Friday, July 25, 2008

dvd review: the big trail

Speaking of westerns... I hope you either ordered or picked up Fox Western Classics, which we reviewed yesterday. It is well worth it and you will enjoy it. As we mentioned, Fox released several westerns from the Fox and MGM catalogs recently, and among them was the legendary film The Big Trail. Why legendary? Well we'll tell you in our review. Is it worth your time and effort to place it in your DVD collection? After all we know both money and shelf space are valuable things. Check out our review of Fox's The Big Trail: Special Edition, and find out.

The Hard Facts:
The Big Trail: Special Edition
2 Discs in a keepcase
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Black and White
Widescreen: Fox Grandeur 70 mm version
& Academy aspect ratio version
Original Studio: Fox
Release Date: 5/13/2008
Rated: NR
Stars: John Wayne, Tyrone Power Sr., Marguerite Churchill
Director: Raoul Walsh
The Big Trail is legendary for so many reasons: it's the only talkie film for Tyrone Power Sr. It was supposed to be John Wayne's big starring feature. Director Walsh had even given him his film name. It was also one of the first roles for Ward Bond. It was filmed in legendary form: it was staged on location across 5 states, a literal cast of thousands, actual mountain ranges and vistas were crossed and wagons even lowered down the sides of canyons. In depth research was done to get as much as possible correct, and veterans of the old west were interviewed and sought as experts.
Raoul Walsh and Fox were filming this as the first Fox full length feature in their new widescreen process called Grandeur. In order to do so, theaters had to be fitted with new wider screens. Obviously not all of the theaters would do so. So the film had to be photographed twice; once in 70 mm and a second time in standard 35mm. The cameras were massive, the particular film designed for Grandeur was costly and there were many technical problems that made the project one of the most expensive of its time. Now just putting the money issue aside, that's a lot of time and work. William Fox owned the process outright as an individual property outside of the studio. No doubt, had the process succeeded and been financially viable, Fox would have dominated Hollywood..This was filmed to really sell this new Grandeur process. With the recent success of sound, studios were then looking for other ways to improve the technology of films to be the next big thing. Problem was the depression was in full swing, limited number of screens to display the Grandeur version and studios were beginning to cut back on costs, not expanding expenses. The short story is that The Big Trail bombed. It would be at least another 20-25 years before studios would invest big time in widescreen and even color films on a large scale. It set John Wayne's "A" film career back another 9 years, and Marguerite Churchill never really became the star that Fox was grooming. It would even be several years before Walsh would find big success when he went to Warner Brothers and directed Bogart and Cagney in The Roaring Twenties.
As for the film itself, it was pretty much shelved. In the 1980's, the Museum of Modern Art, which held the nitrate negative, set about to have it restored, and with success. Cinematographer and film preservationist Karl Malkames practically saved the movie. It enjoyed a new rival, not just among fans, but among critics as well. It was released on VHS and was shown on cable, but still in 35 mm. Eventually, the 70mm version was restored and shown on AMC and TCM, even though Fox released it in the standard format on a first run DVD. Now Fox has gone back and digitally restored the 70mm version and released the film in a great 2 disc special edition.

The Film:
"Dedicated to the men and women who planted civilization in the wilderness and courage in the blood of their children." So begins The Big Trail, ultimately a tribute to a silent western, The Covered Wagon, and a tribute to the pioneers of the old west. John Wayne stars as Breck Coleman, a wagon train scout who is after the men who murdered his friend and mentor. It isn't long before he discovers that one of the men, Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.) is the wagon boss for a wagon train setting out from the Mississippi and headed to the Northwest territories. Breck is offered the job as scout and takes it, intending to exact his revenge.
Along the way, Coleman encounters another member of the wagon train, Ruth Cameron (Churchill), who is headed west with her siblings after losing their parents. He falls for Ruth, but she is also being pursued by a lecherous gambler named Thorpe (Ian Keith). He almost enjoys frustrating Cameron as much as he is determined to have his way with Ruth. The tension escalates between Breck, the gambler and the wagon bosses who killed his friend. Breck and his sidekick Zeke are planning to finish the job when the trail ends.
In the meantime, they have their hands full guiding the wagons through some dangerous territory, fast-moving waters and Indians. The pioneers seem to meet difficulty and despair all along the way. The film almost certainly is built around some actual instances and accounts of those who remember the way it was.
In many ways, this is a film that couldn't be made the same way or have the same look without computer imaging. It has such an authentic feel to it that can't be duplicated. It is really an extraordinary film. You can tell from Wayne's performance that it's his first big role, but he handles it well. He is fresh and very young looking to those of us used to John Wayne as we remember him. The plot may be somewhat mundane in a way (1930 audiences had seen similar stories before in silents), but the whole package of the cast, the story and the visuals combine to make it a great flick. It has been sold short so many times, in fact, that this reviewer was even caught off guard by how good it really is. It's a great film, and one that offers so much in terms of film and history it should be a worthy addition to any film collection. You may think it is just another old western, but it won't be long before you are swept away by the visuals and caught up in the film altogether.

Bonus Features:
This DVD is packed with great special features including: a great commentary with film historian and author Richard Schickel on the 70mm widescreen presentation; several new documentaries: The Creation of John Wayne, Raoul Walsh: A Man in His Time, The Big Vision: The Grandeur Process, and The Making of The Big Trail. Also included are still galleries, original posters and pressbook gallery and theatrical trailers. Fox has really treated this film well and given fans a great package. This gives me hope that Fox is really seeing that fans appreciate not only the restoration efforts (which we do!) but also the extra effort to put in great special features that add to the context and enjoyment of the film. Especially a film that has such historical significance.

The film was originally filmed in 5 different versions: three foreign language versions, a 35mm "standard" version (basically that's what the Academy aspect ratio thing means) and the 70mm Fox Grandeur version. The Big Trail was digitally restored and re-mastered from the original 70mm elements to bring the sweeping vista of the west. It is a wonderful black and white breath taking view of an American west that still had people alive at the time of filming who were there when it was the wild west. If for nothing else, this film is a time capsule and a slice of film history. It was timing and other forces that didn't give this film the box office return Fox was hoping for. The depression, lack of screens, problems with distribution and advertising was a tidal wave that was hard to swim against. Had it succeed would the Grandeur process have been used for other films until it became cheaper? Would the other widescreen processes have arrived sooner? Who knows? Either way the restoration process on this film is fantastic and well worth picking up to see what can be done to save important, and maybe less self-important films.
The audio is not as great as one would want, but it may be too difficult with current technology to enhance it further. The sound is a victim of the early days of sound film, when microphones were hidden, actors were stiff and cameras were fairly static. In fact, the outdoor filming necessitated that the actors almost shout to be heard in some cases. It's not terrible, but it isn't the best quality. That should not be a dealbreaker for the fan though.

The Bottom Line:
If not for the pure historic value, the film should be on the film fan's shelf as an important and engaging experience. The western has been such an integral part of Hollywood history, it's a shame it isn't given the respect and attention it deserves as of late. It's doubtful that the decidedly un-PC topic of western expansion will never be treated the same way in our lifetime. Make sure you pick up The Big Trail and take a virtual trip through not only film history, but an American West caught on film that will never be seen again. It is a definite must-have.

Review Rating:
Individually grading the film and bonus features, the set would earn the following:
The Big Trail: A+
Bonus Features: A+

Overall Rating: We give
The Big Trail Special Edition 5 stars (Groucho glasses). It's a Shelf Classic!

Stay tuned- even more reviews and stuff from are regular cast of characters are on the way!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

I kill my own rats.


Stephanie said...

I wasn't quite sure about this one til I read your review. I just saw it on sale at Amazon for about $10 bucks! Can't beat that- so an ordering I will go! Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

Hope this is a better release than the old DVD. It sounds like it is. The old one was released in the fullscreen even though I saw it on cable around the same time in widescreen. Couldn't figure it out. I'll be picking it myself- worth an upgrade.


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