The Big Trail

dir. Raoul Walsh
1930 / Fox Films Corporation / 122′
written by Hal G. Evans, Raoul Walsh, Marie Boyle,
Jack Peabody
, and Florence Postal 
directors of photography Lucien N. Andriot
and
Arthur Edeson
musical director Arthur Kay
starring
 John WayneMarguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power Sr., David Rollins, Frederick Burton, Ian Keith, and Charles Stevens
The Big Trail
is now available as a Walmart exclusive Blu-ray / DVD combo release.

While Fox Film Corporation advertised their production of The Big Trail with the usual hyperbole (to the left is one of the few ad images that doesn’t tout it as “The Most Important Picture Ever Produced”), rarely has such hyperbole felt so appropriate – more than 80 years later it remains difficult to overstate the shear scope of the thing. Simultaneously filmed in no fewer than five versions for a reported budget of $2 million (mountainous for the time), The Big Trail fulfills the promises of its eponymous adjective time and again, and with more than just its hundreds of extras and vast locations. A financial disaster at the time of release, the film is perhaps best known today for being one of the earliest of the big-format film productions, exploring the possibilities of 70mm widescreen two decades and more before processes like CinemaScope and VistaVision became the Hollywood norm.

Of course, The Big Trail has at least one other claim to historical import. Though director Raoul Walsh had originally hoped to cast Gary Cooper as the picture’s lead, the latter’s contract with Paramount (and that studio’s reticence to loan him out) eliminated him from contention. Ultimately the role went to a young man Fox billed as John Wayne, a 23 year old prop hand and aspiring actor who had up until that time managed only a single credited supporting role – in the early musical Words and Music. By all rights The Big Trail should have made a star of Wayne, but its middling reception only prolonged his obscurity, and left him to squander his budding talents in B-list productions and serials until John Ford’s Stagecoach arrived in 1939.

As a film The Big Trail serves as cinema’s most spectacular presentation (for better or for worse) of the American myth of Manifest Destiny, the belief that heralded the nation’s often violent expansion in the 19th century. The story follows a caravan of settlers as they head west in their prairie schooners to claim the Pacific Northwest for their own, and the various trials and tribulations they must endure along the way. Wayne stars as trapper Breck Coleman, who signs on to scout for the caravan after discovering among its ranks the gargantuan Red Flack (Tyrone Powers Sr. in his only sound role) and his cohort Lopez (Charles Stevens) – two men he suspects of having killed a fellow trapper on the Santa Fe Trail. As the migration progresses Breck’s quest for justice is waylaid early and often by his obligations to the settlers, who desperately need his experience to guide them across rivers, down canyons, and through interminable desert heat. All the while Flack and Lopez, with the help of itinerant sleaze Thorpe (Ian Keith), conspire to end Breck Coleman before he has the opportunity to end them.

The biggest issue with The Big Trail for most modern viewers will undoubtedly be its politics, particularly with regards to Native Americans. However accurate to the times the film’s events may be, it’s become increasingly difficult (and rightly so) to sympathize with white trailblazers when they earn the violent ire of a tribe or two for trespassing. The concept of Manifest Destiny has become problematic enough in its own right, of course, and the thought that anyone has any sort of God-given right to conquer a territory and subjugate its people is worse than preposterous anymore.

Despite its troublesome as its politics The Big Trail remains an undeniably impressive show. Hell-bent on convincing a Depression-era film-going public that their 70mm widescreen Grandeur process was the next necessary evolution in film, Fox Film Corp. pumped no end of resources into the production of the picture. The most startling, stunning aspect of the production is the fact that the vast majority of it was filmed on location. Rather than rely on process work and second unit background plates Fox literally took their show on the road, allowing their substantial credited cast and even more substantial fleet of extras to play pioneer with breathtaking natural scenery serving as the backdrop. Special effects are practical on a scale that begs belief at times – the precipitous lowering of covered wagons, people, livestock and supplies down steep canyon walls is done, and in harrowing fashion, for real. One gets a sense that this was a hellish production even before the oddball shooting format and live audio recording (the handful of looped lines are painfully obvious) are taken into account, what with thousands of props, animals, and people to wrangle about on location for what must have been endless takes (aside from two English editions, in 70mm Grandeur and flat 35mm, there were alternate 35mm German, Spanish and Italian versions, each with their own cast, filmed simultaneously), but all that work pays off in spades. Westerns just don’t come much bigger than this.

And a big part of The Big Trail‘s big appeal is that aforementioned shooting format – this was one of just a handful of pictures photographed in Fox’s proprietary 70mm Grandeur process, and must have been a real novelty for those few who were able to see it projected as such upon release (there couldn’t have been too many of them, as only Grauman’s Chinese and New York’s Roxy Theatre were equipped to play the format at the time). Despite their inexperience with the format both director Raoul Walsh and director of photography Arthur Edeson (Lucien N. Andriot, credited above, served as DP for the standard 35mm version) take to it quite naturally, particularly during the large-scale action setups. Dialogue scenes can appear a bit too static at times (the shear heft of the 70mm cameras was prohibitive to movement) and there are occasional freshman issues with how to focus important action in the frame (like a secondary character entering or leaving), but Walsh and Edeson get it right more than they get it wrong. There’s a convincing documentary verisimilitude to The Big Trail‘s expansive depictions of life during the great Westward migration, and in its action the film can appear considerably more modern than its age might imply.

With full knowledge of what he would go on to become, it’s fascinating to see an impossibly young John Wayne feeling his way through his first starring role. Still, his performance is only one of many that makes the film so interesting for the classic film fan. Tyrone Power Sr. makes a huge impression as Flack, a grungy behemoth whose evil disposition seems to seep from his rotten teeth outward. Power, a silent film veteran, might have proven himself a formidable character player in the early sound era were it not for a fatal heart attack in late 1931 – The Big Trail was his only sound performance. DeMille regular Ian Keith (The Crusades) is appropriately slick as Thorpe, a perennial louse who looks to take the compulsory love interest (Marguerite Churchill, offering a very good performance in her own right) by hook or by crook. Best of them all is Tully Marshall, here cast as Wayne’s charismatic old trapper pal Zeke. A popular character actor from the middle teens until his death in 1943, Marshall here exhibits a raw energy that reminds wonderfully of Walter Houston. One wonders where he found it – The Big Trail was just one of the twelve films to credit him in 1930 alone.

Long available in its shorter Academy ratio 35mm variant only, the full 70mm version of The Big Trail was only recently restored, and made rounds on TV and at revival screenings before eventually seeing release on DVD from 20th Century Fox in 2008. With the advent of Blu-ray I started itching for a taste of this ’30s widescreen anachronism in high definition, and Fox have finally delivered, albeit with a release that is, for now at least, a Walmart exclusive.

I’ve no doubt that the same HD masters sourced for the 2008 DVD issue were also sourced for this Blu-ray edition, but the boost in resolution and texture suits them very well. Fox present The Big Trail in both its 122 minute 70mm (1080p at a ratio of 2.10:1) and 108 minute 35mm (1080p at a ratio of 1.20:1) versions, and those with appropriate expectations should be very pleased. There’s a lot of damage in evidence across both versions, though most obviously in the 70mm, which suffers from no end of persistent emulsion scratches – the included screenshots give a good indication of what to expect. Still, I didn’t find it to be at all untoward for a lesser-known effort more than 80 years old. Otherwise the 70mm versions looks very good, with tight contrast and healthy detail. In motion this image really pops, and the grain, though a bit clunkier than on might expect from a later Fox transfer, goes blessedly unmolested. The 35mm variant has a more diffuse appearance, but can still look mighty impressive – perhaps the most amusing revelation of its inclusion is that the expository intertitles are actually different across the two cuts! Technical specs are strong if not exactly earth-shattering. The two cuts (totaling just shy of 4 hours) are spread across a dual layer BD50, with the MPEG-4 AVC-encoded video receiving an average bitrate of 22.0 Mbps (with peaks up to 40.0 Mbps) in both cases. For The Big Trail this appears to be more than good enough, and I noted no distracting artifacts either in playback or upon closer examination.

Audio is… well… it is what it is. The Big Trail was recorded live and on location with precious little looping in post, and the limitations of early sound technology are obvious throughout. Dialogue is frail and occasionally unintelligible, and those expecting the expansion in depth that often accompanies HD tracks may be disappointed. But expectations are everything, and while the lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic audio for The Big Trail never sounds good by any estimation, it also never sounds any worse than it should. Unlike their Twilight Time-licensed titles, Fox have included the usual slate of subtitles here – all optional, in English SDH, Spanish, and French.

Supplements appear to duplicate those of the 2008 DVD (except for the image galleries, which only appear on the included DVD, which in turn only includes the 70mm cut of the film), and while there’s nothing new here I’ll take it all the same. The Big Trail arrives on Blu-ray with a feature commentary track from historian Richard Schickel (70mm version only) and a selection of featurettes, all in SD: The Big Vision – The Grandeur Process (12 minutes), The Creation of John Wayne (14 minutes,), Raoul Walsh: A Man in His Time (13 minutes), and The Making of The Big Trail (13 minutes). The two discs come packaged in an eco-friendly 2-disc Blu-ray case, with some not-so-subtle attention paid to ensuring that buyers know exactly who the star of the show is.

The Big Trail is a pretty good film in its own right, but that it was produced in 70mm widescreen decades in advance of that format’s popularity make it an absolute must-see for those large format aficionados out there. 20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray presentation is as good as I might ever have reasonably expected, and for the $16 it ran me I’m not complaining. Good stuff, and highly recommended!

122 minute 70mm Fox Grandeur (2.10:1) version

108 minute 35mm (1.20:1) version

Screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Bite the Bullet

dir. Richard Brooks
1975 / Columbia Pictures / 132′
written by Richard Brooks
director of photography Harry Stradling Jr.
original music by Alex North
starring Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Ben Johnson, Ian Bannen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Mario Arteaga, and Dabney Coleman
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Bite the Bullet
 is out on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and is available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront.

If ever there were a film thematically befitting the Twilight Time label, Richard Brooks’ epic ode to a dying West is it. Like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch before it 1975′s Bite the Bullet occupies a time and place of fading, in which the majesty and thrill of the old West is wrangled for cheap spectacle and circulation boosting by way of a turn of the century newspaper-financed 700 mile endurance horse race. With a $2,000 prize on the line, and substantially more bet on the side, the event brings out all types, from a aging cowboys and fresh young upstarts to a former prostitute and a pair of Teddy’s own Rough Riders, but as the miles drag on it becomes obvious that the contestant’s various personal stakes amount to a sight more than a stack of bills and a name in the paper.

Central to the story is the enigmatic Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman), a veteran of San Juan Hill who is hired as deliveryman for the paper’s champion horse, but fired from the team when his respect for the creatures leaves him late for the delivery. Initially wanting no part of a ‘gut-busting, back-twisting, man-killing goddamn race’ Clayton eventually signs on, leaving his own motivations unclear and joining the roster of fortune-hunters and glory-seekers as an independent. As the race winds on, one 100-mile stretch at a time, Clayton’s path intersects with those of the other contestants – including fellow Rough Rider Luke Matthews (James Coburn!), a gambler who has bet more than he can pay on his own chances, an Englishman (Ian Bannen) with a taste for American sport, and a Mexican (Mario Arteaga) with one mother of a tooth ache, the solution to which provides the film with its title.

Bite the Bullet‘s under-celebrated director Richard Brooks had already proven himself on such contemporary classics as Elmer Gantry, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Professionals and In Cold Blood by the time the 1970′s rolled around, and his work here is typically excellent. The events surrounding the race are purported with documentary precision, while the race itself is granted an almost mythic significance through a few deliciously calculated flourishes and a deft, spare usage of overcranking. The latter makes an indelible mark midway through the film, presenting one ambitious young rider’s futile effort to achieve his goal (to catch up to the front runner even as his own horse dies of exhaustion) with a nightmarish efficacy.

As important to his capacities as a director are Brooks’ considerable – and proven – talents as a writer (Brooks pulled double duty on the four films mentioned above, earning an Oscar nod in each instance and ultimately winning for Elmer Gantry), and his screenplay for Bite the Bullet is sharp and incisive stuff, both in its dialogue and its characterizations. From an early scene of Clayton saving a young colt to a stirring turn by Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch) as the nameless Mister, an elderly cowboy who reaches the end of his line in as eloquent a fashion as has ever been seen on film, Bite the Bullet is positively alive with poignant humanity, making it more an epic of character than of action (though there’s certainly some of that as well). The quality of the film’s writing is only made more impressive once the circumstances of it are known – as elucidated in Julie Kirgo’s typically fine essay, Brooks wrote much of the screenplay on the go, with the substantial cast initially working from a 20-page treatment. As such it was not uncommon for the actors to receive their lines just the night before shooting of a scene began!

It all works out, someway somehow, and the only real mistake of the picture – an impromptu bear attack rendered laughable by the mercifully brief appearance of a woefully inadequate man-in-suit – is a fleeting one. Amusingly, the film’s ace photographer Harry Stradling Jr. (1776, Little Big Man) would find himself embroiled in bear antics far more bizarre just a few years later, when he filmed John Frankenheimer’s oddball mutant monster picture Prophecy. While I’m unsure of how contemporary audiences received the film, it certainly played well to critics of the time. Bite the Bullet would go on to earn two Oscar nods, for its exceptional sound design and for Alex North’s (Dragonslayer) jaunty genre score, but lose on both counts to a little film called Jaws.

Don’t let the ruddy Columbia logo at the start of this one fool you, as Bite the Bullet is another worthy addition to the ever-growing pantheon of quality Sony Pictures restorations. This is a tremendous looking show, lensed in 35mm Panavision and granted a rustic, somewhat desaturated palette that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. Contrast is deep and detail strong throughout the feature, and damage is kept to a minimum – a few specks are noticeable here or there, but little else. The natural texture, a finer grain than one might find in anamorphic productions from just a decade before, is properly retained – this is another digital transfer that looks and feels like film. Sony’s restoration team have again left me with no room to complain.

The same might be said of Twilight Time, who have mastered their release to the robust specifications that have become their norm. Bite the Bullet‘s 2.35:1 1080p image receives a healthy Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps – the feature and audio are spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, occupying a hair under 40 GB all told. Artifacting is again of no concern, proving so negligible as to go unnoticed by this reviewer, and the textures of the image (both those photographed and inherent to the medium itself) are precisely rendered. This is a very strong presentation, well in advance of SD capabilities, and another fine addition to Twilight Time’s limited edition series.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the Image Magick command line tool.

If the IMDB is to be believed, then Bite the Bullet was originally a monophonic show (certainly nothing strange for a film produced in the middle seventies). Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition presents only a remixed 5.1 surround option, albeit one that sounds very good in lossless DTS-HD MA. While it’s a pity that the Academy Award-nominated original mix goes unrepresented, I’m hard pressed to complain about the results here. Effects are rich and sound of the appropriate vintage (I’d never seen the film until now, so any alterations thereof are lost on me), and Alex North’s stereo-recorded score is utterly brilliant. As expected of Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed releases, a set of optional English SDH subtitles is included.

Supplements are as expected, and nothing more. Alex North’s score is represented beautifully by way of its own isolated lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track, while an original theatrical trailer (HD) rounds out the on-disc content. This is a fully-functional disc (another new norm for Twilight Time, and welcome), complete with 11 non-generic chapter stops and an easily accessible pop-up menu. The package itself is wonderfully designed, and a major improvement over the awful generic look of Sony’s earlier (and pan-and-scanned) DVD, and is rounded off with the keen liner notes mentioned earlier in this review – the licenses to the films themselves excepted, author Julie Kirgo may well be Twilight Time’s most valuable asset.

Mark Bite the Bullet down as another film I’d likely never have taken the time to see had Twilight Time not intervened – for allowing me to see it for the first time in such a splendid edition I really can’t thank the label enough. The film is a wonderful achievement on its own terms, worth watching if only as a showcase for Richard Brooks’ superior screenwriting, and Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray does it proper justice to say the least. Both get an easy recommendation from me.

Rio Lobo

Year: 1970   Company: Malabar Productions   Runtime: 114′
Director: Howard Hawks   Writers: Burton Wohl, Leigh Brackett   Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Music: Jerry Goldsmith   Cast: John Wayne, Jorge Rivera, Christopher Mitchum, Jennifer O’Neill, Jack Elam,
Victor French, Susana Dosamantes, Sherry Lansing, David Huddleston, Mike Henry, Bill Williams, Jim Davis
Disc company: Paramount, CBS Home Ent.   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 English,
DTS-HD MA 2.0 English, DTS-HD MA 1.0 Spanish, DTS-HD MA 1.0 German, DTS-HD MA 1.0 Castellano,
DTS-HD MA 1.0 French   Subtitles: English SDH, Castellano, Danish, German, Spanish, French, Dutch, Norsk, Finnish, Swedish   Disc: BD25   Release Date: 05/31/2011   Available for order now through Amazon.com

Rio Lobo isn’t the first John Wayne film to find its way to high definition, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it is the first that this Blu-ray enthusiast has had the opportunity to see.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’d never so much as heard of Rio Lobo before happened upon it on the Target new releases rack, and a more familiar title like True Grit or Stagecoach may have proven a better starting point.  But the quadruple-draw of Wayne, director Howard Hawks, Technicolor, and a $10 price tag rendered this one irresistible in the moment, and I can’t say that I was disappointed.

Just after the Civil War draws to a close Yankee Colonel Cord McNally catches up to a pair of Confederate train robbers (Jorge Rivero and Christopher Mitchum) whom he had earlier captured, and convinces them to help him track down the treasonous Union soldiers who helped them with the capers – one of which left McNally’s closest friend dead.  Along the way they decide to help a young woman victimized by the corrupt officials of the eponymous desert town, only to discover that the men running Rio Lobo are the very same conspirators they’ve been searching for…

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Riders of the Whistling Skull

Year: 1937   Runtime: 53′   Director: Mack V. Wright
Writers: Oliver Drake, John Rathmell, Bernard McConville   Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Music: Harry Grey   Cast: Robert Livingston, Ray Corrigan, Max Terhune,
Mary Russell, Roger Williams, C. Montague Shaw

The archaeologist father (John Van Pelt) of a gal named Betty Marsh (Mary Russell) has disappeared on an expedition to find a lost Indian city in the American South West. Just when Betty and a few friends of her father’s – all Professors of something or other, it seems – are beginning to set out on a search expedition for him, Professor Marsh’s partner in archaeology stumbles in and gasps something about having located and hidden (read: stolen from the native people it belongs to) a gold treasure guarded by “the whistling skull”, and him and Marsh having been captured by a “cult of Indians”. Before the man can get into more details, somebody extinguishes the lights in the windowless room all this has taken place in and knifes him in the back with a sacrificial dagger. Looks like not everyone in the room is a friend of Professor Marsh. But hey, at least the dead guy was carrying a coded map to the good Professor’s place of captivity.

Betty isn’t too impressed by one little murder and decides to go through with her search expedition anyway. She also has found some steadfast friends to help her through any physical troubles, three upright – or as upright as a group of people that includes a guy traveling with a ventriloquist doll can be – cowboys known as the Three Mesquiteers (Robert Livingston, Ray Corrigan, Max Terhune). Now, there’s only the knifing traitor among the expedition and the small problem of the evil cult to deal with.

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The White Buffalo

company: Dino De Laurentiis Company
year: 1977
runtime: 97′
director: J. Lee Thompson
cast: Charles Bronson, Will Sampson,
Jack Warden, Clint Walker,
Kim Novak
writer: Richard Sale
cinematography: Paul Lohmann
music: John Barry
Order this film from Amazon.com

A syphilitic Wild Bill Hickok (Charles Bronson) returns from his showbiz career to the West to fight against destiny. Hickock is plagued by a recurring nightmare about battling a gigantic white buffalo (that looks very much like the mechanical construct it is) on a snowy, disquietingly artificial looking plateau. He usually wakes up from the dream with guns blazing. Hickock believes that his dream enemy really exists and that he has to find and kill it or be doomed in some inexplicable way.

The gunman has too much of a history in the West, and so uses the pseudonym of James Otis, but he can’t help meeting old enemies like Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter) or his former love Poker Jenny (Kim Novak), saying goodbye to various parts of his old life in one way or the other.

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