Monday, April 18, 2011

The Big Trail (1930)

70mm Fox Grandeur was a beautiful thing

Watching Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, I am troubled by two persistent questions for which, I fear, there can be no satisfactory answer. If they could make movies that looked and sounded like that back in 1930, why didn't they make more of them? And of course, why did it take Hollywood nearly ten years to realize what a powerhouse they had in John Wayne?

I'll be the first to admit, The Big Trail is not big on plot. Do you remember that old computer game, The Oregon Trail? That's pretty much it; a group of pioneers headed west, and the difficulties they encounter on their journey. They run short on supplies, especially water, their wagons need repair, and they too must face that always daunting question: ford, float, or build rafts? Sure, there's the obligatory revenge of a fallen comrade twist thrown in, along with the corresponding no-good bandits, but the focus of Walsh's camera and thus all the visual interest in the film is in the spectacle of the West itself, but with an uncanny authenticity that takes my breath away. This is no Westworld, and you won't find conveniently colored hats to mark the good guys and the bad guys. What you will find, though, is a vision of epic grandeur like something out of Planet Earth. Stand aside, Cecil B. DeMille, this is real.

The Duke makes his starring role debut as Breck Coleman, a young frontiersman who, largely thanks to his skill at knife-throwing, is hired as scout for a wagon train headed west. Wayne was not new to films, having appeared in bit parts in at least eighteen pictures already, but his name was. Disappointed in his desire to have Gary Cooper play the lead, Walsh saw this kid in the props department unloading furniture off a truck, and, unlike film audiences who failed to make this movie a hit, knew a good thing when he saw it. He slapped a new name on him and that was that. Except that, for some reason, it wasn't. When The Big Trail failed to make a smash at the box office, Wayne was sent packing back to B-movie westerns, and would not make his entry into mainstream cinema for nearly a decade with 1939's Stagecoach, a film I cannot watch without asking, "haven't we been here before?" Unquestionably Stagecoach is a better film, but all of its key elements were already present in The Big Trail: a western that takes itself seriously, in which both the setting and the dangers faced by its inhabitants are believable, centered around the unmistakable charisma of a young John Wayne.

John Wayne romancing Marguerite Churchill on the Trail

So why wasn't The Big Trail successful? At least part of the reason is because moviegoers in 1930 literally did not see the same film that I did. Only a handful of theaters were equipped to show the film in all its 70mm glory, so most audiences saw the 35mm version, and thus missed out on the grandeur of Walsh's sweeping vision of frontier America. In addition to the 35mm and 70mm versions of the film, three foreign language versions were also filmed simultaneously. Filming five simultaneous versions of a big budget location-shot epic doesn't come cheap, so success has to be measured differently as well. Anna Christie, for instance, was released the same year as The Big Trail, but is a dialog driven character-drama, with small, minimalist sets and a stage-like intimacy. Even with Greta Garbo in the lead, Anna Christie cost less than half a million to make, and grossed well over a million. The Big Trail needed double that just to break even, and starred an unknown. With hindsight we can see how successful this movie should have been, but in 1930 it was a losing bet.

The characters are like a motley collection of silent film archetypes. Imagine The Little Colonel from Birth of a Nation, Black Larson from The Gold Rush, and Annabelle Lee from The General. The Colonel's a crook and Annabelle Lee talks too much, and Black Larsen is... just the same. Tyrone Power, Sr. makes the most wonderfully stereotypical 1890's prospector turned trail boss you've ever seen. John Wayne is, well, imagine his character in The Searchers and subtract twenty-five years. A lot of the emotional maturity is gone, but he's much nicer to look at, so it's a fair exchange.

Through an adorable misunderstanding, recently orphaned Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) takes an immediate dislike to Coleman. He tips her out of a rocking chair into his arms and kisses her, mistaking her for someone else. She isn't interested in his explanations, and so is horrified to find him tagging along on her journey. Scoundrel and con artist Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith) has her convinced he's a wealthy plantation owner in Louisiana, when in fact he makes his living cheating little old ladies on river boats. She's happy enough for him to serve as her protector, not knowing what a cad he is, and that he's only headed west to escape hanging. Coleman is only there because he's looking for the man who killed his friend, and has some pretty compelling evidence against trail boss Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.). Flack is only there, apparently, to snarl and growl at everyone indiscriminantly. Unfortunately, Power died not long after making this film, which was his only talkie. He was a first-rate character actor with an unforgettable voice. If only his son had inherited some of his eloquence. I might have enjoyed The Black Swan a lot more if Jr. had brought more of the grizzled trail boss to his role as love-sick pirate "Jamie Boy."

Tyrone Power, Sr. could eat John Wayne for breakfast

However, the real reason to watch this film isn't the plot, and it's not even John Wayne. It is the frontier itself, majestically brought to life in a way you never imagined. Big, sweeping shots of hundreds of wagons, horses, oxen, and people, plodding their way across the plains. Every shot is bristling with energy, just in case you thought those might be painted backdrops. They're not. Thank god Walsh did not have CGI in his arsenal of tricks. When we see the whole train of wagons lowered down the side of a canyon on ropes and pulleys, all the wild danger of the move is apparent, and when one of them tips over and falls, crashing and tumbling down the cliff face, we want to duck for cover. Over and over again Walsh delivers that same adrenaline rush of excitement: floating the train across a river, the horses struggling to keep their heads above water, the cumbersome wagons straining and tipping in the current; a buffalo hunt, against a stampede of thousands; a parching desert that makes the air burn in your dry lungs, and a snowstorm to chill you to the soul.

Wow. Just wow.

While there are plenty of encounters with Native Americans, by and large they are a positive force in the story. Early on, a group of kids ask Coleman if he has killed many Indians. "No, you see, the Indians are my friends," he replies, "They taught me all I know about the woods." When a hoard of Indians shows up threatening the wagon train, Coleman's response is to go talk to them, not to open fire. Of course, Walsh is not naive enough to suggest that pioneers and Indians never fought, but the Indians are never presented as ruthless killers devoid of reason or common decency, as is too often the case, and the classic Old West mantra, "The only good Indian is a dead one," is refreshingly absent. Walsh himself "went west" around the turn of the century, and did many of the things we see in his films; he lived with the Indians, he worked on a cattle drive. When Walsh tells a story of the old west, it's no fairy tale, or something he dreamed up out of a history book. He was there.

It is a rare treat to find a film of such technical perfection, particularly when filmmakers were struggling to adapt to new technologies and financial challenges and so had scaled back from some of the lavish productions of the 20's, and even rarer to find it with a directorial vision and strength of cast sufficient to make it as meaningful as it is awe-inspiring.

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