Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Big Trail

The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930) Wow, this one is kinda fun.  Made in 1930, in the transition between the silent and sound eras,* The Big Trail is a big sprawling "wagon train" movie filmed in 65mm and stereo sound (although it only played that way in New York and Los Angeles—it was filmed twice by Walsh,*** in this format and in the standard Academy approved box format,** where more traditional close-ups were employed), the wide screen taking advantage of large vistas of horizon in gen-u-ine outdoor locations and long meandering lines of properly scrabble-wood wagons and hastily improvised buildings—there isn't a right angle in any of the construction along the route—and the buck-skin and gingham costumes look lived in, sweat-stained and grubby.  It actually has a more authentic feel than later films that covered the same territory.  As films progressed, the pains director Walsh took to create that realistic thread-bare look were replaced by the studios' efforts to make everything well-scrubbed and travel-worthy.  But here, everything is in a state of chaos in need of some permanence.  That'll happen when everything stops moving.

But, at this juncture, less than a hundred years after such odysseys actually occurred, the portrayal of the way west feels more real, despite the simplistic story, the "Big Misunderstanding" love story (the path of love, like cross-country trails, never runs smooth) and some quite amazing set-pieces.  Fording a river actually looks dangerous with cattle swimming downstream with the swift current, and overturning wagons featuring some inelegant (because it wasn't planned) stunt-work.  And there's a sequence, unscripted and jerry-rigged, of lowering wagons and cattle down a cliff-side by ropes, that is just fascinating to watch, especially when things literally go "south" (Walsh and his cameraman managed to to catch the mayhem as some knots slipped).

Along the way, we see every sort of terrain: plains, desert, rivers, cliffs, mountains and forests, and because the trip takes a year, four seasons of various weathers, all giving Walsh a new impediment to the travellers to exploit for drama, from blistering desert heat to nearly white-out conditions of snow—and there's one torrential down-pour that bogs wagons, horses, and men alike in a constant slick of mud.  Who needs melodrama when God and Nature are throwing everything in the pioneers' path to slow them down?  For a film of this era, it is amazing to see the efforts made to bring it all to the screen...and with the added use of on-set sound—in the outdoor settings—it is quite the stunning achievement.

But, there's one other thing The Big Trail is known for: It is also the first starring role of a full-time prop-master and part-time bit player named Marion Morrison, who, starting with this film would operate under the name given him by director Walsh, "John Wayne."

Interesting to watch this kid who would become a screen legend.  He had yet to learn the pausing cadence that would give his sentences more weight, and there's a tendency to put a little too much of everything into the role, the glowers, the tightening jaw-muscles, the "hail-fellow-well-met" jocularity—if you want to see how Wayne plays it, there's a lot of similarity to how Ricky Nelson ambled through the role of "Colorado" in Hawks' Rio Bravo).

But, the casualness is there, always was.  Even here, his first starring role, there is the informal grace of how he'd just lean back in a scene.  There's a sequence where Wayne is talking to a large group of elders—because of the primitive sound equipment in camera trucks, everyone is encouraged to shout the dialogue a bit as it was filmed outdoors—while he sits cross-legged on a horse, as naturally as if he was draped over a dining room chair, the horse shuffling nervously despite having steadying hands on him, and Wayne balanced effortlessly, not missing a beat, even swinging his foot in conversation.

There are things that are a little wince-inducing: it's all very white hat/black hat with the bad guys (Tyrone Power Sr., Charles Stevens, and Ian Keith all pushing villainy at the top of their lungs that you almost think there should be a "hiss" track whenever they walk on-screen), Marguerite Churchill is a trifle too "fiddle-dee-dee" for my taste, and there's some rather antiquated humor about mothers-in-law, and goofy ethnics (hard to place...Swedish?) that's just a step away from the "gag-men" antics of the silent era.

But, I spent the majority of the movie goggle-eyed at the incredible shots by Walsh and his cinematographer Arthur Edeson**** (a mainstay at both Fox and Warners, Edeson has an impressive list of credits, in which he managed to squeeze in among the B-pictures and programmers Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon, The Old Dark House, and Casablanca) that take advantage of the western locations and The Big Sky (still remarkably free of air-traffic), artfully composed as if they were framed by Frederic Remington.

Look past the dated material, and some of the more vaudevillian (and vaude-villain) moments and there are many visual wonders to behold here, brought about by one of the great directors who doesn't get nearly enough attention: Raoul Walsh.

* Transitions are handled by the insertion of title cards anticipating the action of the next episode.

** In addition, there were foreign language versions shot at the same time—Spanish, French and German—with different casts.

**** The first outdoor sound film—In Old Arizona—was made the year before, photographed by Edeson and planned out by Walsh, who was set to star (as the Cisko Kid, no less) and direct until the traffic accident (a jackrabbit smashed into his windshield) that cost him his right eye.


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