The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

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Scharphedin2
Joined: Fri May 19, 2006 7:37 am
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#1 Post by Scharphedin2 » Sun Jul 16, 2006 4:49 am

Ever since reading Joseph McBride's book "Hawks on Hawks" quite a long time ago, I have been curious to see The Big Sky (1952). In the way Hawks talks about this film in the book, there is a sense that it was a film that he felt particularly close to. It was made for RKO as the first in a three picture deal that Hawks signed with Howard Hughes. Now, Hughes badly needed a commercial success and was banking on Hawks (who at that point had an unbroken string of hits to his name for as long as anyone cared to remember) to provide this; Hawks in his turn was looking for independence, and the deal with Hughes would provide this to a large degree.

Based on a novel by A.R. Guthrie, The Big Sky is a large scale frontier western concerning two men, who meet in the wilderness, become friends, and end up travelling together on a riverboat going 2000 miles up the Missouri River into uncharted territory with the object of trading with the Blackfoot Indians. Hawks took his cast, which included Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin in the leads, as well as Arthur Honnicutt as a seasoned old trapper (and narrator of the story), on location in Wyoming for the shoot, and only returned to the studio, when the first snowstorms effectively closed down operations.

According to Hawks, people were waiting in line around the block, when he premiered the film in its original 140 min. cut in Chicago. Then, in the interest of facilitating more screenings, the studio decided to shorten the film to 120 minutes, and as a result (again according to Hawks) the film died at the box office.

The Big Sky is (in both versions) a film that moves up river at the pace of the keelboat, affording ample opportunity to take in the glorious untouched nature into which the traders penetrate, the hard toil of the men maneuvering the boat (most often by rowing and staking, and at times by literally pulling it with ropes from the shore), and the relationships that develop between the colorful group of characters that make up the crew. There is time to hum along to Dmitri Tiomkin's sweeping score, and even to sing along with the (mainly French) crew, as they entertain each other around the campfire with their chansons of the women and soil they have left behind. In the course of the film, shot and knife wounds have time to heal; we witness something so outlandish as a humorous amputation scene (one that John Wayne had refused to play in Red River); and all the while there is the continuous pleasure of listening to Hunnicutt's western drawl, as he mingles frontier wisdom with old wives' tales, and serves as the journey's aural log book on the narrative track. Then, of course, there are the skirmishes with hostile Indians, and the henchmen of the established furtrading company intent on monopolizing commerce on the Missouri River. And, finally, there is time enough to depict the smoldering glances and hearts that kindle the bizarre central love story between Kirk, Dewey and the stunning Blackfoot Princess (Elisabeth Threatt), who is being taken back to her people onboard the riverboat, and as such simultaneously serves as the expedition's protection and ransom.

I did not mention the great good fun and bantering that is constantly part of the story, as in any Hawks picture. This film simply has so much going for it... so much to tell; and Hawks took the time to tell his story, pausing between sentences to catch his breath in order to better be able to give the next sentence the correct intonation and narrative punch. At journey's end, I was completely prepared to travel back down the Missouri in order to spend a few more hours in the company of these wonderful characters that Hawks has conjured up. Alas, it is in the nature of the film medium that such a luxury is not possible...

In fact, for domestic American viewers it is so far not possible to make the journey up river in the first place, as this true piece of Americana is unavailable on DVD in R1. The French Editions Montparnasse has released the film in its series of RKO titles (some 80 titles all told!), and discussion of this release was started in the thread designated for that label:

viewtopic.php?t=4476

It is a release that has its problems, as can be seen from the comments and screen caps. However, the (short version of the) film is offered in a very clean print (the flaws appearing to be in the transfer to DVD), and it looks considerably better than the stills when actually playing. I would dissuade noone interested in watching this wonderful film from acquiring the Editions Montparnasse release, although the regular release of the film may be fine, as the collector's edition which includes the full length original cut of the film is in such a sorry state that it is all but impossible to watch (in this case due to print damage -- scratches, splices, dust and other defects proliferate).

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Paul Moran
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#2 Post by Paul Moran » Sun Jul 16, 2006 6:12 am

I remember this film from several UK TV screenings - although I don't remember whether the "long" or "short" version was shown. It's been on my "wants list" since I started buying DVDs (in 2000), with the comment "not yet available in a decent version".

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Scharphedin2
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#3 Post by Scharphedin2 » Sun Jul 16, 2006 7:13 am

Paul, I would almost venture to guarantee that the version you saw is the short one. From what I understand, the original long version has basically not been seen since the film first premiered. The presentation of the short version on the Editions Montparnasse is very clean, and I could easily see it as being aired on television, while the long version is very marked, and would take a lot of restoration in order to be shown to the greater public. It puzzles me a little that more effort was not put into restoring the longer version of the film -- after all most of the shots are identical to the short version, and could have been transplanted to make the long version easier to sit through.

In any event, I am very happy with my copy of the disc, which by the way is titled "La captive aux yeux clairs" in French. Links to both the standard and collector's editions are included below:

http://www.alapage.com/-/Fiche/DVD/4866 ... OGL&sv=X_L

http://www.alapage.com/-/Fiche/DVD/5912 ... OGL&sv=X_L

Aside from both versions of the film, the collector's edition includes three interviews that may make the difference in deciding to purchase the disc. First, there is a brief clip with Howard Hawks interviewed by Richard Schickel. The clip is funny, because Schickel runs out of film in the middle of an anecdote that Hawks is telling, and Hawks finally picks up and finishes his story with the cameraman presumably fumbling to get a new magazine into the camera. Second, is a brief audio only interview with Kirk Douglas as a very old man. He is all but incomprehensible when he speaks, and is assisted by a woman during the interview. Having just watched the film with Kirk in his prime, I found it profoundly moving to listen to him reminiscing about the shooting of the film all those years later. Finally, there is an extensive and insightful interview with film journalist Todd McCarthy, who wrote a book about Hawks.

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tryavna
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#4 Post by tryavna » Sun Jul 16, 2006 11:38 am

Apparently, TCM (US) now shows the "restored" 140-minute cut. At least, the last time I saw it -- about a year ago -- I noticed new footage that I never remembered seeing before. Actually, the print TCM uses pretty much does what you outlined above, Scharphedin: It uses the original footage of the 122-minute version and inserts lower-quality 16mm footage for the additional 18 minutes. As I recall, there was a noticeable deterioration in A/V quality during those segments, but I also remember that it was most noticeable during the opening 15 minutes or so. (I believe that you have to sit through portions of Arthur Hunnicut's narration twice.)

As for what's holding up a Warner release, I'm guessing that it's the same problem that held up King Kong and is still holding up Ambersons. Warner is probably hoping to find better quality 35mm prints of those extra 18 minutes.

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Scharphedin2
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#5 Post by Scharphedin2 » Sun Jul 16, 2006 11:57 am

Now that is interesting, because as far as I could tell I would say that the first fifteen minutes were almost identical, and in the shorter version this segment appeared spotless. Where things get bad with the long version is once they are on the boat (apx. 60 minutes into the film). Here it looks like the soundtrack is printed down the middle of the frame -- I know it sounds crazy, but it is a consistent line through the image, and it is jagged and seems to respond to the soundtrack in terms of intensity (growing more visible with a lot of sound, and almost disappearing in the quieter moments).

In thinking about the look of the DVD... you mention that on TV it looked as if they had spliced in 16mm footage. Is it possible that the DVD was sourced from 16mm altogether? I will run through the longer version over the next few evenings, and see if there are any other details to comment on.

One scene that very clearly missed in the short version surprised me, because it was an action scene (not something I would have expected the studio to cut). Jim, Boone and Zeb are on reconnaisance along with "Poor Devil," and are ambushed by hostile Indians. They overcome the Indians, and at the end of the sequence "Poor Devil" scalps one of their dead attackers.

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tryavna
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#6 Post by tryavna » Sun Jul 16, 2006 12:29 pm

Well, I am working mainly from memory here. Like I said, it's been about a year since I've seen either version. However, I do specifically remember that the drop-off in A/V quality is noticeable (hence my assumption that it was a shift from 35mm to 16mm for the "restored" segments) and that the new material was most noticeable at the beginning (Hunnicutt's narration, Douglas and Martin's first meeting, the ford/ferry sequence, etc. -- all are different in the "restored" version).

I don't know how to answer your question about the DVD, because I don't own the R2 DVD. (When a film is Warner property, I tend to just bide my time until they eventually release it in R1 by catching it on TCM.)

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david hare
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#7 Post by david hare » Sun Jul 16, 2006 5:23 pm

It was Bill Krohn who prepared the Full version of the movie for Ed. Montparnasse using the 16mm print for the cut material - this is the only source for it, as apparently no 35mm elements stilll exist for the cut twenty minutes.

He also acknowledges the poorer quality of that footage.

filmfan
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#8 Post by filmfan » Mon Jul 17, 2006 12:36 am

Can one get a copy of the long version of this film...anywhere, if you know what I mean ?

Personal message me if you feel more comfortable doing that.

Thanks, Mike

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Paul Moran
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#9 Post by Paul Moran » Mon Jul 17, 2006 12:15 pm

Scharphedin2 wrote:Paul, I would almost venture to guarantee that the version you saw is the short one......
Thanks for the "Editions Montparnasse" info, Scharphedin2. I'm not going to rush out and buy either edition, because my unwatched DVDs now occupy 3 metres of shelf space (about 200 movies). But if I ever catch up, and there's still no sign of a Warner Bros R1 release, I'll reconsider. :)

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david hare
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#10 Post by david hare » Tue Jul 18, 2006 11:51 pm

I have the shorter version Editions Montparnasse which Ive only ever been able to watch through once - the fucking edge enhancement in the transfer completely wrecks a perfectly good print. (OK Im not watching on a tube.)

Hold out for Warner.

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hearthesilence
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Re: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

#11 Post by hearthesilence » Sun Dec 26, 2010 9:45 pm

They were showing this at Lincoln Center this afternoon as part of their Film Foundation retrospective, but I MISSED it....RRRRRR!!! It was the only screening too. Has Criterion ever tried to get this one?

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domino harvey
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Re: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

#12 Post by domino harvey » Sun Dec 26, 2010 11:41 pm

That LP box shaped 2XDVD Cahiers edition with the director's cut is still available from Amazon.fr as of this summer. I didn't think the transfer was all that bad, really, given how many bootlegs I and many others have sat through of far worse quality. Pretty decent little 25+ minute English-lang interview with Todd McCarthy too on the film

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hearthesilence
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Re: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

#13 Post by hearthesilence » Mon Nov 11, 2013 1:47 pm

Here we are, almost three years later, and a print of the Film Foundation's restoration was finally screened again last night in NYC, this time at the Museum of the Moving Image. (Had to be re-booked too - it was originally scheduled for late October.) Never seen it before, but what a great film - as usual, all the hallmarks of a Hawks film, all of which were very enjoyable. For example, the amusing way they handled the finger the amputation, the communal singing seen in so many of his films, this time at a French-run bar and led by Kirk Douglas (which prompted one person in the audience to sing along with the choruses), etc. Some stretches were just beautiful, like the long shot of the horned deer passing by the boat along the river. The first 15 minutes or so definitely looked a little crummy, probably because it was sourced from dupes, but thankfully most of the film was an immense improvement.

Hopefully this will get a good home video release soon.

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hearthesilence
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Re: Howard Hawks

#14 Post by hearthesilence » Sat Jul 02, 2016 8:55 pm

Thanks to FrauBlucher for this tip: If you like Westerns, TCM is showing 100 westerns this month, every Tuesday and Wednesday, and not only do they have a day dedicated to Howard Hawks's films with John Wayne (to be fair, this amounts to three features being broadcast), but on July 12 at 6 a.m., they are also broadcasting The Big Sky, presumably (and hopefully) the Film Foundation's "restored" version. (You'll be able to tell by the opening scene - originally cut from the theatrical release, they managed to reinstate it, but unfortunately the quality isn't all that great because they couldn't find any top quality film elements for it).

This has never been available on DVD (much less BD) in the U.S., and the UK DVD is supposedly terrible. To the best of my knowledge, a 35mm print of the restoration has only screened twice in New York City in the last seven years. Vastly underrated, it's a masterpiece. Jonathan Rosenbaum has championed it, placing it on his alternative 100 American films list, and Jim Jarmusch once programmed it with Dead Man in a retrospective of his work where he was able to pair favorites with his own work.

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domino harvey
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Re: Howard Hawks

#15 Post by domino harvey » Sat Jul 02, 2016 9:05 pm

I don't think it's a masterpiece but it was released in a deluxe edition years ago in France with both cuts and English-friendly supplements (and comes in an obnoxious box the size of a 10" record)

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hearthesilence
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Re: Howard Hawks

#16 Post by hearthesilence » Sat Jul 02, 2016 10:01 pm

Hah, wouldn't be the first time we disagreed. According to david hare, the deluxe edition released by Editions Montparnasse was "edge enhanced/contrast boosted to buggery." There is also a German edition by Alle Regionen, which also presents both cuts, but I'm not sure of the quality.

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Drucker
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Re: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

#17 Post by Drucker » Fri Jul 15, 2016 8:10 pm

A quick glance at my DVR and it definitely looks like the first scene, with Kirk Douglas caulking a wagon across the river, is in way worse shape than the rest.

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hearthesilence
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Re: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

#18 Post by hearthesilence » Fri Jul 15, 2016 11:02 pm

Excellent, then it is indeed the "restored" (and preferred) version done by the Film Foundation.

remy
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Re: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

#19 Post by remy » Mon Jul 18, 2016 11:24 am

I watched this over the weekend. Several parts (not the just the opening) are indeed in rough shape. There is also a shot repeated twice which is confusing (about halfway through the movie, when the Indians follow the boat from the bank of the river).
I was surprised by how "hawksian" it actually is, despite the AB Guthrie story and Dudley Nichols treatment. The use of language is especially great. A pleasure to watch from start to finish.

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