In the late ’20’s, movie mogul William Fox envisioned a leap in motion picture production with the technological breakthrough of 70mm film in WIDESCREEN. Teaming with director Raoul Walsh, the result of this dream was the truly monumental 1930 Western epic “The Big Trail”, a rough, meticulously detailed depiction of pioneering settlers and their trek across the American wilderness, in a covered wagon train, from the mighty Mississippi River to a promised Eden-like valley on the Pacific Coast. The film is additionally notable as being the first starring vehicle for a young John Wayne, and while his performance is characterized by the rough edges borne of inexperience, it is remarkable in its foreshadowing of the great star he was to become. Faring less successfully is the acclaimed theatrical actor Tyrone Power Sr. (father of the famous film actor Tyrone Power) whose portrayal of a villainous trailmaster finds the thespian chewing up more scenery than Agent Orange. The incident heavy script is a virtual catalog of all of the cliches-to-come in the genre, with the dialogue ranging from the serviceable to the downright awful. But the real star of the picture are the visuals. It is completely startling to see a picture of this vintage in a giant frame, dwarfing the regular Academy ratio of 1:33. In a time when sensation dulling CGI makes everything visually (and plastically) possible, the sight of hundreds of actual covered wagons forging rushing rivers, or (in one jaw-dropping sequence) being dangerously lowered over the side of a canyon wall, brings back the most primal sense of excitement that the cinema is capable of. Panoramic vistas are explored in ways that recall the earliest photographs, and it is one of the great accomplishments of the film that it’s incredibly microscopic attention to detail makes the viewer feel as if they are actually there; miraculously looking through an open window to an almost forgotten past. Director Raoul Walsh displays an almost uncanny sense of composition, especially considering that no one had ever worked with such a widescreen frame before, and the technical nature of the process (appropriately named Grandeur) allows the use of a solid depth of field far eclipsing the later early Cinemascope process where a far narrower depth of field led to distracting “clothesline” compositions of actors. Walsh’s visual design is, in fact, so expertly realized it begs comparison with visual compositions in many of the later masterworks of Akira Kurosawa.

About chandlerswainreviews

I've been a puppet, a pirate, a pauper, a poet, a pawn and a king, not necessarily in that order. My first major movie memory was being at the drive-in at about 1 1/2 yrs. old seeing "Sayonara" so I suppose an interest in film was inevitable. (For those scoring at home- good for you- I wasn't driving that evening, so no need to alert authorities.)Writer, critic and confessed spoiler of women, as I have a tendency to forget to put them back in the refrigerator. My apologies.
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