Young at heart: John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill in 1930’s The Big Trail, a pioneering widescreen western now on DVD.
Fox’s gamble may seem foolhardy nearly
80 years later—after all, movie houses of that era were still adjusting
to the switch from silents to talkies. The Big Trail’s box-office disappointment put the kibosh on widescreen until Fox employed a similar process known as CinemaScope for The Robe
in 1953 to wage battle against TV’s burgeoning small-screen popularity.
So the two-DVD special edition from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
goes a long way toward rehabbing this film’s rep.
Trail’s flop forced Wayne, then
23, into nine years of seasoning as the star of quickie B westerns at
Mascot and Monogram studios until director John Ford gave him another
shot at mainstream success with 1939’s Stagecoach. Still Trail
shows the genesis of the Duke’s persona—his laconic line delivery, his
naturalness in front of a camera—as shaped by Walsh’s guidance.
While Walsh was busy developing a screen
icon, he was also instructing future directors on how to create visual
majesty for the widescreen canvas. As the DVD’s splendid letterboxed
version, measuring at a 2:10:1 ratio and with lustrous black-and-white
images, demonstrates, Walsh’s framing is crammed with compositional
details galore to lend an epic sense of sweep to what is basically a
story many times told, the one about the wagon train journey across
America. The teeming vistas, all filmed with a deep-focus resolution,
are still eye-filling today—more impressive when you realize that Walsh
only had one eye! (He lost a peeper a few years earlier when a
jackrabbit jumped into his car’s windscreen as Walsh was driving
through the Arizona desert.) To compare Walsh’s pioneering visuals,
check out the second DVD of the full-screen version, shot concurrently
in 35mm with a shorter running time of 108 minutes. The full-screen
attempts to replicate those stunning vistas, but everything feels
crammed and out of balance, almost like a pan-and-scan version.
There’s plenty of historical information
packed into this release, some of it gleaned from the commentary by
Richard Schickel, who’s much livelier here than in his chitchat for the
recent Dirty Harry DVD. Maybe because he has so many tidbits,
such as stage actor Tyrone Power Sr. as a Bluto-esque baddie being
drunk during the long shoot, or Schickel’s dissing of the ethnic comedy
from co-star El Brendel. A quartet of featurettes includes a 14-minute
look at young John Wayne, whose nickname actually came from Duke, his
Airedale dog. In one noteworthy tidbit, John Ford, who cast Wayne in
bit parts prior to The Big Trail, was allegedly so incensed when Walsh intended to make Wayne a star that he maintained a grudge against Wayne for years.
There’s also a 13-minute appreciation of Walsh’s career, which was also temporarily derailed by Trail’s box-office stiff (a clip of Walsh as an actor, playing presidential assassinator John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation,
details that he also broke his ankle imitating Booth’s escape after
shooting Lincoln); a 12-minute overview of the Grandeur process; and a
13-minute making-of vignette that helps explain why the movie cost $2
million. Aside from 20,000 extras, 18,000 head of cattle and location
work in seven states, The Big Trail was shot five different
ways: in 70 and 35 mm, and in Italian, Spanish and German versions
(with different performers) because Fox could not reloop dialogue for
international markets in those days. A massive photo gallery, entailing
66 production stills, 15 studio-mandated glamour poses, and more than
100 foreign stills from the Italian (45), Spanish (39) and German (38)
versions, round out The Big Trail’s extensive and welcome DVD salute.