What was promised in "How the West Was Won" actually had been delivered more than three decades earlier, with Raol Walsh's widescreen talkie "The Big Trail."
The story behind "The Big Trail" (1930) is plenty big as well. Made for what would be a scandalous budget in today's dollars, the movie made glorious use of an early 70mm format dubbed "Fox Grandeur."
The film employed an army of actors, extras and animals, moving across western states, with results that remain jaw-dropping. Many of our contemporary CG epics look kind of lame in comparison. The big-format negatives render beautiful, silvery, slightly surreal images that take in the vistas and all the gritty action below.
John Wayne makes his debut as a lead actor, showing much of the big-hearted swagger that he would employ throughout his long career. He's a scout who counts "the Injuns" among his best friends. Quite a hoot to hear the young Duke's voice in that whiny tone that comes with reproductions of early sound recordings -- in this case from an "all-talking Fox picture."
Fox Home Entertainment has released "The Big Trail" in a double-disc edition that contains the 70mm version of the film (restored to 35mm, widescreen and letterboxed) and the Academy (standard ratio) version that was shot at the same time, for cinemas that couldn't handle the new format. (To further complicate things, parts of the movie were shot over and over, with different international actors taking lead roles for local distribution.)
The 70mm "The Big Trail" is new to video; the 35mm rendition has been available.
The movie tracks a wagon train from the Mississippi River, across lands great and bad, to somewhere Eden-like in the Northwest. What makes the film a singular experience today is that Walsh and Co. actually drove their wagon train partway across the country, with people who knew how it was done back in the day. To them, the wagon caravans were not much farther in the past than the 1960s are to us.
We see the wagons ford a mighty river, with women, children and cattle desperately trying to keep from being swept away. Later, the wagons are lowered over a cliff, some shattering as the ropes fail. Nothing is prettied up in Walsh's epic; everything is grubby and worn, including most of the pioneers. "The Big Trail" feels like a documentary.
The standard western elements are all here: the lovely widow, the slick gambler, the creepy bad guys -- played by Tyrone Young Sr. and a grandson of Geronimo -- the buffalo stampede, and the Indian attack, which sees the wagon train circle with military precision.
The extras are dated 2008 but most of the interviews clearly are older. The experts make the case that Walsh was every bit the director as John Ford, but didn't get the breaks. There's an examination of the Grandeur format -- simply too far ahead of its time -- a piece on Wayne's big break, and a commentary from Richard Schickel, who does a great job with westerns.
"The Big Trail" discs also are available as part of the new set "John Wayne: The Fox Westerns," which includes "North to Alaska," one of my Duke favorites, as well as "The Comancheros" and "The Undefeated."
Audio is in stereo and mono; for clarity of dialogue, I quickly switched to mono.
Also circling the DVD blog's players this week:
Warner Home Video's ambitious Frank Sinatra movie campaign, with a quartet of themed box sets: the Rat Pack, the Gene Kelly collaborations, the early years and the "golden" years. There are 22 films, 11 of them apparently new to DVD. There are some new and old documentaries (catch the one for "The Man With the Golden Arm"), along with a couple of swinging commentaries from Frank Sinatra Jr.
If you dug Hermann Hesse in college, don't miss Francis Ford Coppola's trippy "Youth Without Youth," which should finally find its audience in their living rooms. Tim Roth plays a Romanian professor who is struck with lightning and regains his youth, the better to explore the mysteries of time and reincarnation. I saw the film on Sony's fine Blu-ray, awash in beautiful and mysterious images. The film is fascinating and frustrating, at worst a good puzzle. Coppola does another of his fine commentaries and there is a decent making-of.
New and notable DVDs:
- The Big Trail: Fox Grandeur Special Edition
- Fox Western Classic Collection
- The Cottage (Sony)
- Die Hard Ultimate Collection (Fox)
- The Fire Within (The Criterion Collection)
- Frank Sinatra Collection: The Rat Pack (Warner)
- Frank Sinatra Collection: The Golden Years
- Frank Sinatra Collection: The Early Years
- Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly Collection
- Sinatra (telefilm, Warner)
- The Great Debaters (Weinstein Company/Genius Products)
- Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Special Edition
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Special Edition
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Special Edition
- The Lovers (Louis Malle, Criterion)
- The Magnificent Seven Complete Series (MGM)
- Marvel Heroes Collection (X-Men, etc. Fox)
- Mission Impossible, season 4 (Paramount)
- A Raisin in the Sun (Sony)
- The Rat Patrol Complete Series (MGM)
- Saturday Night Live, season 3 (Universal)
- Twelfth Night (1969 TV, Koch Vision)
- Untraceable (Sony)
- Youth Without Youth (Sony)