#581) The Big Trail (1930)

#581) The Big Trail (1930)

OR “Wide Load”

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Written by Hal G. Evarts (and a whole bunch of uncredited writers, including Walsh)

Class of 2006

NOTE: This post is based on my viewing of the widescreen version of “The Big Trail”.

The Plot: Around 1843, a group of settlers begin the dangerous journey from Missouri to Oregon along the famous Oregon Trail. Among those traveling with the settlers is trapper Breck Coleman (John Wayne) out to avenge the death of his friend at the hands of Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.). There’s also Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), a single mother who inevitably becomes this movie’s love interest, and Gus (El Brendel), a Swedish immigrant bossed around by his mother-in-law (Louise Carver). But there’s peril at every stop on this trail, all of it filmed in the widescreen process of Grandeur 70!

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly a trivia entry about John Wayne’s big break, but they do applaud the film’s “majestic sweep” and “panoramic scenes”. There’s also an essay by Raoul Walsh expert Marilyn Ann Moss.

But Does It Really?: I was completely unaware that there had been any kind of major widescreen release before the 1950s, so Grandeur 70 took me by surprise, and turned what I thought would be a standard John Wayne movie into something quite memorable. Granted, “The Big Trail” is your standard John Wayne movie, but it looks different than any other movie of its time and earns its NFR designation for both its historical and aesthetic significance. “The Big Trail” is a unique enough curio in film history to warrant a spot on the NFR, and at least one viewing for film buffs.

Every Experimental Widescreen Process Gets One: Grandeur 70 (aka Fox Grandeur) was the first major 70mm widescreen film stock in American cinema, conceived by William Fox himself, hoping to create a more grand movie experience to boost ticket sales. Fox collaborated with Theodore Case (the Movietone sound innovator responsible for this odd NFR entry), and by May 1929 the first Grandeur 70 cameras were ready to go. A few experimental shorts were filmed in the process, and “The Big Trail” was the first major film shot in Grandeur 70.

Wow, That’s Dated: While “The Big Trail” is a bit more nuanced in its portrayal of indigenous people (Breck encourages the settlers to make peace with them rather than fight), they sure do say “injuns” a lot, and there’s still an attack sequence in which the tribes are reduced to their “savages” stereotype.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscars for “The Big Trail” or its revolutionary cinematography. For the record, Best Cinematography was awarded that year to Floyd Crosby for another NFR film: “Tabu: A Story of the South Seas”.

Other notes

  • “The Big Trail” is a movie that doesn’t have trivia, but rather statistics. According to the aforementioned Moss essay, production took four months (at a time when most movies were shot in a month), and filmed at 15 different locations in seven different states. The creatives included 22 crew members, almost 300 actors, 20,000 extras, 725 indigenous extras from five different tribes, 185 wagons, 1400 horses, 1800 head of cattle, 500 buffalo and 700 various barnyard animals. On top of all this, the crew was shooting the 70mm widescreen version, the 35mm standard version, AND the Spanish, French, Italian, and German language versions simultaneously (a common practice before dubbing technology had improved).
  • Marion Morrison had appeared as an extra or bit player in a few movies during the late 1920s, and was working as a prop handler when Raoul Walsh spotted him moving large furniture pieces with minimal struggle. Walsh trusted his instinct and cast Morrison as the lead in “The Big Trail”. Credited as “Duke Morrison” in an early film, Walsh suggested Morrison change his screen name to “Anthony Wayne”. Fox executives vetoed Anthony (“too Italian”), so Walsh suggested the first name John. And now you know the rest of the story!
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Arthur Edeson (as well as the 35mm version’s cinematographer, Lucien N. Andriot). The widescreen in this movie is gorgeous. As the only ’30s widescreen movie on the list, this film’s aesthetic instantly stands out. Due to technical limitations there aren’t a lot of close-ups in this movie, but if you’re just here for the spectacle, “The Big Trail” does not disappoint. Each frame is packed with big sweeping vistas, wagon trains that extend to the horizon, and background activity that give a real sense of time and place. It almost feels like a documentary, which is funny since this movie is depicting historical events from 90 years prior.
  • As an actor John Wayne is…fine in this. He’s not remarkable, but you do see the beginnings of the all-American hero persona he would embody in his more iconic movies.  Also, John Wayne turned 23 during this production! He’s so young!
  • El Brendel pops up in this movie as the comic relief, playing the same Swedish immigrant stereotype he played in “Wings“. On top of the stereotyping, Brendel’s subplot centers around literal mother-in-law jokes. Also adding some comic relief is Russ Powell as Windy Bill, making more animal noises than the guy from “Police Academy”, and more or less resembling Big Al from the Country Bear Jamboree.
  • Most surprising among the cast to me was Tyrone Power Sr. as Red Flack. Having recently seen his performance as a sophisticated attorney in “Where Are My Children?“, I wasn’t expecting Power to show up as the heavy in a western. This is Power’s only sound film, showing off his rugged baritone.
  • The major trek scenes are an impressive undertaking, and from what I understand filmed as accurately as possible. River crossings, canyon scalings; no wonder the “Oregon Trail” computer game was impossible to beat. I’m surprised no one died of dysentery in this movie.
  • Like many movies of the time, the love story in “The Big Trail” is a variation of “He’s a jerk but she’s okay with it” called “He’s aggressive and she comes around to it eventually”. At least there’s all this natural beauty to look at while this is happening.
  • A major character’s murder is intercut with a marriage ceremony happening on the other side of the wagons. Did Coppola watch this?
  • Tully Marshall is kind of a Walter Huston-lite. He’s not a full-on grizzled prospector caricature, but dagnabbit he’s close.
  • On top of all the natural hazards of wagon trains, there’s also snowfall and thunderstorms during this movie. Allegedly both of them were real occurrences. Even if that’s fabricated, it looks amazing on screen.
  • Ultimately, “Big Trail” is more admirable for its location and backdrop than for its characters. That being said, I did appreciate the final scene of Breck and Ruth reuniting; their two figures dwarfed by a forest of redwoods. 

Legacy

  • “The Big Trail” played at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and the Roxy Theatre in New York, the only two theaters equipped to show 70mm film. Plans were made to expand the film’s release and equip theaters with Grandeur 70 projectors, but the onset of the Great Depression, mixed with the high costs of widescreen for an industry still adjusting to sound, put an abrupt end to the theatrical exhibition of “The Big Trail”. 
  • Due to the film’s financial setbacks, John Wayne was denied what should have been his breakout role in the movies. Wayne spent the rest of the ’30s in supporting roles and B-movies, and it wasn’t until 1939 that John Ford cast him in “Stagecoach” and jump-started Wayne’s career.
  • Raoul Walsh would join Warner Bros. by the end of the 1930s, where he directed a bevy of movies, including future NFR entry “White Heat”.
  • “The Big Trail” remained a forgotten film for over 50 years, with the 35mm “standard” version making the occasional TV appearance. The original camera negative of the 70mm version was restored by the New York Museum of Modern Art, and this print started making the cable TV rounds in the 1990s. The film started getting a reappraisal from film critics around this time as well.
  • Although Grandeur 70 came and went in 1930, it did presage the abundance of widescreen processes Hollywood studios would crank out in the ’50s to combat television.

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