The Big Trail: A Big Western Shot on Big Film

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is not by any stretch of the imagination a great film. But it’s fascinating, historically unique, and beautiful to look at. I caught it Sunday night at the Pacific Film Archive. I’d seen it before–on Turner Classic Movies–but this was my first Big Trail big screen experience. It deserves the big screen.

Three factors make The Big Trail historically significant. First, it was an unsuccessful attempt to revive the big-budget epic western–a blockbuster sub-genre that enjoyed large but brief popularity in the mid-1920s. Second, it was shot and originally shown in a widescreen, 70mm format 25 years before such things really caught on. And finally, it was John Wayne’s first starring role.

The Epic Western

There was no difference between a western and a B western until The Covered Wagon added production value and sweep to the genre in 1923. It was a smash. So were several follow-up films, including John Ford’s first A picture, The Iron Horse. But audiences soon tired of big westerns, and the genre returned to its low-budget roots.

In 1929-1930, Fox decided that with talkies firmly in place, it was time to revive the epic western–this time with audible dialog. Box office results easily proved the company wrong.

image

Fox Grandeur

But that wasn’t the only bad idea Fox had in 1929. The company also decided that if one technical gimmick (sound) can sell tickets, two could sell more. So they developed Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format with a frame more than twice the size of standard 35mm, with an aspect ratio of more than 2×1.

This sort of thing would not become common until the mid-1950s.

The result is beautiful and spectacular. Covered wagons, herds of cattle, and breath-taking scenery fill the screen almost constantly. In the movie’s most stunning sequence, wagons, cows, luggage, and people are lowered via pulleys down a cliff–all done without special effects.

imageWalsh and cinematographer Lucien Andriot show an instinctive understanding of the large, wide screen–all the more surprising considering that no one had done this before or would do it again for almost 25 years. And since The Big Trail was in black and white, very few ever did it like this again.

Few theaters converted to Grandeur (the movie was simultaneously shot in 35mm, adding to the high budget), making the widescreen version difficult to show. In the 1980s, Fox and MOMA preserved the picture, printing it in anamorphic, Cinemascope-compatible 35mm, pillarboxed to the right aspect ratio.

Sunday night, the PFA screened an archival print of this preservation. It clearly came from a heavily-scratched source, and some image quality was lost with the optical printing process required to reduce and squeeze the image. The result was flawed, but still spectacular. Unless someone puts up the money for an 8K digital restoration, this as good as The Big Trail will ever again look.

John Wayne

Fox must have felt they didn’t have a star for this story, so they took a chance on Marion "Duke" Morrison, a young college football imagestar who was working at the studio in menial jobs and occasional extra work. Someone, and there’s controversy about who it was, changed the new actor’s name to John Wayne.

At this point in his career, Wayne wasn’t much of an actor. His inconsistent line readings sometimes ring laughably false. But even with these faults, he’s an easy-going and likable presence on screen.

To be fair, the rest of the cast sounds stilted and false, as well. There was probably little they could do with the corny script. The dialog mostly reeks, and the three villains are so broadly drawn and played that they might as well have worn signs that read "Bad Guy."

The climax was about as exciting as a dishwasher’s last cycle.

I’m glad I’ve finally seen The Big Trail theatrically. If you care about the evolution of the Western, or about the history of movie technology, it’s a must. But if you’re just looking for a good movie, there are better choices.

The PFA screened The Big Trail as part of their series, A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh. Walsh made better movies, and several of them are coming up in the series.

A Case for Silverado as a Great Western

Before he became the auteur of mediocre drameties like Darling Companion, Lawrence Kasdan wrote or co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For his third directorial effort, Kasdan created another action entertainment gem–although an unfairly overlooked one: the neo-classic western Silverado.

Shot against beautiful New Mexico scenery, Silverado plays as great escapist action adventure–big, loud, rousing fun, entirely lacking in moral ambiguity. When a villain kills a man, it’s murder. When one of the four heroes does it, his action deserves cheers. Kasden and screenplay collaborator (and brother) Mark Kasden laced the script with memorable lines ("I don’t want to kill you, and you don’t want to be dead") and cues for audience applause. Bruce Broughton’s rousing musical score evokes adventure and the bigness of the West.

I’d be hard-pressed to think of another western so nakedly in love with the genre. The movie opens in quiet and dark, as the camera lovingly examines a saddle, gun, and silveradoother cowboy accessories in a tiny, unlit cabin. Sounds from outside–a hawk’s cry, horses–come quietly through the walls. Suddenly a gunfight breaks out–several men on the outside vs. the loner inside. With each shockingly loud gunshot, a new hole opens up the cabin wall, introducing a new shaft of sunlight. (Silverado is also nakedly in love with it’s visuals, and with the still-relatively-new Dolby Stereo.) As the victorious loner (Scott Glenn as Emmett–the first of Silverado’s four heroes) walks out the door, the camera follows, taking us from a dark and cramped interior into sunlit, wide-open spaces as the music swells.

Between that opening and the climatic gun duel in the deserted street, Kasden treats us to a wagon train crossing a river, two jail breaks, multiple gun fights, several horse stunts, a stampede, and a saloon staffed with women of easy virtue. It’s as much an homage to westerns as a western itself.

And yet, with all that going on, Silverado takes time to breathe. Compared to Kasdan’s work for George Lucas, the pace is downright casual. It takes nearly an hour of screen time for the four heroes to meet, team up, have a couple of comic adventures, and finally get to the town of Silverado, and the more serious story.

While the characters are far from realistic (no one in the west was that good a shot), they’re deeper and more engaging than any found in a Star Wars or Indiana Jones flick. There’s one man–I won’t say who plays him—who may or may not be a villain. You suspect that he probably is, but you’re not sure. Then he fires a thieving employee, and when the ex-employee pulls a gun on him, he shoots first and kills in self-defense. Totally justifiable acts. But the cruelty with which he fires the man, and the joy he seems to take in the killing, leave us with no doubt. He’s a bad guy.

But what about the good guys? Two of the heroes–the above-mentioned Emmett and Danny Glover’s Mal, are iconic cowboys who seldom speak but know right from wrong. Mal is the more interesting of the two, partially because of Glover’s talent and charisma, but also because he’s a black man in an overwhelmingly white world. (Yes, I know, the frontier wasn’t overwhelmingly white, but Silverado is about the movie west, not the real one.) He conveys a great deal without talking. There’s a moment when, upon hearing of a heinous crime and people in trouble, he silently sighs and climbs onto his horse without saying a word. It’s a quietly commanding moment.

The picture deals with Mal’s race quickly and efficiently. In his first scene, he’s menaced by racists. After that, the issue is never raised again. Not historically accurate, but dramatically effective.

Kasden regular Kevin Kline plays Paden, who seems almost too urban to be a cowboy. A gambler and former outlaw, he sees everything as luck (good or bad), and it "only truly happy" in a saloon.

And it’s in Silverado’s saloon that he meets the picture’s most interesting character, Stella, played by the diminutive (4’9") Linda Hunt. In a world of tall men, decent wives, and dancehall girls, she fits no assigned role yet has found the perfect niche. She runs the town’s saloon with strength, determination, and good will. Stella and Paden hit it off immediately–not as lovers, but has very close friends. It becomes the most endearing relationship in the picture, and Hunt’s performance stands with Thomas Mitchell’s in Stagecoach amongst the great supporting parts in westerns.

Which brings us to the last of the four heroes: Jake–Emmett’s kid brother and yet another variation on that reoccurring western character, The Kid. A young, not-yet-famous Kevin Costner plays him as a happy, immature, post adolescent just bursting with energy. In his first scene, in jail, he swings on the bars like a monkey while explaining why he was arrested. I can’t help wondering how Costner’s career would have turned out if Silverado had been the success it deserved to be.

So why didn’t Silverado succeed commercially? I suspect that 1985 was a bad year to release a western. The cultural changes of the 1960s killed the classic western, replacing it as the decade ended with revisionist works like The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. These soon lost their audience, and by the mid ’70s, the western was for all intents and purposes dead. 1985 was too soon for a joyous, upbeat revival.

I consider Rio Bravo the most entertaining western ever made, but Silverado comes in a decent second. (For what it’s worth, Rio Bravo screenwriter Leigh Bracket wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, Kasden finished it.) Both lack the mythic power of John Ford, the dark humor of Sergio Leone, or the sad beauty of McCabe. But they’re as fun as this always-entertaining genre gets.

Why I Can’t Quite Call Unforgiven One of the Great Westerns

I first saw Unforgiven soon after its 1992 release. Everyone else was calling it a masterpiece, but I was deeply disappointed. Last Saturday, no longer remembering clearly why I didn’t like it,  I saw it again.

Now I view it in much the same way as Apocalypse Now. For most of its runtime, it is an absolutely brilliant motion picture. But it falls apart at the end.

In some ways, its collapse is worse than Apocalypse Now‘s, because it’s a cop-out. The ending is too much like a conventional western. The blame goes to writer David Webb Peoples–as I understand it, it was shot as he wrote it–and director Clint Eastwood, who didn’t insist on changing it.

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Unforgiven. The rest of this post contains spoilers.

For most of the film’s runtime, it brilliantly critiques and deconstructs the western genre. Violence is ugly, painful, and cruel. Even more so if the violence results in death. "It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man," says Eastwood’s character,  Will Munny. "You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have."

More than any other character, Munny represents everything false about the westernunforgiven_1 myth. Once a cruel and violent outlaw, usually drunk, he’s been reformed by a good woman. When we meet him, he’s a widower, a father of two young children, a tea-totaller, and a struggling pig farmer. He’s also, quite clearly, no longer a competent killer. Using a pistol, he can’t shout a paint can from a few paces.

Nevertheless, he teams up with old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young, inexperienced, near-sighted braggart calling himself "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute. Munny tells himself that the cowboys have it coming, but he’s done worse himself. He’s after the reward.

The bulk of the movie follows these three killers, as well as the sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman) maintaining the peace by bullying others. Of course, if he had properly handled those cowboys in the first place, the peace would not have been threatened.

Peoples and Eastwood make the themes clear. Violence is horrible and solves nothing. Western gunfights were never like the heroic, romanticized versions. There are no happy endings.

They also make it clear that Munny is no longer able to do this sort of work, and because he is sober, he no longer wants to.

The film is a masterpiece…up until the point where a prostitute, paying off Munny and the Kid for killing the cowboys, tells them that the sheriff has killed Ned Logan. Then everything falls apart.

Munny grabs a bottle of whisky and starts drinking. He rides into town, confronts the sheriff and a large posse. When his shotgun misfires, he pulls out his six-shooter, shoots the sheriff, and then kills enough deputies to convince the others to run away. Then he safely leaves town.

In other words, Peoples and Eastwood give Unforgiven a conventional, happy ending. unforgiven_2True, it’s shot to look uglier than usual, but its still about the hero killing a lot of bad guys. It violates everything the film has said about the west up until that moment, as well as everything we know about Will Munny. Yes, the whiskey could have loosened his inhibitions, restoring his violent disposition. But the whiskey could not have improved his hand/eye coordination, turning him from a bad shot to a great one.

Forgiven deserves a better ending, and Will Munny, as a character, deserved a worse one. I can imagine two preferable ways this picture should have closed:

  1. Munny kills the sheriff, then his deputies shoot down Munny like a dog.
  2. When Munny hears that the sheriff has killed his friend (which, let’s face it, is no worse than anything Munny has done), he should have just rode away, feeling bad.

Those endings would not have been as commercially successful. But they would have kept the film’s promise.

SFIFF Report: Kanbar Awards: David Webb Peoples & Unforgiven

I started the day at the Kanbar Award presentation honoring screenwriter David Webb Peoples.

After an introduction and a selection of clips from his films (which include Bladerunner, Unforgiven, Hero, and 12 Monkeys, Peoples was interviewed on stage by novelist James Dalessando, an old friend of his.

A few notable Peoples comments:

  • Peoples started out wanting to write books. Then "I started seeing some of those great movies. I thought books are shit. Writings is shit. Everything is images. I worked as an editor at KQED. I had nothing but distain for the writers. Subsequently I got a job editing a picture. The script seemed to me pretty awful. I felt I could write better. I started writing screenplays. I got to love writing screenplays."
  • "I’ve always liked revisionist westerns. I wasn’t crazy about John Ford."
  • On directing (which he did once): "I didn’t get it so good. I had a good cast, a good crew, even had enough money. I realized my limitations."
  • On rewrites: "You should try to make it better, but if you can’t make it better, you shouldn’t make it worse.

Unforgiven

I remember being the only person who didn’t like it when it was new. Seeing it again, 20 years later, I still see it as flawed, but great, as well. The problem, and it’s a serious one, is that the climax throws away every brilliant thing that leads up to it. But until that climax, it’s one of the great westerns.

Clint Eastwood (who also directed) stars as William Muny, a once-horrible killer who gave up that life when he married a good woman. Now he’s a widower, a pig farmer, a tea-totaler, and a father of two young children. Desperate for money, he sets out with two companions on one more job: to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute, and now have a price on their head.

The picture is very much a critique and attack on the conventional western. People die badly. The picture makes abundantly clear that gunfights aren’t clear, and the winner isn’t the fastest draw, but the most cunning, the most aggressive, or the most lucky.

For most of the running time, this is one of the greatest westerns ever made. Everything falls into place–script, acting, sound, the aggressively not beautiful photography. It all comes together to say that the western as we know it is not only a lie, but a harmful one.

Then, at the end, it just blows it, violating everything that has gone before. I suppose a realistic ending, and one that would have fit into the film’s themes, would not have been as commercially successful.

The festival screened Unforgiven off of a Blu-ray disc, which is acceptable but not ideal. Since the film was shot in ‘scope, the Blu-ray was letterboxed. The image was considerably smaller than a scope 35mm print or DCP.

Cowboys, Aliens, and Original Blockbusters

I wanted to see Cowboys and Aliens as soon as I saw the advertising. Partly, it struck me as a cool idea. I also wanted to support any big-budget Hollywood summer movie that wasn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation from a TV show, best-selling novel, or comic book.

Besides, a new western is a rare treat these days, even one with such an outlandish gimmick. I was also intrigued by the artless, blunt “This is what we’re giving you” title. A big movie today needs a title that tells you what you’ll be seeing in no uncertain terms. Most do this simply by being part of a franchise. If the title starts with Spiderman or Harry Potter, you know what you’re getting. You also know what you’re getting with Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys and Aliens (or for that matter, with the only art-house film I know of with such a blunt title: Young People Fucking).

I don’t buy movie tickets because of a genre or title. My final decision came only after seeing the mostly-positive reviews. Unfortunately, other priorities kept me out of the theater while the movie became a flop—or at least a “disappointment.” I don’t know why C&A hasn’t drawn a bigger audience, but I know what conclusion the studio heads will make: It’s too dangerous to invest a big budget in a movie that isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation from a TV show, best-selling novel, or comic book.

I finally saw the movie yesterday afternoon, in a near-empty theater. This movie deserves better.

Cowboys and Aliens comes very close to being an excellent neo-classic western. I’m not just talking about the easy stuff, like dirt. The plot, especially in the first act, offers vague suggestions of Rio Bravo and other classics without going over the line into rip-off. From the first to the last shot, it shows considerable love and understanding of the entire genre.

The actors all have the right look, playing characters that walk that fine line between archetypes and fully-developed human beings that make Ford’s best work so impressive. Daniel Craig stars as the lone, quiet gunslinger who wanders into town. Harrison Ford is the rich cattle baron who runs the town that Craig’s character wanders into. You’ve got the hotshot kid (Paul Dano), the saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell), and the sheriff (Keith Carradine). All that’s lacking is the drunken doctor and the whore with the heart of gold.

But then the aliens attack, and it gets kind of silly. It’s still fun, both because the alien action scenes are well done, and because by then we’re invested in the characters. But I couldn’t help suspecting that the filmmakers wanted to make a western, but couldn’t get financing without adding aliens.

The aliens, of course, are evil, ugly, and utterly lacking in subtlety or characterization. While the movie takes from the best of westerns, its science fiction elements seem taken directly from the Big Book of Movie Clichés.

Yes, much of it is predictable (anyone who doesn’t realize that the little kid would use that knife in an important way has never seen a Hollywood movie). But that’s part of the fun of genre. Cowboys and Aliens handles one genre expertly, and the other passably. I give it a B.

John Wayne at Stanford

Two years ago this month, I wrote a post bemoaning the lack of respect John Wayne receives from Bay Area cinephiles.

Now the Stanford is running a John Wayne series with some of his best films–and some oddball choices. Among my favorite Wayne’s, it’s got Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Rio Bravo (but not Stagecoach). Among the less expected choices, it has The Greeen Berets (the second and least respected of his two films as a director) and the romantic comedy (yes, you read that right) Without Reservations.

The series closes on June 5 with an appropriate end-of-career double bill: True Grit, for which he won his only Oscar, and his last film, The Shootist. He was dying of cancer when he made The Shootist, about a gunfighter dying of cancer–a very personal film.

60′s Westerns SFIFF: Robert Redford & Sergio Leone

They keep dribbling out more news about the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival.

Last week, they announced that Robert Redford will receive the Peter J. Owens Award for acting. (No, Peter J. Owens wasn’t an actor; he was a philanthropist.) He’ll receive the award at a big, expensive, black-tie affair April 30. But the night before he’ll be at the Castro for Q&A and the premiere screening of a new, restored print of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

And that’s not the only western from the late 1960s getting a restoration premiere at the festival. On Sunday, May 3, at 12:30, they’re screening the newly-restored Once upon a Time in the West.  The fourth film in his Man With No Name trilogy (and yes, I intended that to sound ludicrous), he replaces Clint Eastwood with Charles Bronson this time, and adds Jason Robards and Henry Fonda to the mix. Fonda does one of his rare villains, and a very evil one at that.

The Big Country on the Big Screen

I finally saw The Big Country on the big screen last night–at the Rafael. I was wrong to give this sprawling, 1958, pacifistic western a B. This is A material.

This was the second of the Rafael’s three-part, weekend-long Academy Color Restorations series. Part 3, Jean Renoir’s The River, starts tonight at 7:00.

The restoration itself was a mixed bag. Most of the movie had that clear, color-punched look that the Technirama process–which used twice as much film per frame as standard 35mm–delivered in the original release prints. But significant chunks looked mediocre and sometimes worse, with bluish blacks, heavy grain, and even out-of-focus shots.

During the Q&A after the movie (more on that below), I asked, Academy Governor, film historian, and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron about the restoration in general, but not about the inconsistent image quality. He talked mainly about the difficulties in restoring from a Technirama source, since that format died decades ago. In answer to someone else’s question, he explained that the restoration was entirely photochemical for budgetary reasons, and that he wished they had had the money to restore it digitally.

So what about the movie, itself?

Although not well-enough known to warrant a digital restoration, it belongs among the great westerns, and is arguably the beginning of the anti-western sub-genre that blossomed a decade later. But unlike later anti-westerns, The Big Country has a real hero, albeit one whose courage comes in his refusal to behave by the code of the west. Gregory Peck plays James McKay, a sea captain who’s come west to marry his sweetheart, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful rancher. Captain McKay’s reluctance to prove his manhood soon runs foul of the locals, especially foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston in a rare supporting role). He also opposes his future father-in-law’s violent harassment of a far less wealthy competitor.

Visually, The Big Country is very much of its time. As with many major, widescreen period pieces of the 1950s, shot after shot emphasizes the bigness of everything, from vast landscapes to boulders to the thick steaks served at breakfast. Even the title emphasizes the largeness of the setting and story, although the multiple screenwriters wisely turned that title into a running joke.

After the film, Barron and director William Wyler’s daughter, Judy Wyler Sheldon, came on stage to talk a bit and answer questions. Sheldon recalled a feud her father had with Peck doing the shooting (they co-produced the film together). She talked about how the auturists rejected her father for the sin of being too versatile. She also mentioned her father’s pacifistic leanings, which also inspired his previous film, the Quaker Civil War drama Gentle Persuasion (which I’ve also yet to see on the big screen). “If he was still alive,” she added, referring to his opposition to war, “I know who he’d vote for.”

Second Thoughts on 3:10 to Yuma

On first viewing, I loved 3:10 to Yuma enough to give it an , despite a lot of problems I had with the last act. But the weeks went by, I’ve found myself more and more bothered with the movie’s inherent problems. So I’m officially downgrading it to a .

Don’t get me wrong; most of this picture is fantastic–easily the best new western I’ve seen in years. But as the movie works its way towards its climax, the story completely falls apart. It’s still fun on a simplistic, action-movie level, and even if it wasn’t, you’re held by the emotional investment you’ve already made in the characters by that time. But these characters keep doing stupid things, and if they didn’t keep doing stupid things, the story would resolve itself quickly and easily in a dramatically disappointing way.

The rest of this post is a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the movie, read at your own risk:

The problems start soon after the main characters arrive at Contention and check into a hotel room, when Ben Wade’s gang show up to rescue him.

  1. With the law looking down at him from a hotel window, Charlie Prince, the really bad guy in the gang, offers $200 to any townsman who kills a lawman. At that point, the lawmen have a strategic advantage and a legal right to shoot to kill. Prince’s brains should have been all over the ground before he finished talking.
  2. Three of the lawmen give up when they hear there’s a price on their head. They go out and surrender with their hands up, and get shot. Not a good idea–killing people who surrender in front of other people you hope will surrender.
  3. When Dan Evans takes Wade to the train, with everyone shooting at him, he neither covers Wade to make sure he doesn’t get away or use this man, whom the gang is trying to save; as a shield and hostage.
  4. And why does Wade just go along? If he wants to escape, he could just run the other way. If he wants to go peacefully, he could tell his gang to stop shooting.

The absurdities go on, but I won’t.

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