Screens Armchair cinephile

Dad's heroes - Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper and... Howard Zinn

If you didn't already know it, walking into a video store this week probably would tip you off that Sunday is Father's Day. How could you miss the signals, what with the take-no-guff visage of Steve McQueen staring at you from so many shelves?

No fewer than three home-video companies have decided to unleash McQueen packages on the nation's dads this month, and why not? He's a man's man, the kind you don't necessarily like but who commands a certain respect. One of the biggest stars of his day, he wielded enough clout to force a script rewrite (in The Great Escape, part of MGM's Steve McQueen Collection) just because he wanted to show off his motorcycle skills, and enough charisma to steal Ali MacGraw from Hollywood's megastar producer Robert Evans (on the set of The Getaway, included in Warner Bros' set of the same name). That's a manly ego to reckon with.

MGM's set combines classics such as The Great Escape (not the 2-disc special edition, alas) and The Magnificent Seven with Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner and The Thomas Crown Affair, which is almost universally considered better than the Pierce Brosnan remake. Compared to many of the single-actor box sets available right now, that's a damned good fun stuff to filler ratio.

The Warner Bros' set boasts some crowd-pleasers of its own: Papillon, another jailbreak adventure, in which Dustin Hoffman plays a very entertaining supporting role, and Bullitt, which has long been revered for its streets-of-San-Francisco car chase. Peckinpah's adaptation of Jim Thompson's pulp classic The Getaway serves as a reminder of the '90s remake's vast inferiority. McQueen stars alongside Frank Sinatra in McQueen's big-budget debut, Never So Few. The poker revival gets an early start in The Cincinnati Kid, and McQueen's penultimate film Tom Horn is released in widescreen video format for the first time ever here.

If that ain't enough, McQueen junkies can get a look at his very early days with Wanted: Dead or Alive (New Line), the TV Western series that (alongside The Blob) kickstarted his career in 1958.

You say dad's not a McQueen man? Fear not. Two other icons are the focus of box sets, and the prices will make your bargain-loving pop beam with pride. Universal, which lately has been assembling super-low-priced collections of movies that wouldn't sell many copies individually, has just released a handful of sets focused on great stars.

The Marlon Brando 4-Movie Collection gathers some titles casual Brando fans won't even recognize: The Night of the Following Day, The Ugly American, The Appaloosa, and A Countess From Hong Kong, the final film by Charlie Chaplin. As a gift it's recommended only for serious Brandophiles as these date from a period when the actor's eccentric choices led to some pretty flawed movies. Conventional wisdom has it that Appaloosa is the most enjoyable film of the four.

It's a different story with The Gary Cooper Collection, which boasts some fine films and stellar talent. Take Design for Living, a Noel Coward comedy adapted by master screenwriter Ben Hecht and directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch. Or Beau Geste, the well-loved adventure in which Cooper joins the Foreign Legion. A trio of more obscure titles - Peter Ibbetson, The General Died at Dawn, and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer - round out the set, making five films for a shocking retail price of $26.98.

If your film-loving father's more interested in who's behind the camera, two singularly masculine directors are represented in two new disc sets. Sam Fuller, the cigar-chomping ex-newspaperman and World War II vet, punches shelves with two titles from Fox: Forty Guns, a Western starring Barbara Stanwyck and Dean Jagger, and House of Bamboo, one of the second batch of Fox Film Noir titles. More intellectual than Fuller but no less daring is Werner Herzog, whose career has often put his life in danger. Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams, in a great new edition from Criterion, follows Herzog as he shoots the epic Fitzcarraldo. (In the bonus features, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe shows that Herzog isn't one to back down when he loses a bet.)

Finally, counterculture dads will appreciate Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train (First Run Features), a documentary portrait of one of the most influential historians of the 20th century. Zinn made a career out of turning history's gaze away from the "great men" and toward the countless humans whose labor made their feats and wars possible. As a professor, he inspired students to get involved in the Civil Rights movement and in anti-war protests. If Dad doesn't think that's sufficiently macho, remind him that Zinn was a bombardier in the war.

Or buy him a tie, and let him rue the day he criticized your taste in movies.

By John DeFore

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