11 June 2008

What a trip

I start with a confession: Until a few days ago I'd never heard of a movie called The Big Trail. Today I'm about ready to rank it among my all time favorites.
This hidden gem was only recently released on DVD. The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh, was released in 1930 and promptly flopped at the box office.
The movie follows a mid 19th century wagon train heading west from Missouri. An impossibly young looking John Wayne is the head scout in his first starring role. The journey is peopled by a disparate group of settlers who add to the requisite color of great westerns. But the real star of this movie is the scenery. The Big Trail is vast in scope. Great horizons, majestic vistas, forbidding deserts, regal snow capped mountains and seemingly endless prairies. The Big Trail is simply gorgeous.
But how could such a film be made in 1930 so many years before even Vista Vision?
With the ill-fated grandeur process, that's how. ( Don't worry, I hadn't heard of it either.) The Big Trail was shot simultaneously in the standard 35mm of the time and a 70mm that is the equal of today's high definition process. Grandeur was ultimately the victim of the Great Depression as theaters couldn't afford to convert their projectors and projection rooms to suit the grandeur technology. What a shame.
As one of the talking heads on the DVD's making of featurette said, The Big Trail seems every bit as much a documentary as it does a rollicking tale of fiction. Indeed, the cast and crew lived the conditions they filmed in numerous locales covering seven different states. I've never seen a Western that seemed so authentic. Some movies make you feel as if you've been transported to a time and place, none more so than the Big Trail. Each shot tells numerous stories. The characters and their struggles, tragedies and triumphs, the animals, the wagons and mother nature.
I honestly didn't follow much of the story line with my first viewing, I just enjoyed the ride. Ands I'm quite certain I enjoyed it a darn sight better than people who actually embarked on such trips, whether to fulfill this country's Manifest Destiny, or to make a movie about it.
Now, I wonder what else is out there that I still haven't heard of.

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