The Big Trees (1952)
According to Hollywood legend and Kirk Douglas himself in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, he agreed to appear in this Warner Brother’s “B” unit adventure for free on the condition that the studio release him from the bonds of his seven year contract to become a free agent in tinsel town. In just a few short years, Douglas would launch his own production company, Bryna, to front a number of his future projects starting with The Indian Fighter in 1955.
Journeyman director Felix Feist is called in to duty here for this technicolor adventure that gives us the cocky and brash Douglas as a smooth talking con man in 1900 heading a logging outfit. The plan is to take down the giant Sequoia trees that populate California by hook or by crook. Setting the tone in the opening minutes, Kirk will avoid a mutiny amongst his workers, convince them to board a train heading to California and make a new friend in Edgar Buchanan whom he sends west ahead of everyone else to secure the logging rights to the lands involved.
“When a man’s my friend, I count on him for anything.”
Edgar will come to realize that the seemingly good natured Kirk is far from the straight forward shooter he pretends to be. Especially when it comes to the colonists/Quakers who populate the wooded area Kirk intends to strip of it’s beauty. Upon arrival in California, Kirk realizes that the honest Edgar has made promises to the locals, he has no intention of keeping. Those trees represent big paydays and as far as he is concerned, they’re coming down. When Alan Hale Jr. and the rest of the loggers arrive, the underhanded payoffs begin as Kirk lays siege to the lands.
The good natured Edgar, has left Kirk’s operation to stand firm with the Quakers and attractive leading lady Eve Miller. She happens to be single and just might have caught the soft side of Douglas’ tough exterior. For a “B” unit flick, there is plenty going on in this 90 minute plot that plays longer. Kirk is out to score the trees. He has two women on the go including the gentle Miss Miller and saloon girl/part time lover, Patrice Wymore. The stunning Wymore was married to Errol Flynn at the time of this film’s production. We’ll also see a number of double crosses and the expected action sequences befitting a star of Kirk’s magnitude of 1952. Kirk will even get to play the hero in a variation of the “girl tied to the railroad tracks” scenario.
We all know what the outcome is going to be from the moment Kirk arrives in California and sees the goodness and ever giving forgiveness that is bestowed upon him by Miss Miller. It’s more a matter of just how much excitement and sprawling action we can fit into the screenplay. Naturally it’ll take the death of a leading player to put Kirk over the edge and on the side of right vs. the wrong in his ex partner and would be killer John Archer.
If it weren’t for the participation of Douglas who by this time had starred in a string of highly praised films including Champion, Detective Story and to be released in ’52 as well, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Trees may have but disappeared by this time. Thanks to his stardom and what he has become to Hollywood history, the film is probably the easiest to attain out of his list of titles thanks to it’s Public Domain status. Looking back to the days when I began to collect titles on VHS it’s the first Douglas title I acquired as my own thanks to the bargain bin days. I hadn’t seen it in years so felt now was the time.
Director Feist does a very good job here and while this may play like a second tier product, there are some very well done stunts towards the end and big time explosions and train wrecks that place it a rung up the ladder from other titles during the double bill era. The necessary stock footage turns up for some logging scenes and there’s a well staged scene of Douglas walking around one of these giant trees as he measures it’s girth at 28 feet.
Is it any good? It’s far better than Douglas would probably admit to. Sure the plot is telegraphed and many of the characters are clichéd but it makes for a fine rainy afternoon daydream. Kirk gives it a go in a role that is a variation on the type that got him started but it’s Edgar Buchanan who walks away with the best role in the film. Another example of a character player doing what they do best. Still, with all due respect to Buchanan, it’s star power that lured people to the box office at this point in Hollywood history. Something Kirk Douglas possessed in spades.