Armchair Cinephile


The real bonanza this month is in Westerns, everything from anonymous B pictures to star-studded blockbusters. And then some - if Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (MGM) wasn't a big enough movie for you the first time around, the filmmakers have gone back and added 52 minutes, making it just shy of four hours. Costner wasn't the first Tinseltown White man to go Native, though: A Man Called Horse and Little Big Man (both from Paramount and both released in 1970) have Richard Harris and Dustin Hoffman, respectively, playing palefaces who are adopted by Indians and come to appreciate their ways.

Not all cowboys were so enlightened, of course. In most Westerns, redskins are savage marauders best left to folks like John Wayne. The Duke is all over the DVD shelves right now, in a quartet of Fox releases - so young he's barely recognizable in The Big Trail, wearing mammoth sideburns in The Undefeated, and so on - and in one whopper from Paramount, the Howard Hawks-directed Rio Lobo. (Rio Lobo was the fifth time Hawks and Wayne collaborated in 22 years.)

Universal just released a whole shelf of Westerns, from the classic Clint Eastwood/ Shirley MacLaine vehicle Two Mules for Sister Sara to programmers featuring Ronnie Reagan and Audie Murphy. More than half of the new titles (and most of the good ones) star James Stewart. Take Destry Rides Again and Winchester '73, for instance, two hugely enjoyable films that together illuminate a dramatic shift in the actor's screen persona. Before Stewart went off to fight WWII, he could play a Tom Destry, Jr., a man whose fresh face bespoke unsullied ideals and integrity (his quirk in Destry is that he'll keep the peace without wearing a six-gun). After the actor returned from combat, though, ghosts haunted him; his eyes always hold some painful memory: In Winchester, it's a man who killed Stewart's father, a fugitive he'll track a thousand miles while his prize rifle makes its own circuitous journey through a half-dozen owners.

Stewart also lends his hardening face to 1965's The Flight of the Phoenix, one of the slew of war films released recently by Fox. Meanwhile, George Peppard flies through WWI in The Blue Max, and James Mason does his best Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox. Lest we take the DVD phenomenon for granted, war buffs should reflect for a moment on how lame Sink the Bismarck would be if not presented in letterbox format: The film is full of widescreen compositions where one battleship faces off against another; pan-and-scan would cripple it. Similarly, if you tried to squash Battle of Britain (MGM) into a square format, you'd probably crop out a dozen stars - there are so many big names (Caine, Olivier, Robert Shaw, et cetera) in the airfighting epic

it was surely a challenge to keep them from spilling out of the frame. If the Cold War is Dad's bag, Tom Clancy has a yarn or two for him - although the best of his Jack Ryan films, Patriot Games (Paramount), has nothing to do with Ruskies.

There's more to manliness than cowboys and soldiers, though: There's also fast cars. Don't take this as a ringing endorsement, but Steve McQueen's Le Mans (Paramount) is a pretty singular film: Though it's over an hour and three quarters long, there's probably not eight minutes of dialogue in the whole thing. You get the feeling that the filmmakers resented the idea of any plot or character motivation at all; they really just want to shoot cars lapping the track in France's famous 24-hour race. It's definitely not for everyone, but then neither is ESPN.

Some of us, though, like our actors to play actual characters. A few stray titles this month feature leading men who transcended genre films. Humphrey Bogart died far too young, but his encroaching bad health lends a real-life desperation to Desperate Hours (Paramount), where he plays an escaped convict holding a suburban family hostage. Robert Redford plays a different kind of jail inhabitant in Brubaker (Fox) - an idealistic warden out to fix a corrupt penal system. And the incomparably hunkish Paul Newman puts on his Tennessee Williams hat for the Faulkner-based The Long, Hot Summer (Fox); it's one of two Fox releases featuring Newman and wife Joanne Woodward, but be warned - both Summer and From the Terrace contain some pretty bitter father-and-son material. Then again, compared to these portraits of dysfunction, most real-life family melodrama will come off smelling like roses - which isn't the worst gift you could give Dad this Sunday. •
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