Warner Bros (1964 / 2009), single disc, 2:40:1, 117 mins, Not Rated, $19.98 (available online only from the Warner Archive Collection)
In the August of 2009, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced a somewhat groundbreaking new product line, the WB Archive Collection. The Studio has built up an impressive, if actually unwieldy, library of catalog titles, from the Warner Bros. Pictures they naturally own to the numerous buyouts of other output, most notably the immense number of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics through the acquisition of Turner Entertainment as well as those from RKO, Lorimar and various other smaller distributors including many independents. But what to do with all this content!? Turner Classic Movies provides at least one output for some of the more obscure titles in the line-up; titles that may have their fans but not the kinds of numbers clambering to own them and make a mainstream DVD release a moderate hit.
Step forward the WB Archives, where the current video masters for many of these films are dusted down and encoded using a propriety process to blank DVD discs, simultaneously providing fans with some of the hard to get titles they’ve been waiting patiently for and a way for the Studio to get some of their more requested (but way down the restoration line) titles out on disc (and bring in a little revenue on masters that would otherwise stay lined up on shelves). Some have bemoaned the lack of remastering, or the absence of extras, and especially the $20 price point. But I say “phooey!” to that: I remember a time back in the LaserDisc days when an average, no-frills disc would set one back almost twice that cost, without the anamorphic enhancement, or sometimes even the original aspect ratio.
So, for those that can deal with the fact that there is a cost implication to owning some rarities on DVD without any corner logos, and can appreciate that these are made to order discs, with fully printed packaging and, in many cases, the film’s theatrical trailer bundled in where available, the WB Archive Collection is for you. Serving up good quality prints that, while they may not have been restored to pristine condition, are still better than broadcast television or even LaserDisc, the series is proving to be a strong line for the Studio, who have even tackled the pricing issues by offering “two for one” deals, and the like, on themed collections (such as the Lex Barker Tarzans or a selection of MGM Silents). The collection is an eclectic assortment of old and new, and among the titles there are some that will probably temp hardcore cineastes…
Hollywood composer Max Steiner’s score and the fact this was legendary director Raoul Walsh’s final film are the main points of interest to this wild west adventure yarn. Steiner, the man behind such iconic movie music for films as King Kong, Gone With The Wind and Casablanca among many others, brings a militaristic flavor to his duties, though its by no means his most memorable work. Director Walsh, veteran of over 50 years whose other films included The Roaring Twenties, White Heat and Captain Horatio Hornblower, stages the action well enough but he’s hampered by somewhat impassive performances by the then-married Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette, both too rooted in the 1960s to come over as being authentic for the period.
Walsh handles the material, based on Paul Horgan’s book, sensitively and attempts to make up for decades of screen insignificance by dignifying the Native Americans by having them speak in their own language, with subtitles as appropriate. However, despite the Technicolor and widescreen framing, with William Clothier expertly capturing the Red Rocks and Grand Falls locations beautifully and certainly deserving praise, A Distant Trumpet is really just a basic “cowboys and Indians” outing. A love-triangle plot introduced part way through doesn’t really help to further things along and, without wanting to pun on its title, there’s a distance one may feel in becoming involved in the situations, the camera often not quite making a direct connection with the characters.
But among all their relationship talk, the film is lively enough and periodically full of action, especially during a raid that garners more horses for the cavalry and an ambush/showdown, which is generally impressive in its sheer numbers. It could be that as I’m not a massive Westerns fan, this just wasn’t my preferred kind of viewing, and although A Distant Trumpet has received good words from others in the past and may enthral those with these particular tastes, I found it to only be a so-so and fairly standard addition to the genre.
Being “manufactured on demand” titles, it’s understandable that the Warner Archive discs would be bare-bones, generally lacking subtitles and all using the same themed main menu, but occasionally they surprise with an added trailer here and there. Each disc opens with a sixty second promo for the Archive Collection concept, highlighting among some of the films available in the ongoing series. The discs are not chapter indexed but the films can be skipped through at ten minute intervals, so it’s easy enough to bookmark the nearest point to favorite scenes.
A nice surprise is the inclusion of the film’s original theatrical trailer, in which director Walsh, with eye patch in place, sensationally proclaims the film as containing some of the best scenes he’s ever filmed! It’s sensationally sensationalist, shown in 4:3 “fullframe”, and satisfactory in presentation.
If there’s one area where the WB Archive Collection doesn’t quite shine as bright as their more commercially promoted cousins, it’s in the packaging. Not that there’s anything wrong in the artwork itself: though there’s a basic design template for these releases in place, each title retains their original logos and poster or publicity images, while the synopses and info on the back are tailor made, so while they all feel uniform, each is different. The lack of enthusiasm comes with the cases themselves, the sleeves being inserted into what can feel like second hand cases; bulky low cost versions of a regular keepcase that don’t come shrinkwrapped, which kind of spoils the excitement. I’ve instantly swapped these cumbersome cases for a clean set, but really these should feel “newer” than they do, especially for the price. Although the discs are not quite of the DVD-R variety (Warners say they use specific discs and software that make them more robust than home-made creations), the color surface print is as good as any commercial release, adding to the authenticity of these basic but official releases.
In terms of images, Warners has been very honest and very clear about the sources for these releases: no new restoration or remastering has been done and these are basically the current video masters for these titles. On closer inspection, one can see that a little care has been taken (what would be the point of simply reusing decades old transfers and asking us to pay for them?) and the results are pleasing. It’s obvious these are also new transfers of existing prints, since each film is presented in its original aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced in 16:9 where appropriate, a presentation that itself would require new transfers as opposed to the TV and LD copies of old.
The format can change between titles, with some progressively transferred while others can be interlaced, but the effect is the same: very good versions of otherwise hard to find movies. I was particularly impressed by the stability of the elements used and the solidity of the coloring. A Distant Trumpet might have undergone some edge enhancement, though this could genuinely be result of the high contrast sunlit scenes. Despite a few nicks and flecks here and there, these are the best I’ve ever seen any of these titles looking on my display.
As with the image, Warners have been fortunate in sourcing very good audio for the tracks included on these discs. Considering that these masters have been either used for TV or LaserDisc transfers in the past, or have been newly minted for future use, one can feel safe in the knowledge that the mixes offered are well up to the Studio’s stringent quality levels. Rest assured that Warners hasn’t just simply used the nearest old print with a scratchy, humming soundtrack: these are all again as good as can be expected without going the whole 5.1 remix or restoration route. Due to their age, most of the tracks are in their original mono configurations, but are all direct sounding and clear.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
There really isn’t anything to worry about in going ahead and making some choice picks among the many titles already available and those being added each month. We’ve all had commercially pressed discs go wrong on us, and the worry about the DVD-R type discs here can’t be said to be warranted: each title played fine in the three or four different machines I tested them out on. With surprisingly better than expected audio and video qualities, and even a trailer often thrown in, the slightly high pricing is an issue, but will probably be overlooked by those that understand this is a decent effort from the Studio to get more films out into the marketplace, and the only genuine way for fans to own these titles. I’m a supporter, with another selection of titles already on my wish list, and a request for the likes of Hot Millions (starring Peter Ustinov), The Little Hut (featuring David Niven), and George Pal’s vastly underrated supernatural thriller The Power (directed by Byron Haskin) to be pulled from the archive and made available on disc. Keep collecting!
and many others directly from the online store at WB ARCHIVE COLLECTION