These two classic James Stewart westerns are new on Blu-ray
James Stewart is one of my favorite actors from classic Hollywood, with the majority of his output fitting into one of a handful of specific categories: collaborations with Capra and Hitchcock, romantic comedies, and westerns. It’s taken awhile, but a number of his terrific westerns are finally coming to Blu-ray, among them Arrow Academy’s very recent release of The Far Country and Criterion’s upcoming edition of Destry Rides Again.
This week Stewart’s Western Blu-ray library was joined by a pair of Universal productions by way of Kino Lorber Studio Classics: Night Passage and The Rare Breed.
Night Passage (1957)
Disgraced railroad enforcer Grant MacClaine (Stewart), who famously allowed notorious bandit “The Utica Kid” (Audie Murphy) to slip through his fingers, has been riding the rails since, stripped of his job and reduced to playing an accordion for coins. (Note: there’s some singing)
As the railroad builds out further west, so too do its many workers, but the Utica Kid’s band of criminals have caught wise and started relieving the railroad of its employees’ payroll, finding that robbing a train is far easier than holding up any bank.
In desperation after several such hits, the railroad calls their biggest gun back in for a chance at redemption.
Stewart is a fine presence here as a good-natured former gunslinger getting back into the groove. He has a personal stake in the matter, and part of the film is about uncovering the mystery of what happened those years ago – how and why the rail’s best enforcer, as far as anyone can tell, betrayed his employer and allowed a criminal to escape justice.
The film is immensely beautiful to look at, full of rugged California mountain scenery, and the film is elevated by an inventive train holdup sequence and a side story in which MacClaine gets paired with an orphan boy who is the newest member of the gang.
I’ll note that both the past and current marketing and packaging for the film, including the trailer and the Blu-ray box and even its menu, plainly state a key reveal better left for the story to tell — a part of the mystique of the characters and their motivations. I was actually able to watch the film without this point spoiled, and it was better for it. If you can avoid reading the film’s synopsis before watching, it’ll benefit the natural layout of the storytelling.
The Rare Breed (1966)
By the time The Rare Breed came around, the western genre had undergone a massive transformation. The explosion of violent and stylized spaghetti westerns had altered the landscape, making title The Rare Breed an apt descriptor for the family-friendly cattlemen tale.
A visibly older and grizzled Stewart stars in this rather charming and easy to watch comedy as a crusty cowboy who gets mixed up in a cattle transaction that turns into a love triangle. Cattle breeder Martha, a widowed Englishwoman (Maureen O’Hara), along with her daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills), have made the trek to the United States to introduce their champion Hereford bull, Vindicator, to crossbreed with American cattle.
The hornless Hereford is laughed off in longhorn country, but his beautiful and elegantly classy owners — mother and daughter both — catch the eye of the many a local yokel.
Vindicator is purchased by a cattle baron Bowen, who happens to be a Scotsman (Brian Keith), and gruff-mannered cowpoke Burnett (Stewart) is tasked with delivery of the beast. Both men fall in love with Martha, with Bowen’s son also falling hard for Juliet.
The romantic comedy aspects of the film provide it with a great deal of charm, especially for featuring older characters each looking for their second act, but equally compelling is Martha’s dream, shared by her deceased husband, to bring the Hereford to America — a dream that meets with a harsh reality in longhorn country, where various characters argue over whether he’ll have luck with the ladies and make little baby cows.
The Rare Breed is an endearing film with a lighthearted touch, full of colorful and enjoyable characters. If you’re looking for raw action and lots of exploding squibs, look elsewhere, but for a fun, Disney-esque family adventure in the vein of Old Yeller or Davy Crockett, this is a tremendous pleasure.
Both films include an audio commentary and a sampling of trailers, most of which either are westerns or feature James Stewart.
Special Features and Extras — Night Passage
- Audio Commentary by Toby Roan
- Trailers — Made For Each Other (2:05), Broken Arrow (1:59), No Highway in the Sky (2:09), Bend of the River (1:47), Thunder Bay (2:15), Night Passage (2:33), The Rare Breed (2:12)
Special Features and Extras — The Rare Breed
- Audio Commentary by Simon Abrams
- Trailers — Made For Each Other (2:05), Broken Arrow (1:59), No Highway in the Sky (2:09), Bend of the River (1:47), Thunder Bay (2:15), Night Passage (2:33), The Rare Breed (2:12), The Way West (3:28), The Devil’s Brigade (3:46), Fffolkes (2:13)
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Night Passage — https://amzn.to/2U2xqRU
The Rare Breed — https://amzn.to/3b6iM1A
Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.