This final installment of my series of reviews examining Twentieth Century Fox’s inaugural wave of “VOICE YOUR CHOICE”-winning home video releases is devoted to the films of the “Duke” himself, John Wayne. The previous reviews, if you missed them, covered the earliest six titles chosen by viewers from the Fox archives to make their Blu-ray debut, which included Call of the Wild (1935), Jesse James (1939) and The Black Swan (1942), then The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Carmen Jones (1954) and Desk Set (1957). That brings us at long last to the two John Wayne vehicles chosen as part of the VOICE YOUR CHOICE initiative to represent the 1960s: North to Alaska (1960) and The Undefeated (1969).
North to Alaska (1960)
In this romantic adventure, the Duke plays Sam, a womanizing prospector in Alaska, who strikes it big, then sets out for Seattle to buy some mining equipment and pick up his partner’s fiancé. The mining equipment he brings back with no problem. His partner’s fiancé, however, is another story, for when Sam arrives in Seattle, he finds her married to another man. In an attempt to soften the blow on his pal, Sam determines to bring him a replacement woman: a French prostitute named Angel. What Sam doesn’t count on, though, is falling for Angel himself.
North to Alaska is an incredibly fun picture. The violence throughout is characterized by slapstick bits involving hats that pop off people’s heads when they get punched and goats trying to ram errant combatants. What’s more, the relationship between Sam and Angel develops slowly over the course of the film and, in no small part thanks to this pacing and a terrific performance from Pink Panther star Capucine, it’s incredibly believable. Allowing their story to play out in its own time shows a good deal of respect for the audience, and in that I found myself fully engaged during the film’s whopping 122-minute running time. Now, it may seem like a slightly padded running time for a film that tells a pretty straightforward love story, but this is augmented by villainy of all sorts as the Yukon is overwhelmed by claim-hoppers and thieves by the boatful, which puts Sam, his partners, and Angel in quite a bind come the film’s climax. Thus, though North to Alaska may be a tad long, it certainly doesn’t feel it.
Special Features: In addition to the theatrical trailer, Fox Movietone News takes us to the premiere of North to Alaska.
The Undefeated (1969)
Finally, we come to the eighth and final VOICE YOUR CHOICE selection: The Undefeated—my third favorite of the films behind The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Desk Set. The film follows a group of former Union soldiers led by Col. John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) and a party of Confederates led by Col. James Langdon (Rock Hudson) in the years immediately following the American Civil War. The two groups cross paths in Mexico as John Henry and his gang look to sell a herd of wild horses to the Mexican military and the Confederates aim to join forces with Emperor Maximillian, who has granted them asylum in Mexico.
At first, the film has trouble endearing us to Hudson’s character, which is in fact absolutely necessary for us to give a damn about the climax. The filmmakers show Col. Langdon bidding farewell to his former slaves in what’s supposed to be a sad scene from what I could tell, but my reaction was of course one of disbelief and frustration. For why should anyone, as a person living in 1969, much less in 2013, be broken up over a man losing his slaves and the plantation that their enslavement facilitated?! It’s upsetting to say the least. Still, with time, the movie does indeed manage to endear us to the character and his people. It just takes time, and when you do eventually find yourself caring for them, you realize the earlier scene had been entirely pointless.
All the filmmakers had to do was give us time, time to come to terms with the film’s themes. Because the theme ultimately has nothing to do with injustices against the South or the righteousness of the North, but in fact paints both sides as horrible in their own right, for no army escapes a war without shedding blood that needn’t have been shed. These are men who have had to do terrible things in their lives and they have to live with it. In a sort of penance, then, they try to do the best they can by their fellow man as they move through life, even if those in need are from the opposing side of the Civil War. It’s a theme summed up by a poignant bit of dialogue uttered by an unspecified character off screen immediately prior to the climax: “I ain’t no Christian, but my mama was.”
In conclusion, this first complete wave of VOICE YOUR CHOICE releases offers an all-around stellar array of pictures, remastered in HD with the same loving care we’ve consistently seen with the rest from Fox’s Studio Classics line. The three I recommend above the others, if I had to choose, would be The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Desk Set and The Undefeated, but when Blu-rays are as reasonably priced as these are, there’s really little need to choose!