A Little Big Man Called Horse
Cinema Center Films classics arrive on DVD
Plus: Back to the Future DVD update and the Mail Bag
An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin
Back catalog titles seem to be arriving on DVD each passing week by
the dozen, and keeping up with them isn't an easy task. You know you've
crossed a certain threshold when bombs like "Theodore Rex" with Whoopi
Goldberg are primed to be re-issued on DVD -- a moment that five years
ago you'd never imagine would come to pass (not that the thought would
ever cross your mind, either, but--)
That's why there's reason to celebrate next week as Paramount rolls
out a handful of deserving movies from the library of Cinema Center Films
-- CBS' theatrical division, which released dozens of movies in the late
'60s and early '70s. Among their more popular releases were the Albert
Finney perennial "Scrooge," "Snoopy Come Home," and the four titles reviewed
This is a noteworthy event because none of the Cinema Center Films catalog
has been exploited on DVD to date, and for many years wasn't active at
all. CBS/Fox once distributed some of the CCF films on VHS and laserdisc,
though many of the studios' finest productions -- like the Steve McQueen
classic THE REIVERS -- were never given their proper due, not even on LD.
Out next week (4/29) are three Westerns from the Cinema Center back
catalog -- LITTLE BIG MAN, BIG JAKE, and A MAN CALLED HORSE -- plus another
McQueen favorite, LE MANS.
All four films were released between 1970 and 1971, and present an interesting
contrast in styles and moods, especially the three sagas set in the Old
LITTLE BIG MAN (***, 139 mins., 1970, PG-13) is
a cult favorite that fans have been clamoring to find on DVD for years.
Once available as a so-so looking CBS/Fox widescreen laserdisc, the title
has been tough to find for years, never mind in its original Panavision
The good news is that Paramount's DVD is a marvel, presenting a fully
remastered 2.35 transfer (enhanced for those of you with 16:9 televisions)
that's often breathtaking. Harry Stradling, Jr.'s cinematography is one
of the movie's chief assets, and the source material is in excellent condition
given its age. The early stereo soundtrack has also been recorded in Dolby
Digital 5.1 and 2.0, doing justice on that end as well.
The movie itself is a fascinating mix of satire and comic adventure,
building up stereotypes and then ripping them down. As scripted by Calder
Willingham from Thomas Berger's novel, LITTLE BIG MAN stars Dustin Hoffman
as the only living survivor of Custer's Last Stand, who -- at 121 years
old -- narrates his living history to a scholar (William Hickey) anticipating
everything to be in black-and-white. What follows thereafter is an often
ribald and scathing examination of Hoffman's life, one that's lived between
white settlers and Cheyenne Indians, who adopt him as a child and have
an agenda of their own.
Directed by Arthur Penn, LITTLE BIG MAN is particularly interesting
since it not only paints the whites in an often negative fashion (particularly
Richard Mulligan's deranged Custer), but also the Indians as well. This
is somewhat surprising, since one might have anticipated the movie to be
filled with politically correct sensibilities -- an aspect the material
would undoubtedly have had to adhere to today.
Hoffman is excellent, while Faye Dunaway appears as a fervent Christian
early on (and later in a far more revealing guise), with Martin Balsam,
Jeff Corey, and Chief Dan George lending able support. The movie has an
extremely sparse soundtrack by John Hammond that rarely works in the film
from a dramatic angle -- it's more like atmospheric source music than a
traditional movie score.
After sitting through LITTLE BIG MAN on DVD, the movie felt more like
a curiosity to me than a classic film, with radical shifts in tone and
an episodic structure that makes for somewhat of a detached viewing experience.
On the other hand, those elements are what its fans love about it, so interested
viewers are urged to check out Paramount's disc, which presents the film
flawlessly at last on DVD.
Somewhat more conventional -- though with some incredibly
goofy '70s moments -- is A MAN CALLED HORSE (***, 114 mins., 1970,
R), a more commercially successful vehicle that starred Richard Harris
in the first of three films about an Englishman who comes to live with
and respect the Sioux after being abducted by them.
Elliot Silverstein's film, written by Jack DeWitt, was intended to meticulously
recreate the setting of the period and the Sioux way of life, going so
far as to recruit National Geographic and other historical societies to
ensure the film's authenticity. Harris' fine performance, the look of the
picture, and Leonard Rosenman's interesting score make A MAN CALLED HORSE
a rock-solid adventure picture, though things go a little -- well, psychedelic,
frankly, once Harris is initiated into the tribe during the film's infamous
"Sun Vow" sequence.
This gory, sadistic set piece -- which apparently isn't entirely accurate,
according to certain historical accounts -- was violent enough to have
this formerly PG-rated film re- rated "R" by today's standards. Not only
that, but while Harris' Lord John Morgan is tortured to prove his manhood,
he begins to hallucinate -- '60s style -- with eye-popping colors and trippy
visuals. He's even able to talk to his Sioux bride-to-be (one-time Miss
Universe Corinna Tsopei, who's quite easy on the eyes), even though he
speaks not one word of their language. It all culminates in a standard
action climax, where Harris' colonial training comes in handy during a
raid on his tribe's village by a rival Indians.
While most buffs consider "Return of a Man Called Horse" to be a superior
film (it was released on DVD last year), A MAN CALLED HORSE is certainly
an excellent movie worthy of re-appraisal on DVD. Once again, Paramount's
2.35 (16:9 enhanced) transfer is exemplary, with strong colors and anamorphic
framing doing full justice to the film's Panavision cinematography. The
5.1 soundtrack even has a few surround effects, and gives a little more
oomph to Rosenman's score than the regular 2.0 soundtrack.
From the satirical edge of "Little Big Man" to the sometimes
whacked-out visuals of "A Man Called Horse," we come to a western certainly
more in line with the Golden Age: John Wayne's BIG JAKE (***, 109
mins., PG-13, 1971), which stars The Duke in one of his more watchable
Even here, though, the formula has been somewhat shifted to accommodate
the needs of audiences in the early '70s: the Harry Julian Fink-R.M. Fink
story is set at the tail end of the Old West, with Wayne essaying a rancher
whose young grandson is kidnapped by a brutal killer (Richard Boone, in
a typically entertaining performance). With his sons in tow, Wayne leaves
his wife (a too-brief appearance by Maureen O'Hara) and home behind in
an effort to track down Boone and pay off the ransom he's demanding --
and then exact a little revenge while he's at it.
The story and action are standard, but the trappings and engaging performances
are what make BIG JAKE worthwhile. The Panavision cinematography is exceptional
and the production design evocative of the period. Elmer Bernstein's score,
meanwhile, is a gem, with a memorable, rousing main theme helping one overcome
the movie's draggier spots. And, of course, there are the performances
of Wayne, Boone, and O'Hara, among many familiar western vets who can be
glimpsed in supporting roles.
Paramount's DVD is yet another first-class effort. The 2.35 transfer
is great and the source material appears to be in pristine condition. Elmer's
score is about the only element of the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack to
pack a stereophonic presence, but that's only due to the limitations of
the early stereo recording.
Finally, Paramount has also issued a great-looking presentation
of Steve McQueen's cult fave LE MANS (***, 108 mins., 1971, G),
a troubled production that nevertheless looks and sounds great on DVD.
McQueen's pet project, which he intended to make years earlier as "Day
of the Champion," saw the star taking the role of a Grand Prix race car
driver primarily so he could play around with the actual automobiles used
in the event. This lead to squabbles over the movie's insurance, the film's
budget spiraling out of control, and McQueen's partner, director John Sturges,
walking out while shooting went on and on out (he was ultimately replaced
by TV veteran Lee H. Katzin). Harry Kleiner's script, meanwhile, was never
finished, and apparently was being re-written each day on set. According
to an excellent
article on the making of the film, none of Sturges' footage even ended
up in the final film, with Katzin and McQueen re-shooting the entire movie
Despite all the arguments, technical challenges, and overall hellish
aspect of the production, LE MANS ended up being a thrilling pseudo-documentary
on the race itself. McQueen and his crew had over a dozen Panavision cameras
set up to capture every aspect of the event, which results in some dazzling
racing sequences still unsurpassed on- film. Sure, while Sturges' repeated
warnings to McQueen that the story wouldn't work turned out to be true
(long stretches go by with no dialogue at all in the final cut), the movie
actually benefits from the lack of emotional investment one has in the
characters. It's all about the moment, Le Mans itself, and from that angle,
the movie is one of the top sports films made for its authenticity alone.
Shot in Panavision, LE MANS looks grand -- no pun intended -- on DVD.
The 2.35 transfer is crisp and clear, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack
is the best of this batch due to the utilization of the stereo format in
the original recording. Cars veer from one channel to the next, with even
a few surround effects employed among Michel Legrand's sparse but effective
While none of the Paramount discs include trailers, the overall presentation
of the movies compensates for the lack of extras. Obviously the studio
went to great care to remaster the films, which haven't been seen for quite
some time in their proper aspect ratios.
The great news for movie buffs is that each film looks and sounds perfectly.
Hopefully this will be the start of more films from the Cinema Center Films
library to follow from the studio -- and by the way, have I mentioned THE
Back to the Future Update
Last week the Aisle Seat received the corrected, replacement DVDs for
BACK TO THE FUTURE Parts II and III.
reported, II and III were mangled on DVD, with both 1.85 transfers
mis-framed with incorrect and/or cropped shots popping up throughout both
movies. The framing was way off, and II apparently had an audio glitch
Universal chose not to recall the BACK TO THE FUTURE TRILOGY
DVD set, but did set up an 800 number and return policy for those who bought
the release and wanted the corrected discs when they were pressed.
After several months of waiting, the new discs (which are marked by
a "V2" designation next to the Universal copyright on the discs themselves)
are now available and happily correct the irregularities on the first pressing.
For more information on exchanging your defective discs, click on the
original column above.
Aisle Seat Mail Bag
From Robert E. Bowd:
From Aldo in Italy:
I agree with your comments regarding Mychael Danna. I am very fond
of Ang Lee's work and his Asian reading of the human condition. Danna is
a subtle composer. Recently, I watched ICE STORM, now available as a Fox
budget DVD. Danna's Asian- inflected solo flute motif, in the film, captured
perfectly the loneliness and alienation depicted in the film. In other
words, he scored the inner world of the film's characters. I always felt
Joe Harnell captured that element in the TV show, and I was hoping [and
suspect, he will] that Lee would take the movie further along that road.
Danna, with ICE STORM, has demonstrated a capacity to do subtle... and
sparseness, in the spotting of a score. He is a 'less is more' composer.
My hunch is that Lee has made an unconventional, psychologically
probing film and the studio execs, once they saw it, panicked that it wasn't
enough of a (summer) comic book film - and hired composers, with a known
track record, to create that kind of fog for the film. Just a theory, and
I could be wrong. Of course, Elfman can do subtle -- Zimmer, less so. I
guess we'll know, soon enough.
Hi, I'd like to ask you a favour: when you say something
negative concerning the works of Danny Elfman or your expectations about
them please always use this periphrasis in bold characters, "IN MY HUMBLE
OPINION". Don't let anyone believe that your personal thoughts about Mr.
Elfman's artistry will be ever close to reality than you or I will be to
Cameron Diaz' bedroom--
Aldo, I'm sorry that you have been under the assumption that The Aisle
Seat is factual and not comprised of opinions. On the other hand, just
because Sam Raimi gives us quotes about how much he loves Danny Elfman
(which I don't for a second doubt that he does), doesn't mean necessarily
that SPIDER-MAN is a great score. Nearly EVERY director is bound to say
good things about the people he works with. I don't exactly believe he's
an objective party on this front. And, in MY OPINION, I think your comments
about Danna speak for themselves!
A word about Spider-man by the person who directed it:
"Calling Elfman's music for Spider-Man 'rousing and uplifting,'
director Raimi said, 'I feel like he always waits for the film and the
audience to create a feeling together, and I think what Danny does is he
gently carries the audience to that next place, but he allows them to do
the work. He has the unique ability to create a soul to his music. He's
a genius, he really is -- that word can be thrown about, but when you listen
to his music and the diversity of it and how successful it is with the
images, I don't know if there's a better word to describe him.'"
Reading Sam Raimi's words and yours ("yet in this genre I believe
he's exhausted his talent and said all he's needed to. Is Joe Harnell available?")
about this argument for two times I asked myself this: does Mr.Raimi owe
some money to Mr. Elfman, is he insane, under the effect of some strong
drug or is he an idot?
Then I thought:"YES! He's all these things combined! Thank you Mr.
Dursin! Thank you for giving me the LIGHT!!!"
Aldo, a fan who believes, "IN HIS HUMBLE OPINION", that Danny Elfman
is the best choice for a film like The Hulk and that Danna is a master
in low budget, low admissions, low expectations, low everything movies--
From Tor Y. Harbin:
I've read your "Aisle Seat" column for a long time now,
and I've enjoyed it. However, I think that you were way off in reviewing
"Futurama's" first season DVD. As a fan of the underappreciated show, I
want to say that the characters are endearing and the scripts consistently
funny. Are you just discovering the show on DVD, or have you been following
it from the beginning, 'cause that might be a factor. Also, Chris Tyng's
wonderful music merits a release.
Tor, I readily admit that, aside from an episode fragment here or
there, the DVD was the first real time that I sat down and watched "Futurama."
Certainly you are not alone in your enjoyment of the show--
From Robert Knaus:
I'm sorry, Andy, but you're severely underrating Matt Groening's
wonderful FUTURAMA and grossly *overrating* Seth McFarland's ghastly FAMILY
GUY. The former *did* have appealing and funny characters (Zoidberg! Bender!
the lovely lady Leela! Zapp Brannigan!), lots of laughs, and beautiful
animation, while the latter had gratuitous cruelty (what is funny about
a baby who wants to murder his own mother?), lame, LAME pop culture references
(oooh, Shatner is a bad actor! Kool-Aid Man! What is this, 1985?) and flat,
charmless animation. Anyone who prefers FAMILY GUY to FUTURAMA can bite
my shiny metal ass!
NEXT TIME: WALK, DON'T RUN for more catalog favorites,
plus e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.