Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Big Trail: Worst Western Ever?

"The most important picture ever produced"? Maybe if you're being sarcastic. "The Big Trail" leaves a big trail of something.

But I'm jumping ahead. Lately my brother has become obsessed with movie westerns, especially those directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks. Not a big fan of the genre myself, I'm always wary of watching his newest rental, and movies like "The Big Trail" just validate my distaste for westerns.

Notable as not only the screen debut of John Wayne, "The Big Trail" was also one of the first movies to be filmed in the then new 65 mm wide-screen format. Directed by the talented ("Big Trail" aside) Raoul Walsh, the movie tells the story of the travails of a California bound wagon train. And it is also a big steaming pile of cinematic dung.

Exhibit A: John Wayne's acting. Rarely have I seen an actor so completely out of his element. Wayne's line readings are tone-deaf and exaggerated, summoning up the image of a man just ten minutes away from being flat-out drunk. As my brother Ethan has rightly pointed out, Wayne's singular skill as an actor is to portray confidence. Take that away from him and it's like the star quarterback fumbling through the lead part in a high school play. Or better yet, imagine Wayne's acting as the avant-garde saxophonist in a straight laced jazz quintet. Man: "No one's ever made to the Oregon territories.." Wayne: "Skree--onk! Well, I reckon--schreeby-bop schreeby-zoo!"

Exhibit B: The dialogue. Take a look at some of these memorable exchanges, courtesy of imdb.com:

Red Flack, Wagon Boss: Well, if it ain't Bill Thorpe, hey? I always thought you was hung and planted, I expect.
Bill Thorpe: No, my time ain't arrived yet.
Red Flack, Wagon Boss: But it looks as though it might be drawing close.
Bill Thorpe: Well, I've been promised a hanging bee if I don't get out on the Penzy Belle, and the Captain promised me a necktie party if I set foot on the boat. It's a case of nowhere to go.
Red Flack, Wagon Boss: It appears to me you do your shooting by daylight with too many people looking on, hey?
Ruth Cameron: They say you're going to hunt down Flack and Lopez.
Breck Coleman, Wagon Train Scout: That's what I aim to do.
Ruth Cameron: But you can't do this awful thing - take two lives.
Breck Coleman, Wagon Train Scout: Frontier justice.
And my personal favorite..

Gussie: Zeke, did you hear that terrible crash?
Zeke: Hear it? I seen it! That was your wagon!
Gussie: Was my mother-in-law in it?

Yee-ha, that's some solid screenwriting! But to be fair, it's really the delivery of the actors that captures that elusive "Hee-Ha" dialect essential to your crappy western. I don't care how large and borderline-offensive you read the above lines, you're going to miss some of magic in the original readings.

Exhibit C: Tyrone Power. Looking like 80s wrestler The Barbarian, Power's performance channels only the best in cliched melodrama villains, with an extra helping of aloofness and barely disguised contempt for the material. The latter is explained if you believe the legend that Power was beaten brutally by Raoul Walsh after the former tried to force himself on leading lady Marguerite Churchill.