Shrunken Epics Reclaimed
I’ve been immersed in satellite excavation lately, having signed with Direct TV’s enlarged high definition service. There are hidden avenues of treasure missing from published schedule grids, with new stations offering library titles unseen for decades. One called MGM-HD started broadcasting in November, and already they’ve given us The Neanderthal Man, Queen Of Blood, Eight On The Lam, and innumerable others --- all in high definition and amazing to behold. Universal’s HD address ran Island Of Terror last month; not such a big deal when last it played AMC years back, but this is quality nearly the equal of 1966 theatrical. With the right home installation, it might actually be better. Daily now is satellite plunder out of cinematic vaults undespoiled for a half-century or more. Last week we got The Big Country. I know it’s been available on DVD, albeit in a transfer begging for a remaster unlikely to come in this age of home video division indifference (outside of Warners and sometimes Fox). High definition was the second coming of a super-western I’d underestimated too long, leaving me to question writers who’ve damned William Wyler’s 1958 epic with faint praise. Under what (likely dreadful) circumstances did they see The Big Country? I was four when it opened and too young to go or care about going. Critics at the time were more generous than historians since. That’s because (I’d submit) they saw an entirely different movie. Most viewers caught up with The Big Country on television. Because it had underperformed theatrically, United Artists passed on a reissue and fed Wyler’s (essential in Technirama) epic right into network chippers. So many fifties (and beyond) widescreen glories wound up (or better put, ground up) there. Television was the natural enemy of everything composed for large vistas. NBC systematically ruined nearly every Cinemascope feature 20th Fox made, yet how many of us saw these for the first time on Saturday Night At The Movies? ABC was distinctly number three of the major networks. They signed with United Artists for primetime movies to compete with NBC’s weekend juggernaut. The ABC Sunday Night Movie flopped starting out, but by the 1964-65 season, United Artists was giving them better titles (including The Big Country), and some were being broadcast in color. There were only two million color sets out of sixty million televisions owned by American families in 1964. Most of ABC’s programming was in black-and-white. Their Sunday Night Movie was regularly trounced by NBC’s Bonanza, then enjoying its first season in the Number One ratings berth. No competition, let alone another western, would stand a chance against television’s most popular program.
Old movies I saw growing up were on television. Wasn’t that the case for most of us? Features drew biggest there in the sixties. Popular titles pulled enormous home audiences (in 1965, the average price for network rights to a feature film was $400,000). Many, many more people watched The Birds on television than paid admissions for it in theatres. Madame X went nowhere during first-run, but tens of millions saw it on NBC. Movies were treated horribly by the networks. ABC ran Judgment At Nuremberg on March 7, 1965 and cut away for fifteen minutes to report on race rioting out of Selma, Alabama. This was a month before The Big Country premiered on the same network. You had virtually no letterboxing then. Everything was cropped to fit the (nearly) square box. April 11, 1965 was the night, and The Big Country was broadcast in color for those few with sets. Bonanza had scored 39.9 million viewers the week before. ABC maintained a policy of lobbing credits off the beginning of features and running them at the show’s conclusion, playing havoc with films (such as The Big Country) where there was action under the titles. After all, didn’t Bonanza open with teasers designed to hook an audience within seconds of tuning in? ABC felt they had little choice but to put best feet forward at the top of the hour, with hopes we’d stay tuned for the rest. The Big Country would have better served as a two-part broadcast, but the network only had one movie night per week that season. They could hardly expect viewers to wait seven days to see how things turned out. Expanding to three hours was the solution, but rather than starting The Big Country an hour earlier at 8:00, ABC extended the program to 12:00 --- this on an evening when work and school would militate against night owling. A running time of 165 minutes necessitated at least fifteen of these be cut. Succeeding decades would find The Big Country subjected to further tube abuse. United Artists collected $3.093 million in domestic television revenue for further network and syndicated play through 1989, but no one at home would see The Big Country in anything approaching its intended glory. Meantime, there were books and articles from those who’d lived with such hollowed-out remains and expressed opinions accordingly. Critical reputations of so many widescreen films suffered as a consequence of sins perpetuated by television. It was possible to rent The Big Country from UA/16, and prints were available in scope at $75 per day, but how many latter-day writers opted for the ease and economy of catching it on television?
I was bowled over by The Big Country in high definition. They say stories work best when they deal in conflicts. This one has layers of them. William Wyler knew how to stage confrontation. He understood frontier landscape as well, even if we don’t normally associate that with films he directed. There were early career westerns that gave Wyler his start. Watching The Big Country makes you wish he’d done more of them. I’m obliged to shift merit points Sergio Leone later received into Wyler’s column. So many things Italy got credit for re-visioning was done first in The Big Country. There’s a crane shot near the beginning that Leone duplicates exactly in Once Upon A Time In the West. Much as I like spaghettis, I’ve got to admit they play all the more like adolescent boy fantasies beside The Big Country. As far as I know, Leone never cited Wyler or his western as role models, but I’ll bet he aspired to both. Critics speak of Wyler’s characters looking like ants against the vast backgrounds he photographs. That’s a sure tip-off they saw The Big Country on television and nowhere else. Will the coming (overall) transition to high-def finally rehabilitate these deserving and so far underrated scope titles? Another one criminally ignored for too long was Land Of the Pharaohs. Rehab got underway last year with Warner’s excellent DVD release. Prior to that, we had only a 1992 laser disc which itself fell short of elevating Howard Hawks’ super-epic to standing among his best. You’d not accuse Pharaohs’ campaign of hyperbole after seeing it (properly, that is), for this really is one of the biggest. Again, what chance did such a Cinemascopic spread have on 60’s television? They didn’t even give Pharaohs a network run. It went right to syndication after disappointing receipts branded it a theatrical flop. Few pictures took such blows to their reputation. Folks were getting Land Of The Pharaohs at home by 1961 --- cropped, chopped, and in black-and-white. Not easy rescuing neglected favorites at 1:30 am with braying car salesmen and headache remedies poised to interrupt every seven or eight minutes. You could never rent Land Of The Pharaohs in scope. They only made flat prints in 16mm. I’m not sure it was available for any kind of rental during the seventies and eighties. Howard Hawks maintained the film was a botch when anyone inquired. Not many did, for this was one cultists preferred to forget. Again, I’d maintain that was because none of them could see Land Of The Pharaohs in its correct ratio, and for this show, that’s crucial.
Some friends watched Land Of The Pharaohs with me last week. They were blown away. Hey, these are 12,000 real extras moving stone as opposed to CGI operatives manipulating phantoms on a desktop. Amazing how script flaws noted by fifties critics seem picayune in the face of modern epics where narrative coherence is altogether ignored, if not jettisoned. We wondered why they didn’t use wheels to transport all that weight across the desert. Turns out Egypt didn’t have them during the period depicted, or so it says in Todd McCarthy’s excellent Howard Hawks biography. Ancient worlds, especially pagan ones, don’t allow for a lot of humor, thus comic relief is restricted to a Gregory Ratoff knock-off constantly on the make for wine casks. Egyptian sweepstakes found studios tripping over one another to get their pyramids finished first. Metro wrapped Valley Of The Kings just ahead of Hawks’ arrival at the location (some of MGM's cast shown here). Its quasi-modern trappings (1900) found Robert Taylor set against tomb plunderers, but ledgers finished down by $24,000. Fox’s The Egyptian was Cinemascope’s first dip in the red --- $350,000 lost. Seems we cared for Egypt only when mummies were loose. A major problem may have been the Godlessness of such enterprises. You needed piety’s salve to justify watching. Slave girls defiled and men thrown to crocs went down smoother with Biblical chasers. David and Bathsheba and The Robe, both gigantic hits, got it right making audiences feel they’d just come out of cinematic Sunday School, their lessons flavored with sex and violence you’d not get at church. Land Of The Pharaohs was in the end viewed as empty spectacle. Now we can admire it for avoiding traps others fell into. It would have been easy to compromise and have James Robertson Justice’s architect espousing one-God worship, even if it was centuries in front of him. Instead, he just dismisses Egyptian faiths as nonsense and proposes no alternative. A few well-placed sops to forthcoming Old Testaments, even a nod toward eventual Christendom, might have been rewarded with millions more at ticket windows. Warners recognized the truest values in Land Of The Pharaohs and reissued it in 1959 with the campaign it needed all along. In the wake of Hercules and his subsequent unchaining, Pharaohs was back and sold to matinee strongmen (age 8 and up) who’d appreciate finer points of its tandem bill with Helen Of Troy (wish I’d been among them!). Note the Steve Reeves inspired muscleman pulling down (or holding up?) the temple. Warners was covering all bets, inviting comparison with a just revived Samson and Delilah in addition to the Hercules pageants. Pretty soon we’d all be wearing sandals to the theatre. Maybe Howard Hawks should have teamed up with Gordon Scott …