By Ken Tucker
Updated June 13, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Searchers: Warner Bros /The Kobal Collection

A big box o’ barrel-chested swagger and sensitivity, the John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection spans 18 crucial years of collaboration between actor and director, charting the maturity of skill and thematic resonance for both. Ford made Wayne a star with Stagecoach (1939), made him a myth in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and made him a monster of machismo in The Searchers (1956) — an unprecedented trajectory for two men who, to most moviegoers at the time, were just guys who churned out enjoyable Westerns. Ford and Wayne also tackled Eugene O’Neill and the sea in 1940’s The Long Voyage Home and World War II air battles in 1957’s The Wings of Eagles, both here on DVD for the first time.

In Wayne, Ford found an actor who was at once charismatic and malleable. For all his chiseled rectitude and all the years of comedians mimicking his drawl and swiveling walk, Wayne had an underrated range. He could be an affable gob and handle adapted O’Neill dialogue in Voyage. He could wear age makeup as a cavalry officer in ITALIC {Yellow Ribbon}] and seem not foolish but dignified. And most impressively, he could play an ex-Confederate soldier out to avenge his niece’s kidnapping by Comanches in The Searchers and show us how heartbreak can harden into bitter, murderous fury.

The other titles here include 3 Godfathers (1948), Fort Apache (1948), and They Were Expendable (1945). The Searchers gets the spiffiest treatment for its 50th anniversary, with a two-disc edition that restores some of the film’s original VistaVision grandeur for home screens, a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich that doesn’t overflow with gush, and a couple of making-of featurettes exploring the movie’s themes of violence, racism, and obsession. These extras, as well as the ones attached to the other movies, don’t shy away from the fact that Ford was an ornery SOB, a point particularly hammered home in the recent PBS American Masters documentary John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker & the Legend, which is included on the Stagecoach disc. If Ford liked to verbally humiliate Wayne, as numerous talking heads attest, it was, in a warped tough-guy way, as much to express his affection for the Duke as to keep the towering star properly subservient to the alpha-dog director.

While The Searchers is probably Ford’s grimmest film, the others offer ample examples of the director’s fondness for sentimentality and cornball humor. Watching this set, you discover a complete vision of America, or at least male America: a stoic dedication to work, quiet pride, loyalty, and moral and physical bravery that has rarely been presented less pretentiously, or more entertainingly.