The Big Trail (1930)

Yesterday I got in a Blu-ray copy of The Big Trail, an early widescreen movie from 1930.  The Big Trail has quite a fascinating history behind it.  Starting in the late 1920s Hollywood began experimenting with widescreen and Technicolor, but the depression killed off interest in these technologies, especially widescreen because it required special theaters, screens and projectors.   The Big Trail was filmed from April to August in 1930 in black and white using both 70mm and 35mm cameras, creating two unique versions from different camera angles.  The whole production was also shot in five languages using different lineup of actors for each language.

Epic production doesn’t begin to describe the making of The Big Trail.  Seven different states were used for film locations, covering 4,300 miles, traveling in 123 baggage cars, with 93 principle actors, 2,000 extras at all the locations, 725 Indians from five tribes, 12 Indian guides, 22 cameramen, 1,800 cattle, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalo, 185 wagons and a production staff of 200.  And they had the wagon train do everything wagon trains did back in those pioneering days, cross rivers, get lowered down cliffs, blaze trails through timbered lands, cross deserts, climb mountains, survive snow storms.  All other wagon train movies since have been puny in scale.  The Big Trail was a very gigantic production, but it’s not as famous as Gone With the Wind from 1939.  That’s too bad, it should be better remembered.

I had to watch The Big Trail alone last night because none of my movie friends like old black and white films and I couldn’t convince them to give The Big Trail a try.  What a loss for them.  It’s a shame because as soon as I started up The Big Trail I was stunned by it’s beauty.  Old movies are in a square format and seeing this movie in widescreen format on my 56” HDTV made my heart ache.  If only this 70mm widescreen format had caught on in 1930.  All my favorite old films from the 1930s and 1940s would have been so much more grandeur looking.  And that’s what Fox called their experimental format, the “Fox Grandeur” process.  What if Grand Hotel had been widescreen, or The Maltese Falcon, or The Wizard of Oz, just imagine how more magnificent they would have been.

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[This screenshot is from Blu-ray.com – click for full size version]

Modern movie goers are used to high tech visual productions and when they see old movies, especially silent films and films from the 1930s, they think of them as primitive and crude, and often assume people of those days saw what we see today.  Their technology was older and less sophisticated, but the prints we have are old and in bad shape compared to the original pristine prints audiences viewed in their day.  Silent movie film goers didn’t see jerky prints with faded splotches and lines running through them.  They were sharp and vivid with wonderful contrast and the motion was as natural as modern films.  Sure the acting style is strange to us, but the acting style was normal to them.  It was great acting by the way they judged acting.

Old movies are being restored all the time now, especially for the Turner Classic Movie crowd and Blu-ray movie fans.  The restoration of The Big Trail is far from perfect, but I found it impressive to watch visually.  I expect someday that digital processing will clean up even more of these film defects, and created a print closer to the 1930 original.  For the most part the defects weren’t distracting.  A couple of times I thought it was raining because of the tiny scratches.

The Big Trail was an experiment in many ways, not only for the widescreen filming.  It was an early epic western about settlers crossing the country in a huge wagon train.  The Big Trail was the first starring role for John Wayne, but many of the actors were from Broadway, because it was an early talky and they needed actors that could project their voices to outdoor microphones.  Much of the dialog is stagey, and the cinematography is reminiscent of great silent films.  Yet, the sets and costumes look very realistic.  It would take another 60 years before citizens of the pioneering west looked so realistically dirty and grungy.  Plus the Indians were real.  Often the wagons were drawn by oxen and cattle rather than horses.

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The-Big-Trail-wide

[Click for full size versions.  From Blu-Ray.com]

Westerns weren’t this good for a long time, not until Stagecoach, ten years later.  Most westerns of that era were B movies, shot full of action, produced from very small budgets.  As I watched The Big Trail, I wondered how many people living in 1930 had once traveled across the country in a wagon train.  The heyday of the wagon train was from the 1840 to the 1860s, when the continental railroad was built.  It was possible that some of these pioneers were still alive to verify the realism of the film.  I wonder if any of them wrote about it?

Westerns today, 80 years later, often work hard to appear realistic and historical.  It seems like every decade has a different view on how the old west looked.  Just compare the two versions of True Grit.  There’s also a difference in how violence was portrayed.  In The Big Trail, John Wayne only kills one of the bad guys, and with a knife.  And the bad guys were on the hesitant and cowardly side, only willing to kill when no one was looking.  Nobody was a great shot either.  Today’s westerns have heroes that kill as many people as a mass murderer.

The Big Trail was an innocent portrayal of pioneers.  At one point the John Wayne character was telling a bunch of boys what all he learned from living with the Indians and one of the kids asked, “Did they teach you were papooses come from?”  That’s about as risqué as this movie got.  But it was realistic enough to show a woman nursing a baby.  And I thought the love conflict was reasonably sophisticated for a movie of its time.  The plot of The Big Trail was gentile and slow.  I’m not sure people only used to modern films would like it.  Modern audiences are addicted to fast action, fast dialog, and lots of plot twists.  I’ve seen The Big Trail three times now and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.  It’s a classic western, and a classic 1930s film, my two favorite genres.

JWH – 12/29/12

The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn

The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn has a subtitle that perfectly describes the book:  “The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How it Changed the American West.”  I’ve been reading about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral for decades, and the story just gets better and better as historians gather more and more data and keep putting the pieces together over and over looking for the historical truth.  Jeff Guinn’s book is the best yet, but I also liked Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra.  Both have come a tremendous distance down the trail since Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931.

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Growing up in the 1950s meant watching a lot of westerns on television.  Western movies have been around since the earliest days of silent films.  The allure of the wild west began in print way before the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881 with newspaper stories and dime novels.  Stories of the west have always been mythic, and the truth has always been hard to know.  We know the wild west through fiction – through the myths.   In recent years historians have been examining and writing about those myths and the reality is startlingly different.

Back in the 1950s Wyatt Earp on TV was a squeaky clean good guy.  But before the real Wyatt Earp got to Tombstone he had mainly worked in whorehouses, probably as a bouncer, but maybe as investor, and had been arrested a couple of times, including for horse stealing.  After the gunfight he killed three men in cold blood, and only one in a gunfight, because he was tired of waiting for the law to catch the killers of his brother.  Wyatt Earp essentially got away with murder.  Many people also felt the Earps and Doc Holladay murdered the three men at the O.K. Corral.   Wyatt Earp had worked for the law, but never as full Marshal or Sheriff, just as a deputy.  But this work brought him in contact with criminals that wanted him and his brothers dead, and the Earps killed the cowboys first.

In the myths of television and movie westerns violence is the solution.  We like to think the white hat cowboys represent good and the American way of life, and the black hat cowboys represent lawlessness and evil.  Jeff Guinn’s book goes beyond those stereotypes to explain things were far more complex.  As ambiguous as any complex issue today.

Even as the conflict between the cowboy rustlers around southern Arizona and New Mexico was taking place with the city folk of Tombstone, press reports about the violence was entertaining newspaper readers all over the country.  At first the Earps were praised for warring against criminals and maintaining the peace, but after the famous gunfight, when Wyatt went on his famous revenge vendetta ride, the public turned against him too.  He became just another killer that society needed to deal with.

Wyatt Earp lived another forty something years and fame dogged him the rest of his life.  He wanted to square his story with the public, which is why he worked with Stuart Lake on his autobiography.  But Earp died before it was finished, and Lake had to make it into a biography.  But because of Earp’s wife Josephine, Lake was forced to clean up the story.  Wyatt had already been telling lies for years about his life, and before he died already had his own mythic view of his past ready.  People wanted to read about a gunman, but Earp wanted them to believe he was a peace officer and businessman.

Then the movies started coming out and the legend began to grow and Wyatt Earp was turned into one of most famous men in wild west history.  He’s even eclipsing Wild Bill Hickok and other men who were more famous at the time.  Jeff Guinn explores this in the last chapter of his book.  I think it deserve a whole book itself.

The story is complicated.  Just read the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” at Wikipedia.  It’s so complicated that it makes for a Rashomon like tale.  Jeff Guinn strengthens this story by giving a lot of American history that leads up to why the various principle characters acted the way that they did.  Much of the story is political – can’t get far from the Republicans and Democrats today, can we?

Because of television and movies we picture old west towns with one long street, with a sheriff’s office, several saloons, a hotel, a general store, a telegraph office and a livery stable.  1881 Tombstone was far more urban than that.  It had two opera houses, a bowling alley, an ice cream store, tennis courts, a stationary story, many hotels, mines, factories, countless bars, countless whorehouses, two newspapers, and lots of businesses, including those that sold the latest fashions for women from the east and Europe.  The wild west in 1881 was already becoming what we know as modern – and thus the famous shootout was less about wild west gunslingers and more about of a complicated crime.

Wyatt Earp and his brothers had common law marriages to prostitutes, mainly earned their money from gambling, and Wyatt hoped to make it big by becoming Sheriff who got to keep 10% of the taxes he collected.  The Earps were near the bottom of the social/economic heap and hoped to climb up in status by working as lawmen.  Unlike the movies, they weren’t famous citizens of their town.  Their names got in the papers when they arrested cattle rustlers or arrested drunk and disorderly cowboys, but that wasn’t that often.  They were just tough guys hired to deal with more unpleasant tough guys.

We see westerns today where the good guys kill countless bad guys.  How many men did Marshal Matt Dillon kill over the course of Gunsmoke?  Well Wyatt Earp is the most famous gunfighter in history for being involved in killing six men, but none in quick draw duels.  There were damn few gunfight duels like we see on television that you have to study hard to find them.  Most gunfights were drunken brawls and cowardly ambushes.  Even the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral was not men whipping out six-shooters from their holsters.  Wyatt had his pistol in a coat with a specially made pocket for a handgun.  I don’t know if any of the men had guns in holsters slung low on the hip like we see in the movies.  One man the Earps shot apparently didn’t even have a gun – but they probably didn’t know it since they let another man with out a gun, Ike Clanton, the man they really wanted to kill the most,  get out of the way.  Something like 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds by six people.   More of a close fire fight than a duel.

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was an insignificant event in America history that’s been elevated into myth and legend.  Because the event is at the intersection of history and myth, like stories we find in The Bible, people can’t let them go.  The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is like a meme that grows and grows.  We can no longer tell reality from myth when it comes to stories about the American wild west, but there is something about these stories that deeply resonate with us.  We want to define ourselves and our history by the myths rather than reality.

I predict there will be more movies about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the future, and with each new generation of films, they will redefine the story again and again.  Sometimes the pendulum will swing towards reality and other times towards fantasy.  The Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell portrayals glorified Wyatt Earp even though they both tried to be realistic.   The new book Doc by Mary Doria Russell tries to de-glorify them, and make them more human, and demystify the violence – but I’m worried she went to far in making them likable.  My personal guess is they were both pretty damn unlikable.  But the fact is we’ll never know.  We can make Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday into whatever we want – and will, time and again in the movies and books.

JWH – 12/28/11

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