News

Historic 'Big Trail' makes widescreen DVD debut

Doug Nye
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

One of the great Hollywood fables is that the 1930 Western epic "The Big Trail" was a box-office failure because of its young star, John Wayne.

It definitely was a financial flop, but it wasn't Wayne's fault. That's apparent to anyone who purchases and watches "The Big Trail: Fox Grandeur Special Edition" (20th Century Fox, $19.98) which arrives Tuesday on DVD.

For the first time on home video, the film is presented in its original 70mm widescreen format.

To be sure, Wayne, then 23 years old, looks incredibly young and trim but he handles himself well as scout Brent Coleman, who helps lead a massive wagon train westward. You can spot some of the mannerisms - the walk, the smile and the resolve - that would be so much a part of his screen persona when he became a major star.

It was the widescreen Grandeur process - not Wayne - that doomed "The Big Trail." Most of the nation's movie theaters had just finished a costly conversion to sound and few could afford to shell out more big bucks to accommodate the new process in those Depression days. That would have involved installing a new screen and purchasing new projection equipment.

Thus, the widescreen version received very few bookings across the country. Instead, what most people saw was a 35mm edition that ran anywhere from 94 to100 minutes and lacked the stunning impact of the widescreen effort.

"The Big Trail" has such an authentic atmosphere it feels as if it was actually shot in the19th century during a real wagon train trek. That could be because many of the people who worked on the film had been around for the settling of the American frontier.

Director Raoul Walsh and his crew used more than a dozen locations in seven different states. Fox's restored 122-minute edition captured the majestic wonder of these Western landscapes. The director makes full use of the wide screen, with activities going on in every inch of nearly every frame.

The pioneers have to survive steep cliffs, driving thunderstorms, raging blizzards, a buffalo stampede and other obstacles. All are stunningly enhanced by the Grandeur process.

Marguerite Churchill, who later married cowboy star George O'Brien, plays Brent Coleman's love interest Ruth Cameron, a member of the wagon train. Tully Marshall, who was born in 1864 in California and obviously had known many a pioneer, is just right as Wayne's veteran sidekick Zeke.

Tyrone Power Sr. plays the grimy, grizzly villain Red Flack, the wagon master. He consistently is at odds with Coleman, who suspects Flack of murdering a friend. It is obvious that the two eventually will square off in a showdown

"The Big Trail" was considered important enough that in 2006 it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. The DVD includes commentary from noted film historian/author Richard Schickel, features on Wayne and Walsh, a history of the early widescreen Grandeur process, and a "Making of ..." special.

After the film's failure, Wayne spent the rest of the 1930s starring in B-budget movies - mostly Westerns - until director John Ford finally rescued him with a meaty role in "Stagecoach" (1939). After watching "The Big Trail," many will wonder why it took so long for Wayne to be "re-discovered."

"The Big Trail" also is part of the "John Wayne: The Fox Westerns" collection ($39.98), which includes the Duke riding the range in "North to Alaska" (1960), "The Commancheros" (1961) and "The Undefeated" (1969).

Keeping with its Wild West theme, Fox is releasing on Tuesday a "Western Classics" set ($19.98) highlighted by "The Gunfighter" (1950), one of the 100 top Westerns of all time, starring Gregory Peck as aging and famous gunslinger Jimmie Ringo, who is trying to escape his past. Also included are "Rawhide" (1951) with Susan Hayward and "Garden of Evil" (1954) starring Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Hayward.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image