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Sunday, January 06, 2008

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. 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


Blogger Michael said...

Funny, I'm going through the same process, having gotten my HDTV and satellite setup about a month ago. Vertigo is still a snooze, but oh man, I'd love to live in VistaVision and Technicolor! I watched 633 Squadron last night-- pretty hokey and cliched, but real planes flying looked great (at least until bad matte job flak guns fired at them). I agree with you completely-- it's the first time a lot of these second-tier movies have had a second chance since they came out, and the bigness of 50s-60s production values is worth sitting through even when the movie is subpar.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Oh, and the other thing you didn't get from Land of the Pharoahs on a small TV-- Tiomkin's score booming in stereo. He's far from my favorite classic era composer, but that score kicks butt and takes names, bombast at its drum-thumping best.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nearly everything you say about THE BIG COUNTRY is true -- and I would respectfully add that the picture's musical score by Jerome Moross is one of the finest scores ever written for a Western.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I'm sure HDTV will revitalize a number of films of previously questionable quality, and possibly elevate them to heretofore unseen levels of critical approval which may or may not be valid, and much as I enjoy a somewhat guilty pleasure in watching these two among many others, I can't seriously praise these myself as anything other than workmanlike potboilers. Very well put-together potboilers, yes, but certainly not of any elevation other than that. I'll accept that the limitations of technology back in the day didn't give one a very good visual appreciation of these on the small screen, but nothing I've seen over the years from those days to this one would change my mind about the rather pulpy feel of both of these two as finished products in the whole. I guess my take from HDTV will be the details and overall sweep of even the most average film from the Studio years, something telling in itself - I have to admit, things onscreen can get pretty ordinary on the most expensive big-budget attempts nowadays, a sad commentary on the state of films; but then again, where to get those 12,000 extras?

11:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Was I too generous, Vanwall? Very possibly, I was, but chalk that up to joy over having these pictures in proper presentation at last; something I'll never take for granted after so many years of having them "shrunken" as I put it in the title. Maybe critical reputations will head in the other direction now, and these pictures and others like them will henceforth receive MORE praise than they're entitled to!

5:51 AM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

M. McElwee - Perhaps a touch of an overhype, but then again, some of my French in-laws think "The Big Country" is the ne plus ultra among westerns, so go figure. I bow to your enthusiasm. Visually, practically any Technicolor or widescreen film will probably appear a masterpiece compared to many of the films today, as the older films have a kind of expansive, believable make-believe aspect, where a more modern film will prolly appear flat and cramped due to the creeping TV-itis syndrome that seems to affect things on screen in a claustrophobic manner. Doesn't help when they don't use the 'bright setting' on the projectors in a lot of theaters, either. ;-)

10:30 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The big thing I have against digital television is that, despite its impressive visual quality compared to analogic TV, is that it cannot reproduce the feeling of a movie theater with a cinenarama screen.

When I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA for the very first time, it was in the edited span and scan version... and probably in black and white, since color TV was not fully available until 1980 in Buenos Aires.

But when I saw it in a movie theater the film offered more. The theater was no multiplex, but the Gaumount in the full cinerama screen just a few years before the theater was divided into three screens.

In that really big screen I was able to enjoy the original run of STAR WARS back in 1977. That screen was really something and I do miss it.

It is ironic... today multiplex screens feature films in letterboxed versions! I remember going to see STAR WARS: EPISODE 1, specifically because I letter realized that I was sick with high temperature. But I did notice that the image was not occupying the entire screen as the trailers did.

Once walking around the offices of the Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox distributing branch, I managed to retrieve in the sidewalk a couple of 35mm trailers. What surprised me was the fact that the actual image was probably in 70mm, and the image was printed in the center in order to keep the original aspect ratio.

United International Pictures is just a few steps away. And even now, once in a while, they would get a dumpster and throw away lots of film prints giving them a bath of bleach.

That activity has been going on in that area since the days of silent films and I don't want to imagine how many silents has been lost because of that.

Anyway, the only thing I want to expect from the new TV standards is that they are going to leave the pre 1953 and don't pan and scan those films. (Scenes from Laurel & Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX, for instance, could suffer if they proceed).

Despite all changes, I still have much more fondness for the academic aspect ratio.

12:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Vanwall, that's my biggest complaint about modern theatre projection, other than too loud volume. Images are always too dark and murky. Lamp intensity is never set to academy standards for brightness. Virtually everything looks better now at home. Why go out to look at dark pictures with deafening sound?

Radiotelefonia --- One bad thing about aspect ratios, even on high definition channels, is the tendency to "compromise" wide images by cropping 2.35 anamorphic features down to 1.85 (or 16.9) frames. Cinemax HD did it twice this past week, with "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "The Wild Bunch".

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aspect ratios are tricky things. I saw LAND OF THE PHARAOHS in a new 35mm print at the American CInemateque (appropriately enough at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood) a few years back and unfortunately it was presented in a Panavision aperture. The film was in true Cinemascope (the titles were a dead give-away) which used smaller perforations on the release prints and used the soundtrack area so it was 2.33:1 and not the full 2.55:1 that was shot. The left hand side of the titles was cut off and it was obvious that the loss was just about the same as the soundtrack area. There was a border around the titles that gave me a point of reference. As always, if you are confused check out for the full story. It is a flawed film but a ton of fun.

Spencer Gill (

3:09 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

When my future wife and I saw "Star Wars", when it was fresh out of the can, it was at the brilliant Cine Capri in Phoenix, a wide-screen theater at which I had seen many films before, and after, for a time. It ran there for almost two years with a full house, the longest run of it anywhere in the States, and as it was a short walk from my home, I went often - a 58 ft wide, floor-to-ceiling screen was like a door into another reality, if you didn't mind going somewhere with 800 others. It was quite the experience seeing a lot of films there on a regular basis, as it was much more enjoyable than a regular movie theater by far, and I missed it when I moved away. By chance, some fifteen or so years later, we were in town visiting, and damned if they weren't showing a special event there - "Star Wars"!!, and it was so much fun to take my two boys in to see it in that wonderful wide screen, just like I did. Sadly, they tore the old girl down in '98, a very misguided decision IMHO, but they did build a new Cine Capri elsewhere, with a wide-screen as a salute to the old one, but it ain't the same - so it's good at least the boys had a taste of that magic. I still remember that last viewing, and my realization it looked so much better than a lot of the newer films I'd just seen recently in lesser venues - the lighting was spot-on and the sound and picture were just amazing. Sic transit gloria mundi.

1:12 AM  
Blogger Peter Nellhaus said...

I did see Land of the Pharoahs in a scope 16mm print at NYU. We wouldn't have watched any other way. This was around 1975.

1:21 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...


While I'm still enjoying the new postings, I have an update.

I managed to get both the DVD version of FOUR SONS and a recording of the AMC broadcast.

I'm trying to lift the Movietone soundtrack and put it into the DVD version, while at the same time trying to restore a bit the audio quality.

It is not an easy thing to do. After some minor adjustments, I found that the Movietone soundtrack last almost one or two seconds more than the DVD version!

Certainly, I am not going to be the only one attempting to do this.

1:53 AM  

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