When The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) was released in 1930 it was on the cusp of a new era of film, as sound and film technologies, known as ‘Talkies’, were coalescing into an industry standard. (Gomery, p22) This time saw the expansion of the ‘studio system’ an industrialising of cinema from production, distribution and exhibition, otherwise known as ‘vertical integration’ (Abrams, Bell, Udris, p9) When How The West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) was released the film industry had adapted to reduced audiences, competing media i.e. television, shared production costs and the diminishment of the ‘studio system’ following the 1948 U.S. Supreme court decision called ‘Paramount Decree’. (US Supreme Crt, 1948).
Comparing The Big Trail and How The West Was Won
The ‘West’ as depicted in both films is of the taming the wilderness by the advancing pioneers fleeing Europe and the east. They overcame nature’s obstacles and primitive, hostile Indians in order to conquer this New World. By incorporating this pioneering virtue not only in the cinema posters (Fox, 1930) and (MGM, 1962) it was also extolled at the introductions of each film. The Big Trail was “Dedicated - To the men and women who planted civilization in the wilderness and courage in the blood of their children. Gathered from the north, the south and the east, they assembled on the bank of the Mississippi for the conquest of the West.” (Walsh, 1930) Buscombe contends that “due to their physical setting, a Western is likely to deal successfully with stories about the opposition between man and nature and about the establishment of civilisation”. (Buscombe, p16-17) Cawelti goes further by observing the Western is a story of the transition from the decline of “savagery and lawlessness” with the advance of “law and order” (Cawelti, p57) While the Kitses argues that “the Western is American history” (Kitses, p8) irrespective of historical correctness, in How The West Was Won it was a series of five stories told in chronological order centering on one family of settlers from the 1830s to the 1890s with a victorious view of the native Indian that is apparent throughout the film. Spencer Tracy’s initial narration states how the “names and the marks and the land, had to be won: won from nature and from primitive man.” (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) When confronted by the advancing colonisation in the form of the “iron horse” or railroad, it was a fait accompli as Richard Widmark’s character Mike King says of the new arrivals from Europe that if “they are willing to change their ways. The Arapahos (Indians) will have to change too. If they don’t then they’re finished.” (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) One view is that the Indians for the first few hundred years of European settlement, were pragmatic and opportunistic with the new arrivals as they saw the benefits of trading in furs for guns leading to creation of trading posts and eventual warfare. The irony of this trade as Turner observes is “the Indian trade pioneered the way for civilisation” via the use of their trails by the new settlers into the west. (Turner, p21) This theme forms an integral part of story in The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) as a train of settlers, seeking of a new life in the West trail from Mississippi River to mountains of Oregon. Their interactions with the Indians range from one of respect to mutual understanding to open warfare. John Wayne’s character Breck Coleman instructs a group of boys about his friendship with the Indians and the bushcrafts he learnt from them, from “how to follow a trail” to “lighting a fire without a flint” and “burying himself in the snow” during a storm. Breck later negotiates with the Cheyenne Chief that there will be “peace, if as long as we march straight through the Cheyenne country without stopping to settle.” As a trade off Breck advises the settlers “they will probably come back to beg for food, so feed ‘em well and treat ‘em right and we’ll have no trouble.” However Crows and Cheyenne Indians attack the settlers on their way west to halt their progress but the settlers literally ‘circle their wagons’ and shoot it out. (Walsh, 1930)
The Comparative Relationship between The Big Trail and How The West Was Won
At the time of their production, with their large budgets, both films were strategically placed to take advantage of state-of-the-art film and cinema technologies namely widescreen cameras and sound recording especially for The Big Trail with the intention to enhance the ‘cinema experience’ for the audience. (MacGovern, p229) They tell the story of America’s settlement of the West that sought to define an ‘American’ historical view. Yet for all the promotion of The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) as an epic story of America’s frontier history, “failed to find a mass audience” (Stanfield, p43) due principally to the economic position and despair felt the time. How The West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) another epic telling of the American story, told its story through the use of Cinerama widescreen technology and stereophonic sound, found its audience. (Belton, p191) Therefore a realist’s reading of history see “generative (causal) mechanisms that bring about an event”. (Allan and Gommery, p16) In this context, if the film is the event then the generative mechanisms for these two films were the industry, technology and audience.
A Comparison of The Big Trail and How The West Was Won based on Technology, Industry and Audience/Regulation Technology
Advances of widescreen technology paralleled with sound from the late 1890s to the end of the 1920s. As Gomery observes, that “by the autumn of 1930, Hollywood only produced ‘talkies’” (Gomery, p5) while only a small amount of widescreen films were produced. (MacGovern, p229) Fox Film Corporation developed their own 70mm widescreen format called Fox Grandeur for a small amount of films of which The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) was the last one made using this process. (MacGovern, p229) Edeson observed that lenses were the most important component needed for 70mm film as it “approximately double the focal length of 35mm,” 70mm film presented the viewer with a screen image more akin to their natural sight, as the focal range was 143°. (Edeson, 1930) However the advent of widescreen during this time was short-lived and the reasons for this were economic: a looming economic depression; reluctance from cinemas as they had already invested in sound technology so were not in a position to invest further in widescreen as well. Therefore they continued using 4:3 aspect screens for 35mm films baulking at widescreen and it was to be another twenty years before the film industry and exhibitors adopted it. (MacGowan, 228)
By 1962 competing widescreen technologies developed over the previous ten years between the major studios from VistaVision, CinemaScope, Todd-AO and Cinerama. How The West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) was the last feature film to be produced in three-strip Cinerama, a widescreen technology invented by Fred Waller in the 1940s (Belton, p277). It used three interlocking cameras with 27mm lenses to create a very wide and distorted image. This distortion was corrected when the film was projected onto the curved screen using three projectors to create an aspect ratio was 2:89. (Belton, p191) Hazard Reeves designed a seven channel system to magnetically record the stereophonic sound combined onto a separate 35 mm strip of film. To play this in the theatre, five speakers were set behind the screen and two surround speakers. (Belton, p191).
To capitalise on its investment in The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) Fox Film Corporation produced five films. Two English editions were filmed concurrently, one in 35mm & the other in 70mm and there were three foreign language features: a French, La piste des géants (Courderc, 1931), German Die große Fahrt (Seiler, Walsh, 1931) and Spanish La gran jornada (Howard, Schneider, Walsh, 1931) version. The principal reason was marketing of this new technology of sight and sound to a world-wide audience. The budget for all five films was estimated at $1.9 million USD, yet it earned just over $1 million USD both in the USA and overseas. The main reasons cited for this box office failure was the onset of the Great Depression, excessive rentals charged by Fox to exhibitors and limited widescreen cinemas. (Solomon, p147-149) While sound became integral to film by 1930, widescreen productions ceased (MacGowan, p230) and it would be another twenty years before their re-appearance in the 1950s. (Belton, p187) The result of this box office failure was the relegation of Western film to ‘B’ status, low cost productions by the major studios. (Stanfield, p54) It would not be until 1939 when the major film companies would invest in Westerns for an ‘A’ listing. One renowned victim of this industry change was the acting career of John Wayne who after being cast as the lead man in The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) spent the next nine years acting in low budget ‘B’ Westerns until he appeared in Stagecoach. (Ford, 1939) According to Solomon, Wayne was seen by as a new Western star but the failure of The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) at the box office and a “lack of critical support” (Solomon, p149)
How The West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) was released in both 70mm and 35mm versions grossing $23 million USD (Sedgwick, p196) in the first year and by 1970 its worldwide gross was $70 million USD (imdb.com, 2012). With a budget of $15 million USD it was a high risk investment for MGM that paid off well. Cast with big name stars from Henry Fonda, John Wayne and James Stewart with 20 other stars and co-stars forming the largest cost at approximately $2.2 million. (Kimble, p50) Like The Big Trail (Walsh, 1930) that had a cast of 20,000 (Fox, 1930) and was filmed away from the back-lots of Hollywood in six states, (imdb.com, 2012) How The West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) was filmed in nine states. (imdb.com, 2012)
The era of vertical integration using an assembly approach to film production or ‘Fordism’ (Abrams, Bell, Udris, p10) dominated by an oligopoly was legally challenged in 1948 by the U.S. government in the case of United States v Paramount Pictures Inc, known as the ‘Paramount Decree’. Facing the U.S. Supreme court, the trial of “five corporations which produce motion pictures and their respective subsidiaries or affiliates which distribute and exhibit films and own or control theatres” had “conspired to and did restrain and monopolize interstate trade in the exhibition of motion pictures in most of the larger cities of the country”. (US Supreme Crt, 1948). What were once “employment centres” according to Halliwell (1978) these five corporations, Loew’s Incorporated (MGM), Paramount Pictures Inc, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation (RKO), Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc all produced most of their films in their back-lots. Through their control and ownership of cinemas and theatre houses, distributed and exhibited. Halliwell further states the result of the Paramount Decree was that “the old moguls were getting older and couldn’t fight the developing situation” and “found themselves being eased out and their profits halved, their studios no longer vast employment centres with a constant production line but simply enclosed space and facilities which could be rented out to the highest bidder.” (Halliwell, 1978). While the major film companies were still held sway over the distribution, (Thompson and Bordwell, p327) the changes along with reduced audiences saw more collaboration in the production of movies. How The West Was Won (Ford, Hathaway, Marshall, 1962) was one such film having been produced both by MGM and Cinerama.
Both films used technology that created an “expectancy value” with the audience as Austin contends. (Austin, p49) This was amplified in the 1950s as audiences saw that Cinerama changed their level of expectation for film so from Cinerama on, motion pictures had to be at least projected in, if not made in wide-screen.”(Belton, p31) Belton cites a line from Cole Porter’s song, ‘Stereophonic Sound’, “If you want to get the crowds coming around, you’ve got to have glorious Technicolor. Breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound.” (Belton, p187) Following the introduction of television in the USA in 1948, the film industry saw audience numbers decline studies were commissioned to discern why people went to the movies & their reason ranged from entertainment to an interest in a film. (Austin, p53)
As part of the marketing of The Big Trail, was the fact it had complied with the self-regulated code as determined by Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) setting an example to other film producers of what was to be expected. Stanfield observes that The Big Trail was an ‘ideal vehicle for the MPPDA to champion’ as a true portrayal of ‘moral values’ to counter Hollywood’s perceived ‘moral degeneracy’ (Stanfield, p42) that was deemed legacy of the 1920s. The MPPDA was established by the industry in 1922 came to be known as the Hays code named after its president Will Hays. (Thompson and Bordwell, p146) Stanfield cites Raoul Walsh’s concerns that there was a level of audience sophistication making it a challenge to “arouse their interest in a patriotic and historical document.” (Stanfield, p43) It was this promotion of films that upheld high moral values the portrayal of hardship that may have turned away audiences who were more interested in musicals, romance, comedy and gangster films. These were just the sort of films the morally upright and the Hays code wanted to steer audiences away from. (Thompson and Bordwell, p233)
The introduction of sound-on-film or ‘Talkies’, was a Darwinian process between competing technologies. A process replicated in the 1950s with the advent of widescreen technologies. This brutal process has continued to a lesser extent in the form of Beta and VHS video in the 1980s and twenty years later HD and Blu-ray disc. These two films represented a time in film history of technological change, a challenge to the industry brought about by economical and social changes beyond their control and finally an expectation of its audience for film to provide a story represented in a way that they can accept and enjoy that cinema experience. The key difference between these two films is their timing in history. In 1930 when The Big Trail was released the audience was anxious and scared of their economic future with the onset of the Great Depression. This film portrayed a life of hardship and challenges that at the time they may not necessarily wish to be reminded of. This can be affirmed through the popularity of the musical and gangster films at the expense over especially big budget features that reminded them of their own economic plight. In 1962 it was the time of the Cold War: a challenge to America’s position in the world especially after the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. When How The West Was Won was released in February 1963 it was a timely reaffirmation of the ‘American’ ideal at a time of great anxiety. The technology in these films was at their time considered to be at the cusp of film development setting an industry standard and expectation for film. They both engendered an expectation within the industry of what to do and not do to do when making a film feature.
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