“Prairie schooners rolling west. Praying for peace – but ready for battle.”
The Big Trail is one of those cinematic milestones that kind of fell through the cracks and became known as one of John Wayne's earliest speaking film roles, and from a cursory glance, it basically looks like some errant big budget production that oddly starred the Duke prior to that long period between 1931-1935, wherein he made a boatload of banal B-westerns prior to his best-known breakthrough film, Stagecoach (1939), for director John Ford.
The fact is Big Trail was an early attempt to introduce widescreen films to theatre audiences, and it failed for two reasons: after spending a fortune equipping theatres for sound movies, owners had no desire to deal with new projectors and screens for a 70mm film exhibition; and after the stock market crash, the gamble by studio bigwig William Fox on another new technology kind of evaporated – worsened by the film's poor box office performance that kind of rendered one of the first 70mm films into a great big dud and big-time money-loser.
The film in its alternate 1.33:1 version was released on VHS and DVD (and is included on Disc 2), but the original 70mm version has remained unseen (probably for several generations) until Fox Home Video finally undertook a proper restoration for this astonishing production, working from a ‘scope print made from the original 70mm elements that are no longer extant.
What some may expect is a rambling, dull western with bad dialogue and creaky performances, but this DVD is a vindication for William Fox, because it proves he was on the right track towards nurturing a new film experience.
Grandeur, as it was branded, sort of evolved into CinemaScope 23 years later, and it's no surprise the development of the wide film format stemmed from competition: in 1930, it was studios trying to lure the most filmgoers to the movie palaces they owned, and whoever owned the patent to the winning format (which in the case of Grandeur, was William Fox himself) would also win big through subsequent licensing.
In the fifties, it was TV that ignited the widescreen format war, starting with Cinerama in 1952, and CinemaScope in 1953 via Fox' The Robe, and like Big Trail, the former film was shot twice: in 2.55:1 widescreen, and in standard 1.33:1. The main differences between Grandeur and CinemaScope were the latter's use of an anamorphic lens and 35mm film stock, plus discrete surround sound – an idea borrowed from Cinerama.
CinemaScope became a hugely successful venture because it was a new format that came after audiences had plenty of time to get accustomed to sound films, and could compare the massive widescreen photography with the dinky black & white images on TV; one gets a sense Grandeur was the Blu-Ray of its day because in 1930, audiences had just accepted sound movies, and they may have felt there was little reason to pay extra to see a movie that was playing in very few locales, and in all practicality, was just a bit wider when the real rage was talkies.
An Early Soundtrack
Like In Old Arizona (1928), Big Trail used primordial sound recording equipment, but director Raoul Walsh used Fox' Movietone truck - usually reserved for newsreel gathering - to shoot sync sound on location, and the editors and mixers also layered the sound mix with pretty decent effects, plus original score cues – a major surprise because most early sound films were bookended by title music and little else in between.
The Movietone technology ensured the production could film in very exotic locations, but whether due to the gear's limitations or the sound engineer's paranoia, a lot of actors (many theatre-trained) kind of shout their dialogue, particularly on location, as though to rise above any ambient cacophony. One gets used to the weird convention, but it sticks out (and is very funny) when characters standing close to each other basically tell each other what they're about to do very, very loudly, so the sound guy won't whine anymore to the director.
Like practically all of Fox' DVDs of classic films, there's a pseudo-stereo mix as well as the original mono mix, but regardless of whatever filters and tweaking was used to clean up and enhance the tracks, both lack a lot of dynamic range, and contain some weird aberrations, like perceptible wow during a few dialogue chunks. This is one film that may play better through headphones, or require a volume boost on the A/V system.
Walsh, who co-directed In Old Arizona, chose to work with cinematographer Arthur Edeson again, and right from the opening shots viewers will be stunned by the superior cinematography by this unsung genius.
When United Artists produced The Bat Whispers (1930) its own widescreen process (Magnifilm), the 2.0:1 ratio was wasted on a stale, stage-bound mystery that offered little opportunities to explore new compositions. Edeson and Walsh (and probably William Fox) knew the format's success, as well as the film's, partly relied on making a beautiful looking picture, and as several of the historians in the DVD's Grandeur featurette note, Big Trail looks very, very modern (verbally dated intertitles notwithstanding), and is superior to many of the early CinemaScope films that emphasized wide film sets instead of panoramic artistry. There are virtually no close-ups or moving camera shots beyond a few pans, but the regal style works very well for the film –more so than the clunky, visual dullness of How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).
By shooting in unspoiled wilderness with little encroaching commercial development, Big Trail offered the filmmakers plenty of landscapes and big skies to compose shots that truly place the viewer beside the characters, and there's never any doubt the mountains, rivers, plains, and glacier moraines behind the actors are real.
It was an important financial sacrifice, because it meant the massive extras, animals, and wagons could be arranged like moving elements of an expansive portrait, but instead of drawing attention to the Grandeur format, it comes off as naturalistic snapshots of a wagon train; since we've seen how many are making the trek, the long lines of followers is completely believable, even when Walsh has them trudging through rivers, muddy banks, rainfall, snow, and in the film's brief but amazing sequence where the pioneers lower wagons and livestock down a canyon cliff through rickety winches.
There isn't a single wasted or indulgent shot in the film, and the restoration work offers a good balance between cleaning up rough wear and tear, and keeping what little grain was inherent to the format. The widescreen gauge boosted the image clarity, so while it's 78 years old, Big Trail looks gorgeous, and really, REALLY should've been released on Blu-Ray to preserve ever nuance.
The ideal is to see the film on the big screen, because Walsh paced the film so audiences could soak in the grandeur of the locations, and really get a feel for what pioneers endured while dragging their lives across nasty natural obstacles. Whole sequences are still pretty efficient, and even the Indian attack – another spectacular sequence involving the pioneers setting up a protective circle with their wagons, and all the livestock inside – doesn't draw attention from the film's drama.
Historian Richard Schickel explains the story came from Max Brand (creator of Dr. Kildare), and the script was comprised of uncredited work of Brand and several others, including Walsh.
On the plus side, Wayne shares screen time with many characters, making him more of a figurehead star and allowing other story threads to progress, although they're quite thin: love interest Ruth (Marguerite Churchill) kind of hovers around the wagon train and never evolves into anything deeper than the girl Wayne upsets, the girl he keeps upsetting, and the girl who kinda gets used to Wayne until she's totally in love with him by the final reel.
The most intriguing theme deals with the subjugation of primal emotions, particularly hate: Wayne knows Red (Tyrone Power, Sr.) and Lopez (Charles Stevens) killed his buddy, but he can't kill them because he knows both men are not just the group's leaders, but the right mix of burly brute force that can drag whiners and weaklings across mountains. Even when efforts are made to craft little ‘accidents,' Wayne knows killing Red would divide the pioneers' loyalties, and he knows he's too young to take on such a massive, stressed-out group.
As Breck, a morally spirited man, Wayne is pretty effective, but fans will enjoy seeing the actor looking very handsome, trim, and less glued to the hard-edged persona he'd shape in his later work with John Ford. Tyrone Power, Sr. (poppa of Jr.) delivers a very eccentric performance as evil Red, but he suits the role of an overgrown wild-man whose business is living raw and rough, and getting stinko during the down time because he lacks the patience and skill to socialize like more urbanized folks.
The story kind of drags a bit – it's really just a long road movie with off-the-road dangers – and some of the humorous elements are very odd: one character makes cartoon sounds to shock folks and ridicule the scumbag gambler (Ian Keith) trying to woo Ruth away from Wayne; and evil El Brendel (“Yumpin' Yimminy!”) is given a lot of breadth to do his wacky Swede caricature, Gus, a dumbbell and father-to-be who spouts plenty of hackneyed mother-in-law gags, and bits of absurdism (like sitting on a mud-buried mule named “Useless” while his mama eggs him to ‘get moving').
Walsh does indulge in some bits of subtle poetry, and perhaps the strongest visual metaphor for the struggling pioneer is the final shot, which have Wayne and Ruth meeting under the massive canopy of a gigantic ancient tree. The shot's symbolic of the obvious attention that went into crafting this epic, and the film really provides an unadorned snapshot of pioneer life without the predictable schmaltz. Whereas Cimarron (1931) is memorable for its depiction of pioneers settling and establishing a township after the land rush, Big Trail is the struggle of the trek to the land, which Cimarron quickly dispenses after its own colossal opening sequence.
Fox' extras are good, but it's funny how some do suffer from pacing and content issues Big Trail doesn't have.
Richard Schickel's commentary track is, during its first third, pretty engaging, but the key problem is he just doesn't have enough to say for the film's running time, and it behooves labels and DVD content producers to recognize the potential pitfalls of their projects and avoid them: Schickel provides major production facts, bio sketches, and some personal observations from his own familiarity and friendship with Wayne and director Walsh, but his comments and easy chair delivery could've been augmented with additional material from the historians and cinematographers gathered for the featurettes – particularly the Grandeur featurette, “The Big Vision,” which is paced a bit too fast and doesn't allow for more precise technical details (although there's some good shot comparisons between the 70mm and 35mm versions).
The reason this is a touchy point is because the people buying this DVD will likely be a mix of Wayne fans, western fans, widescreen fans, and fans with a bent towards technical and creative milestones of the cinema, and the details they demand are maybe 70% potent in this set.
A case in point are Arthur Edeson's American Cinematographer [AC] writings on the film and the Grandeur process, as well as an AC piece on Fox' ambitious plans for Grandeur, circa 1930, and AC's own report on Big Trail, published during the 1990s. These could and should have been archived on this set, as well as additional information on the other Grandeur productions, if not the rival formats like Magnifilm (as profiled HERE).
A few unique details appear in “The Making of The Big Trail,” notably stills for the Spanish, German, and Italian casts that appeared in the foreign versions of the film, of which more are archived in the Stills Gallery.
It's incredible is how the film was actually shot in 70mm and 35mm English versions, in addition to in-house director Lewis Seiler supervising 35mm foreign versions with their own distinct casts – a complex process not uncommon for early sound films of note or prestige, but made more costly here with two film formats, and four languages mandating four sets of main actors. It's a pity these versions couldn't be archived in this set, but perhaps if Fox slates Big Trail for a Blu-Ray release (seeing how there's more than enough storage capacity), they ought to add the foreign versions for historical and curio value.
The featurette also contains some production factoids on the massive manpower ferried off to the wilds to shoot the film (20,000 extras!), but there's also repeated info on Wayne , and no technical details on the sound recording techniques (which are slightly better represented in the Schickel commentary). There are some short sketches of the supporting cast, including Tyrone Power, Sr. (Where Are My Children?) whose first sound film and last film this was, prior to his death in 1931.
The remaining featurettes are more concise, and deal with very precise career steps before and after Big Trail. Fox Home Video went after a diverse group of historians, and they provide the right dose of backstory and gravitas towards each subject, particularly director Walsh, who's quite rightly up for a rediscovery after kind of disappearing into that amorphous body known as Competent Studio Directors. Walsh made some very fine films during his extensive career, and a quick scan of his forties and fifties work reveals a lot of superbly crafted films.
The oddly titled “Raoul Walsh: A Man in His Time” (well, yeah…he was) goes through his early years as an actor, with clips of a few silent films, including his directorial debut, Regeneration (1915), and the freak accident that cost him an eye, removed him as the star of In Old Arizona, and had another director finish the film for him.
Walsh learned filmmaking under D.W. Griffith, and although many other future directors like John Ford learned their craft under one of cinema's leading pioneers, Griffith apparently regarded Walsh as ‘the most gifted.' Big Trail should've been his entrée into the big leagues (the title card actually reads “Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail”), but the film's failure was a blow that wasn't softened until he moved on to Warner Bros., where Walsh crafted some fine wartime action films like Objective, Burma! (1945), pinched melodrama like Battle Cry (1955), and the vicious crime thriller, White Heat (1949), with James Cagney's incendiary finale.
The shadow of John Ford looms over the Walsh and John Wayne featurettes because Ford had already cast Wayne in many bit parts during the twenties, but it wasn't until Walsh nabbed Wayne as the lead in Big Trail that the actor got his big break, and revealed some shades of the persona he'd adopt in later films. As one historian cheekily states of Wayne 's talent and screen charisma, “Ford refined it, but Walsh was the one who mined it.”
“The Creation of John Wayne” covers the actor's evolution from uncredited bit player to cinema icon, and features many stills of Wayne during his college football years, and the creation of his nickname and screen name. The featurette also echoes a cruel Fordian anecdote that Schickel recounts, regarding Ford's jealousy of not being the one who ‘discovered' Wayne , and rewarding the actor by severing friendship ties for several years.
The Big Trail is one of those releases that has the potential to once again disappear among the many classic films Fox releases on DVD over several months, but this is more than just John Wayne's leading man debut; it's a technical marvel, an elegant chronicle of the pioneering spirit that studios would repeatedly mine in B-movies, and one of the finest black & white widescreen films ever shot.
One has to wonder if the film's compositions, or at least the work of its cinematographer, influenced future directors like Anthony Mann - in terms of widescreen aesthetics, and the codification of visual iconography mandatory to pioneer films, and westerns involving raw, rugged land travel.
Its larger cast and lack of drippy melodrama (unlike Cimarron) give Big Trail a balance, in addition to less inflammatory racial stereotypes. Don't pass up this classic, and if it ever reaches a local Cinematheque near you, catch it and relish Edeson's artistry.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan