is 1950's "Winchester '73," in which Stewart plays a cowpoke trying to find his father's murderer as well as a unique rifle that had been stolen from him by his vicious brother (Stephen McNally). Shelley Winters also stars, and look for a very young Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson (as an Indian, no less) in small roles. The DVD features terrific vintage commentary from Stewart.

From 1952 is the colorful "Bend of the River," which casts Stewart as an enigmatic man attempting to find a new life when he guides a group of pioneers from Missouri over the Oregon Trail. Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy and Julie Adams also star. And in 1954's "The Far Country," he plays a loner who finds himself in conflict with a small town's self-appointed lawman (John McIntire) and his henchman. The melodrama, shot on location in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, also stars Walter Brennan, Ruth Roman and Jay C. Flippen.

Mann didn't direct 1957's "Night Passage" (James Nielson helmed), and it shows. It just doesn't have the visual panache of the Mann westerns. But it's still enjoyable thanks to Stewart's charismatic turn as a former railroad employee making his living playing the accordion. After a group of ruthless train robbers keeps holding up the payroll bound for a local mining community, Stewart is called back into service. Audie Murphy also stars as Stewart's outlaw younger brother. An added plus to the film is the lush score by Dimitri Tiomkin.

Rounding out the Stewart collection are two movies he made at the studio late in his career: 1965's: "Shenandoah" and 1966's "The Rare Breed."

Also new this week from Universal is the entertaining 1970 Clint Eastwood western, "Two Mules for Sister Sara" ($15). Directed by one of Eastwood's favorites, Don Siegel, and penned by blacklisted screenwriter Albert Maltz, "Two Mules" finds Eastwood playing an adventurer in Mexico in the latter part of the 19th century who rescues a nun (Shirley MacLaine) from a group of would-be rapists. The two then pair up to join a group of Mexican revolutionaries who are battling the French occupation of Mexico. Trouble ensues when Eastwood begins to have romantic feelings toward Sister Sara.

For those who enjoy more traditional sagebrush sagas, two of Autry's vintage musical westerns from 1939 are now available on Image DVD ($20 each): "South of the Border" and "Rovin' Tumbleweeds." Both films have been beautifully restored and feature such extra goodies as segments from the Autry radio show "Melody Ranch Theater." In "Rovin' Tumbleweeds," Autry even performs the tune that became his theme song, "Back in the Saddle Again."

New from VCI Entertainment are the low-budget western programmers ($20 each) starring Johnny Mack Brown, including the double feature "Bad Man From Red Butte" and "Rawhide Ranger," as well as vintage "Red Ryder" adventures starring Allan "Rocky" Lane and a young Robert Blake (then known as Bobby Blake) as his monosyllabic Indian sidekick, Little Beaver. These adventures are hokey fun, but the prints used for the DVD transfer leave a lot to be desired. Lane later became the voice of Mr. Ed!

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