John Wayne in video -- Four new boxed sets of 'the Duke''s movies

John Wayne in video

That towering pop-culture icon ”the Duke” is like a false storefront in a Western: It hides the man himself from sight. To those who came of age before Vietnam, John Wayne remains the embodiment of an earlier, stronger, and purer America. To many of those who came after, he’s an outdated Hollywood cowboy whose films were just a footnote to his jingoism. Both views do disservice to a man who was indeed a fine and subtle screen actor.

It takes more than one movie to see that, though, which is why a boxed set of Wayne videos is probably the best introduction — or reintroduction — to this particular star. While a real ”greatest hits” may never be commercially packaged, there isn’t a bad Wayne performance in any of the sets that are available: Republic Home Video’s Wayne at War and John Wayne — All American Hero boxes, MGM/UA’s John Wayne — An American Tradition box and Paramount’s The Best of John Wayne box.

Like most Hollywood stars of his time, Wayne always played variations on himself. Yet few actors were as capable of so many character shadings with so little visible effort. Along with Gary Cooper, Wayne had the magical skill of letting audiences read his thoughts, so that the same furrowed brow that indicates shyness in The Quiet Man is a sign of mulish paranoia in Red River. While his plainspoken naturalism limited him to Westerns and war films for the most part, Wayne’s heroes are rarely simplistic. Movies as different as The Searchers and They Were Expendable show his two-fisted terseness to be both an asset and a liability, and the Duke himself seemed to relish exploring the distance between a hard head and a hard heart throughout his career.

Wayne made more films for Republic than for any other studio, so it makes sense that Republic Home Video offers two strong packages: six films, all mastered from the original negatives. Wayne at War is the weaker of the two sets: 1942’s Flying Tigers is Wayne’s first battle film, and 1944’s The Fighting Seabees offers the bizarre sight of the Duke jitterbugging, but both movies suffer from confusing battle scenes and heavyhanded wartime propaganda. Still, 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima is one of the best war movies ever made — a brutally clear-eyed look at a Marine squadron in the Pacific theater. Wayne was nominated for an Oscar for his role as embittered hard-ass Sgt. Stryker, and his performance is still startlingly intense. See it if you think Wayne couldn’t act.

The All American Hero box is better. It has a bona fide classic, The Quiet Man (1952), in which Wayne and Maureen O’Hara war and woo through director John Ford’s fairy-tale Ireland: See it if you think Wayne couldn’t play romantic comedy. The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) is a fun Saturday-matinee romp that puts the Duke in a coonskin cap and gives him Oliver Hardy as a sidekick (they both seem to be having a blast). Unfortunately, while Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) is a good example of how Wayne plays away from sympathy rather than toward it, the plot, concerning the Apache-U.S. Cavalry skirmishes of the early 1870s, is a racist distortion of the facts — Hollywood history at its revisionist worst.

The Republic sets have consistency of genre, at least. The three-film MGM/ UA package is a mishmash of the great, the good, and the so-so, all in one flimsy cardboard box. They Were Expendable (1945) is a solid, curiously downbeat war film in which Wayne plays second fiddle to Robert Montgomery, while John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959) is a talky Civil War drama with one good scene: a surreal charge by 10-year-old military cadets. You do get 1948’s Red River, the Western ”Mutiny on the Bounty” that’s a personal peak for both Wayne and director Howard Hawks; unfortunately, the print (of the original theatrical cut, which is 8 minutes longer than the version that’s been circulating for years) is riddled with distracting technical flaws.

While his peers were showing up on Batman in the ’60s, Wayne was still churning out Westerns. Some of them verged on self-parody, but many of them were excellent, and Paramount’s Best of John Wayne box rounds up enough almost to justify its title. The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) is a weak sagebrush adventure — Wayne had just lost a lung to cancer, and he looks it — but El Dorado (1967) is a rich comedy that pairs the Duke with Robert Mitchum under Howard Hawks’ direction — three old men gracefully watching the sun set. True Grit (1969) is more a picaresque goof than a well-rounded movie, but it’s enjoyable enough and welcome as the star’s sole Oscar-winner.

The real prize here, though, is 1976’s The Shootist, Wayne’s final film and a quiet, forceful meditation on Western myth and reality. As J.B. Books, a cancer-ridden gunfighter with two weeks to live and every hotshot in town gunning for him, Wayne mines the symbolism that had encrusted ”the Duke” for a witty, deeply moving performance that’s by far the finest of his career. See it if you think John Wayne wasn’t an artist.