Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Jack Peabody, Mary Boyle, and Florence Postal
With John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, and Tyrone Power Sr.
Rating: *** A must-see
By Fred Camper
Constant experimentation characterized the first three decades of American narrative filmmaking. The one-reeler evolved into the feature; both color tinting and early attempts at natural color were used; different kinds of sound accompaniment were tried throughout the silent period. Both the size and the shape of the screen were varied; in some films the image became square, in others it grew wider. The CinemaScope of the 1950s was not Hollywood's first foray into wide-screen.
At the beginning of the sound era, in 1930, several studios, seeing that theater owners were willing to reequip their movie houses for sound, reasoned that they might also buy wide-screen projection equipment of the studios' own design. Fox introduced the Grandeur process, in which the image was photographed on 70-millimeter film rather than the standard 35-millimeter. The Big Trail, one of the few Grandeur films, was shot in two versions, 35-millimeter as well as 70-millimeter, because Fox knew that not all theaters would be equipped for the new process. As it turned out, few theater owners bought into wide-screen, and The Big Trail was shown in Grandeur only in New York and Los Angeles. But the wide-screen version has recently been restored, and although the sound track isn't always intelligible, the film's unique response to wide-screen makes its Chicago premiere June 18 and 19 at the Film Center well worth seeing.
To a viewer accustomed to Hollywood product of the last 40 years, it is likely to seem a very odd film even for 1930. One of Hollywood's first sound westerns, it focuses on the familiar story of a wagon train journeying west. The young John Wayne (in this film director Raoul Walsh gave him his first starring role) had not yet developed the ringingly self-certain personality for which he was later famous; here he displays an almost awkward youthfulness that is somewhat endearing. Another part of the film's oddity results from the sparseness of the plot. Wayne plays a trail guide, and there are three bad guys, some Indians, and the leading-lady love interest; but we shift abruptly from one character to the next, and none is really developed.
Another part of the film's oddness doubtless stems from Walsh's response to wide-screen and sound. Few directors knew quite how to respond to sound at first. It introduced a whole new theatrical element and major technological changes; the early sound cameras were less mobile, for example. Some of the oddest, and worst, of the early sound films were made by New York theater directors whose camera remained mindlessly immobile in front of actors playing as if on a stage. Although at times Walsh's film has echoes of this style, the presence and meaning that he gives to empty space in The Big Trail make it about as close as Hollywood has ever come to creating a genuinely abstract film.
By the mid-1930s the industry had perfected and codified a style that, despite significant shifts from decade to decade, would dominate film (and later, television) up to the present day. The camera identifies itself with the physical presence, movements, and very existence of the characters. The space of the movie is congruent with the space of the drama, and all of the backgrounds, landscapes, and room interiors act largely as additional players in that drama. For example, the huge mansion of Citizen Kane is primarily a metaphor for the empty grandiosity of Kane himself. Camera movement, editing, and (more recently) zooming follow the body movement of the character most central to the action. One result is that the actors' presences become dominant; the larger-than-life stars loom like recurring fantasy images before the spectator's eyes. Another is that the world external to the dramatic conflicts between the characters--landscape, urban space, history--is seen as having no existence independent of them. Hollywood's historical epics, for example, have always been constructed as if the great movements of nations and civilizations hinged on a particular, often melodramatic, relationship between two individuals. Walsh's The Big Trail offers a stunning exception to this reigning tradition. Perhaps because he was working in the then-uncharted territory of sound and wide-screen Walsh felt freer to experiment stylistically than he did in later years. Editing in The Big Trail is used mostly for necessary changes of location; the wide-screen image rendered matched cutting largely unnecessary. In the matched cut, the image suddenly changes to a different angle within the same scene. In effect we are told that no time has elapsed, because the actors' positions "match" those of the previous shot. Such editing naturally focuses attention on the actors' bodies and body movements. There are almost no such cuts in The Big Trail. Instead, Walsh has the same reaction to 70-millimeter that later directors had to CinemaScope, introduced 23 years later. In widescreen, cutting can seem abrupt and even jarring; the big image has been thought best suited to the long take, to action developing within a single shot. The Big Trail carries this to an extreme that may seem almost bizarre today: we get one endless landscape tableau after another, with characters playing to the usually immobile camera almost like actors on a stage.
Further, the film's strangely static visual sense disrupts any dramatic tension in the plot. It is true that the overall narrative follows an arc, that it eventually resolves the conflict between Wayne's character and the bad guys, whether Wayne will get the girl, and the big question of whether the wagon train will reach its destination. But scene by scene, there is a remarkable lack of continuity. Narrative events don't immediately lead, with the feeling of inevitability common to the modern film, to new situations. Instead, an incident occurs, and the situation thus raised is allowed to recede, only to abruptly recur four or five scenes later. Walsh's camera tends to observe everything before it with equal emphasis. He places important dialogue and action in the foreground to be sure, but the powerful presence of the landscape is felt at every moment. Given the sketchiness of the plot and the omnivorous neutrality of the camera, this is hardly a film of character psychology. In Howard Hawks's 1948 Red River, an older John Wayne, as the near-insane boss of an epic cattle drive, creates a far more complex persona. In the Hawks film, every piece of landscape, every cow, is ultimately a metaphor for the Wayne character's megalomania, his desire to seize and conquer all before him. In The Big Trail, Wayne's animated but considerably flatter performance and his relatively unformed personality seem appropriate to the episodic story, in which the camera never gets inside any of the characters.
In this film, the almost antidramatic construction and the lack of depth in the characters cause the viewer to focus on the imagery. A great variety of different terrains appear (the film was shot on location in a number of western states). In some long shots, nearly endless lines of wagons surrounded by clouds of dust stretch far into the background of the image. Vast panoramas spread out behind characters in the foreground, so that one always senses the wagon train's extreme vulnerability. In the film's most spectacular set piece, not in the original script but added by Walsh on location, wagons and animals are lowered down a steep cliff by ropes.
The result is that the film creates a sense of the west as a vast, unconquerable, inhuman space, a land that can be traversed by humans with the requisite equipment and skills, but never truly occupied by them. Significantly, although the train reaches its destination at the film's end, we do not see the characters begin to civilize the land by building a settlement, a scene common to many westerns. And at one point in their journey, an Indian tribe allows the travelers safe passage through tribal lands only on the condition that none of them try to settle there.
The oddly meditative quality of Walsh's long takes, the curious lack of a dominant narrative tension controlling the film's space, and the oddly disjunct tableau-to-tableau editing combine to make a statement quite different from that of the typical Hollywood film. Walsh has given us a rare vision of nature, one that is not man-centered; his film is permeated with a powerful, mysterious sense of an always-looming, weighty, abstracted empty space. His images, with their emphasis on landscape as texture rather than on landscape as geography or as human character, produce in sum a kind of mental image of a weighty mass, like the surface of a rock, or of the ground, or even of the dust-filled air. This mass is also empty, in the sense of being devoid of detail, a true metaphor for trackless wilderness. It is this emptiness that our civilization has devoted itself to filling, both materially and mentally. Perhaps only an early Hollywood pioneer--Walsh began his directing career in 1914--could give us a vision of America before it was covered with interstates, and more significantly, of space itself before a soon-to-be-dominant Hollywood style would make it subservient to the personalities of actors.