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Big Trail, The (Blu-ray Review)

11 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available exclusively at Walmart
$24.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tyrone Power.

This will make me sound older than Abe Lincoln when he was trekking all those miles on foot to and from school, but there were so few reputable histories of the movies during my youth up that I took some extremely untrustworthy lore involving John Wayne’s first big-screen lead (in 1930) at face value. Raoul Walsh’s mammoth Trail was the picture in question, and the common view (which endured for years) dismissed it as a costly commercial bomb that did so much damage to top-billed John Wayne’s career that the prop-boy-turned-actor had to wallow as the lead in Z-Westerns for the entire 1930s until John Ford rescued him with 1939’s Stagecoach.

The version of the story is true as far as it goes — but it took my entire childhood, adolescence and early adulthood before critics, historians and other future revisionists re-looked at this Oregon Trail epic and saw that it is, in fact, among the most impressive of all early talkies. In fact, the movie probably has no peers when it comes to approximating the feeling of what wagon train travel must have been really like at the time — if, that is, you make sure to see the almost impossibly panoramic “Grandeur” version of Trail that was restored in the 1980s from a surviving 65mm negative and reproduced onto a 35mm fine grain master.

That’s right: the better of Trail’s two renderings (the other is a standard 1.33 presentation also included on this release) was an out-of-its-time widescreen version that played just a handful of theaters — a full 23 years before 20th Century-Fox launched CinemaScope with The Robe. The Grandeur process was a brainchild of studio chief William Fox, whose ultimately cash-strapped company later merged with 20th Century Pictures. And he might have revolutionized the industry if he hadn’t tried to launch his pet during the Depression (think of all the pricey new equipment exhibitors would have been forced to buy). Also working for Trail is the sheer passage of time — which works for the film by making it look like a relic, though in a good way. The number of years since 1930 is now equal to the number that had elapsed from 1858 until the time Walsh was shooting. So even when seen in the non-Grandeur “flat version” (which, by the way, sometimes differs in significant respects even in terms of content and individual shots), the result really does seem like something out of another world.

Like Stagecoach, this is a revenge saga, at least in so far as Wayne’s character is concerned. Cast as a well-liked trapper, the young Wayne (22 here, if you can imagine it) is bent on “getting” the guys who killed his best friend — and by convenient coincidence, they all end up as part of the wagon train’s procession. The key villain here, a bull whacker, is played by Tyrone Power Sr., an actor whose grizzly beard, shaky dental work and real-life death just one year later doesn’t quite synch with the fact that he was, of course, the real-life father of a premier screen matinee idol. (In fairness, a cleaned-up Wikipedia photo of Senior is more flattering.)

Also making the journey, mostly to avoid the law, is a crooked gambler played by Ian Keith, and it takes about two seconds of screen time for us to size him up as a slug. Almost as immediately, he is mixing it up with Wayne — mostly over the affections of a pert settler (Marguerite Churchill) with whom Wayne has gotten off to a wretched start by ambushing her with something between a bear hug and a smooch after mistaking her for an old acquaintance. Though raw and undefined, it is amazing to see the degree to which Wayne had already developed the eventually familiar mannerisms and reactions at such an early age, especially when playing opposite an adversarial character. The only thing missing here is a glass saloon window through which Keith can be thrown after a few beer bottles to the skull.

Critic Richard Schickel’s commentary and a slew of informative featurettes on Wayne, Walsh, Grandeur and the film’s restoration have been transferred from the old two-disc DVD to this combo Blu-ray/DVD release. As one of the interviewed historians notes, there are scenes here that you just don’t see in any other Western — including the showstopper where settlers (complete with their own pulley system) lower not just cabinets or dressers but livestock down a treacherous cliff. You can’t believe you’re actually watching all this in a widescreen movie made during the Hoover Administration — and now, it’s on a Blu-ray that surpasses expectations in addition to being priced cheaply (forget “list”; I got this for $13).

Trail’s major limitations are some primitive early-talkie emoting and shaky sound recording, but they’re no worse (and sometimes superior to) what we’re used to seeing from the immediate post-silent era. Churchill is attractive by today’s standards and even has some chemistry with Wayne once her character comes around to his way of thinking (it helps that the actor looks good in white buckskin, which wouldn’t have been true after the ‘30s). In real life, Churchill married John Ford semi-regular George O’Brien (also the male lead of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise). They parented the late writer Darcy O’Brien, who penned a very good and thinly disguised novella about Ford (A Way of Life, Like Any Other).

Trail now looks like one of the best Hollywood movies of 1930 — my favorite after All Quiet on the Western Front and probably Morocco, though it’s true that a huge number of that year’s “durables” come from other countries (L’Age d’Or, The Blue Angel and so on). No such revisionist acclaim is earned by Walmart’s other newly released Fox Blu-ray exclusive: John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha from 1958. The transfer looks good, but this critical/commercial catastrophe was and is a stiff; Wayne had about as much chemistry with the director as Gregory Peck had with Captain Ahab in Huston’s version of Moby Dick. Waiting in the wings for Wayne, fortunately, was Rio Bravo — which opened almost exactly six months later.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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