"John Wayne - An American Icon Collection" may be the most mismatched collection of the Duke's most offbeat starring roles available on DVD, but each film has some merits (even "The Conqueror"), and if you only know Wayne from westerns or war movies, you are in for a surprise!
"Seven Sinners" (1940), offers Duke's first teaming with the legendary Marlene Dietrich, with whom he'd have a brief but torrid off-screen affair. An atmospheric drama set at the 'Seven Sinners' bar on an exotic Pacific island, Dietrich is, as usual, a sultry chanteuse, loved and lusted after by every man who meets her, especially 'bad boy' Antro (played with finesse by screen veteran Oskar Homolka). When the Fleet arrives, however, and 'Golden Boy' officer Wayne sets eyes on her, she falls hard, and he is willing to sacrifice his career for her. Of course, the 'Higher Good' prevails, but not before audiences get a healthy dose of romance!
Co-starring Broderick Crawford, Anna Lee, and a surprisingly sympathetic Albert Dekker, the Dietrich-Wayne chemistry would prove so potent that they would make two more films together.
"Pittsburgh" (1942), the third and last Dietrich-Wayne pairing (following the Alaskan epic, "The Spoilers"), does a flip-flop in the characterizations from the Gold Rush tale, making Randolph Scott the 'good guy', and Wayne an opportunistic heel, willing to 'walk over' anybody, even his love, Dietrich, to get rich in the steel industry (although he'd redeem himself, by the finale). Playing a victim was uncharacteristic of the tough actress, however, and, while Wayne would eventually prove an excellent 'anti-hero', audiences wouldn't accept Wayne so 'out-of-character' at this point in his career. The film would not do well at the box office, ending the Dietrich-Wayne pairings...but has gained a devoted following, over the years!
"The Shepherd of the Hills" (1941), Wayne's first teaming with director Henry Hathaway (who would direct Duke to his only Oscar, 28 years later, in "True Grit"), was also the first color film in Wayne's career. A tale of life in the Ozark Mountains, Betty Field, as moonshiner Wayne's love interest, 'steals' the film, but it does offer the novelty of screen legend (and Wayne friend) Harry Carey playing Duke's long-absent father. Occasionally involving, but the Duke seems a bit out-of-place in the proceedings!
"Jet Pilot" (filmed in 1950, released in 1957), marked Wayne's first film for producer Howard Hughes (yes, THAT Howard Hughes), in a cartoonish anti-Communist 'epic', as Air Force officer Duke converts Soviet pilot Janet Leigh to the joys of America (while she 'lures' him to defect, leading to a Wayne sojourn to Russia, and his easily stealing Red technology for the West). This film is truly awful (which was why it was 'shelved' for seven years), with Hughes' signature emphasis on long, lingering views of Leigh's top-heavy figure (while Josef von Sternberg is credited as the director, Hughes was clearly in charge). "Jet Pilot" is better known as the film where the legendary Chuck Yeager (who first broke the sound barrier, in 1947), was nearly killed performing the aerial stunts (while on 'loan' from the USAF). The aerial footage is, certainly, the most impressive aspect of the film.
"Jet Pilot" could have been the worst film of Duke's career, but Hughes had bigger plans, and topped even this epic with...
"The Conqueror" (1956), the infamous showcase of John Wayne as Asian warrior Temujin (who would eventually be known as GENGHIS KHAN). This film is so summarily awful, and has so many legends associated with the production (shot in the radiation-drenched sands of the Atomic test range in Utah...with many of the cast and crew eventually dying of cancer), that by notoriety, alone, it should be an 'essential' for any Wayne fan collection!
Directed (with a straight face) by the usually reliable Dick Powell, between the flowery dialog, the clunky costumes, and Susan Hayward as the least desirable red-headed princess you'll ever find, enjoy the campier moments, like Mexican Pedro Armendariz and short, roly-poly William ("Cannon") Conrad as Wayne's BROTHERS; veteran actor Thomas Gomez as 'Wang Khan' (that really IS his character's name); and the climactic moment when the Duke, surrounded by enemies, hisses the immortal words, "Come and TAKE me, mongrels - if you DARE! While I have fingers to grasp a sword, and eyes to see your cowardly faces, your treacherous heads will not be safe on your shoulders. For I am Temujin, the Conqueror! No prison can hold me, no army defeat me!" (Seriously, LAURENCE OLIVIER couldn't deliver those lines believably...maybe Sylvester Stallone could...)
Whether you're a John Wayne fan, or not, this collection offers plenty to talk about, at a very reasonable price! I promise, you'll never get a better opportunity to see the Duke as you've NEVER seen him before!