Monday, July 14, 2008

The Big Trail

Fox has finally gotten around to releasing on DVD one of their most important early titles in its original format-Raoul Walsh's "The Big Trail", shot in the 70mm Grandeur process.

This is true epic. Watching the action unfold on screen, one is overwhelmed by the amount of visual information Walsh fills almost every frame with. Even seemingly simple setups with two or three of the principals talking to eachother contains what appears to be dozens of extras, animals, props and expansive landscape unfolding in the background. It's not an exaggeration to say that the film could be watched twice in order to catch every piece of the visual detail Walsh provides.

The plot is somewhat standard among pre-"Stagecoach" westerns. That is, it deals with ideas like Manifest Destiny; the noble efforts to move westward and settle the land. Before John Ford really defined the Western in generic terms with "Stagecoach" in 1939, Westerns tended to fall into one of two categories: either they played out as pure entertainment-the early films of William S. Hart, for instance, and later Tom Mix-or they were the cinematic equivalent of epic poetry, with beautifully composed long takes which the camera could linger on for as long as needed to convey the beauty and power of the landscape.

The silent era saw a rise in the epic films with a Western theme. The first, and most notable, was James Cruze's "The Covered Wagon", a film that was close to its director's heart, as his parents has been pioneers who traveled west with the wagon trains. The film set a new standard for scale, period accuracy (which, at the time, was hardly that far in the past), and most importantly, for the grand depiction of the landscape. John Ford made a follow-up film for Fox, "The Iron Horse", about the westward expansion of the transcontinental railroad. This magnificent epic provided a scale that was hard to match. Throughout the decade, the Western continued to thrive with films like "Tumbleweeds" by William S. Hart, dealing with the land rush.

The coming of sound posed some problems for the Western, as shooting outdoors was extremely difficult with the newfangled sound equipment. Raoul Walsh had shot one of the first outdoor talking Westerns, "In Old Arizona", in 1928. A little background information on Walsh is valuable in understanding how appropriate he was for this type of material. Born in 1887, Walsh worked a number of odd jobs before coming west to work in the cattle drives. Learning how to ride a horse, he got a job playing a Klansman in a stage production of Thomas Dixon's play "The Clansman", which would be filmed in 1914 by D.W. Griffith. Walsh worked on the film as well, both as an actor (he played John Wilkes Booth in the Ford Theatre sequence), and as assistant director. The same year that film was released, Walsh directed "Regeneration", a prototypical gangster film that gained him excellent notices. The 1910s and 20s were spent working in a variety of films, most notably directing "The Thief of Bagdad" for Douglas Fairbanks at United Artists, and "Sadie Thompson" with Gloria Swanson, which also featured the former actor Walsh in the leading role opposite Swanson.

1928 proved to be a pivotal year for Walsh. The coming of sound, and the fact that Walsh was working at a studio (Fox) that was pioneering the use of sound before most other studios, helped place him in the first rank of American filmmakers working in the sound medium. That year, he directed "In Old Arizona", a Western in which he also played the lead. This was cut short when, driving home from the location one night, a jackrabbit jumped through his car windshield. The shattered glass cost him an eye, and guaranteed the end of his acting career. (Irving Cummings finished direction of the film, now with Warner Baxter in the lead).

If Walsh's career as a leading man ended with "In Old Arizona", another leading man's career was born with "The Big Trail". A former propman, Marion Morrison adopted the screenname John Wayne for this, his first leading role. John Ford had recommended him for the part, and Walsh and the studio executives were willing to take a chance on him. In his first major role, Wayne carries himself very well. It's odd, watching the film today, to realize he'd spend the next eight years (and some forty films) in the lowest-grade Poverty Row westerns before Ford used him in "Stagecoach". Ford supposedly held a grudge against Wayne for making his starring debut in another director's film, but this seems a bit extreme. It is true, however, that Ford did not work with Wayne again until 1939, and that for whatever reason Wayne spent the interim period working in some of the lowest-grade productions imaginable.

"The Big Trail" has become something of a legendary film in the sense that it was a pioneering effort in widescreen cinematography. William Fox owned the patent on a process known as Grandeur, a 65mm precursor to CinemaScope, and employed it on this film. Due to the fact that entire theatres would have to be rebuilt to screen the widescreen version, Fox also insisted on shooting a standard Academy ratio version alongside the widescreen one. In addition to this already tremendous undertaking, three additional foreign language versions were also filmed simultaneously with different casts.

It has been said that Walsh used the wide screen more creatively here than most directors were in the 1950s, when CinemaScope became the standard. Incredibly, Walsh seems to have packed every frame with detail as far as the eye can see. This creates an incredible sense of "being there" amidst the action which is sorely lacking in the standard aspect ratio version.

The widescreen version has never been released on home video until now. It was apparently broadcast on AMC at some point in the 1990s, but the first DVD release contained just the standard version. The newest DVD release is a two-disc collection featuring both the standard version and the widescreen version. It is overall a gorgeous transfer, the only flaws being embedded in the film itself. Fox has provided some nice documentaries on the making of the film, as well as the careers of its director and star, and topping it off with a good commentary track by Richard Schickel.

Although the point is made in the documentaries, it's worth remembering that in 1930, many of the actors in the film had been around at the time of the pioneers' move westward. It was still quite recent history, and as a result, the film has an authenticity which can never again be matched. What's even more impressive is that the filmmakers were able to travel over such a variety of locations as were used in this film, and be able to film incredibly deep shots without picking up any signs of "modern" buildings. It would surely be impossible to make this film today, at least with the same variety of locations, as the landscape has surely been riddled with gas stations, fast food restaurants and other developments that would prevent it from being usable.

In so many ways, this film is an important historical document, not just of American cinema, but American history as well.


Anonymous said...

I watched the standard version after watching the wide-screen version. The difference is profound. Same actors, same dialogue, pretty much the same story (there are a few dropped scenes in the standard version), same locations, same action, often the same takes -- but one film is a kind of masterpiece and the other is a dreadful bore.

You could use the two versions as a primer on how composition works in movies -- either drawing you into a space and giving you a sense of "being there", as you put it, being part of a story, or keeping you at a distance, as though you're just watching something from the outside.

Donald Sosin said...

Great film, saw it on the big screen in Bologna a couple of years ago, unforgettable, and glad to know it's being distributed on DVD. Thanks.


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