Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) straddles a fascinating chasm in the history of not only film, but of Hollywood. On the one hand, it represents the foresight, courage and blind faith of William Fox – a film pioneer and entrepreneurial maverick in the industry. During Hollywood’s early gestations, Fox became a force to be reckoned with, building a monopoly that included not only an amalgam of lucrative independent studios (cumulatively melding them into 20th Century-Fox) but also owning his own theater chain and laboratories for processing film; all the while acquiring Loews Incorporated, the corporate entity that had put rival studio – MGM – on the map.
Fox was a creative visionary with a forward thinking plan for the future. He developed the first 70mm widescreen film process – Grandeur – owning it outright, and was determined to make it the next big technology that the other studios would be scrambling to catch up. To this end, Fox commissioned one of his top directors, Raoul Walsh to craft a gargantuan western – one that would break new ground in every aspect of the film making process. Unfortunately for William Fox, this costly venture also broke his bank. With the fallout of the Great Depression conspiring against him, the disastrous debacle that became The Big Trail forced Fox to divest his assets, effectively ousting himself from the company that continues to bear his name.
On the other hand, and in hindsight, The Big Trail is a landmark. Arguably, nothing like it has been attempted since. Staggering were the figures trumpeted by Fox’s publicity department: 20,000 extras, 1400 horses, 725 Native peoples belonging to 5 tribes, 500 head of buffalo, a production staff of 200, 93 principle speaking parts and 22 cameramen. This travelling caravan made their way through Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and California, lugging a cargo of 123 baggage trains over an arduous 4 month shoot. To complicate matters further, The Big Trail would be photographed six individual times; twice for the English speaking version – once in Grandeur and then on standard 35mm film stock, then once more for each of the French, German, Spanish and Italian versions to be distributed in Europe with an entirely separate cast for each foreign version. Given the logistics nightmare of this undertaking, it’s a small wonder that The Big Trail came in on a budget of $2 million.
Even more impressive is the documentarian quality Walsh and his ensemble achieved. The Big Trail is a fictional story, scripted by Hal G. Evarts, Mary Boyle, Jack Peabody, Florence Postal and Fred Sersen, and yet it looks more like a living snapshot ripped from pages of American history. The screenplay articulates the manifest destiny mythology; extolling the morality of the puritan settler who braved the wilds and slaughtered savages to civilize the American west. This grand narrative has since fallen out of favour for obvious reasons, in that it illustrates a rather reckless disregard for the sanctity of Native Americans who occupied the land long before the white European settler. As such, when viewed today The Big Trail represents two histories simultaneously; the one on the screen circa the late 1800s, and an unassuming, yet pervasive racial inequity behind the scenes that permeated our early 20th century social morays and attitudes.
Our story concerns a massive caravan of settlers making an arduous trek from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. Trapper Breck Coleman (John Wayne) has just returned from a sojourn along the Santa Fe. He fills the apprehensive locals with fantastic stories of his journey. But his optimism is tarnished by the death of an old friend the previous winter. Suspecting murder at the hands of unscrupulous Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) and his henchman, Lopez (Charles Stevens – who was Geronimo’s grandson in real life) Breck reluctantly agrees to scout the settler’s caravan west after learning that Flack and Lopez are heading along the Oregon Trail.
Intent on avenging his friend by murdering Flack and Lopez once they reach their destination, Breck falls in love with Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), who denies her obvious attraction to him after an accidental first kiss, and thereafter pursues, Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), a rather notorious Louisiana gambler who is also an acquaintance of Flack. At every possible turn, Flack plots Breck’s demise. After all, the wilderness is unforgiving. It would be so easy to make Flack’s murder look like an accident. Indeed, the caravan endures some harrowing terrain, scaling steep ravines, defending against violent Indian attacks, and crossing strong currents in open waters that wash away several of the ox-drawn Conestoga wagons.
Breck is not so easily defeated. Moreover, the various attempts on his life convince him that he has found the killers of his former partner. Breck confronts Flack, Thorpe and Lopez, forcing this motley crew to depart the wagon train and steal away into the night. During a brutal winter Breck is determined to see the settler’s through to their promised land. After establishing an outpost, Breck takes off after Flack. Ruth, who cannot deny her feelings for Breck any longer, worries that she has lost him forever.
Flack abandons an injured Lopez in the snowy woods where he freezes to death He is stalked and confronted by Breck who kills Flack with his knife. The following Spring Ruth is forlorn. Breck’s loyal sidekick, Zeke (Tully Marshall) tells her that he has decided to leave the valley because he prefers the wide open spaces to living within the settler’s community. Actually, he’s just as distraught over Breck’s failure to return. But then Zeke catches sight of his old friend approaching the outpost from the woods. He encourages Ruth to go in search of ‘a surprise’ he’s hidden for her near the first tree in the forest. She willingly follows his suggestion and is reunited with Breck amidst the towering redwoods.
This fairly pedestrian narrative aside, The Big Trail is a monumental achievement. Its visual compositions are very contemporary, utilizing all of Grandeur’s expansive film frame to its best advantage. Even so, The Big Trail cannot help but feel like a silent movie, its awkward insertion of title cards to advance the story, and its problematic ‘live’ audio recording in vast outdoor spaces without the benefit of post-synced dialogue and effects, inhibit the movie from truly coming to life as it should. And then, there is the acting to consider.
Virtually all of the principles except John Wayne herald from the New York stage with its particular grand style of pronounced gesturing and overly exaggerated speech. Wayne’s lack of stage experience seems more naturalistic herein. But this isn’t the John Wayne we know from countless other westerns made after The Big Trail. The actor is still feeling his oats – awkwardly so. Although undeniably good to look at – and looking every inch the rugged adventurer – he doesn’t make much of a splash, leaving the film without a strong hero that the audience can cheer.
These shortcomings alone are enough to have sunk The Big Trail at the time of its release. But perhaps what really did the film in was bad timing. The Great Depression making it cost prohibitive to retool theaters with the necessary projection equipment to showcase the Grandeur process, most people only saw The Big Trail in its standard 1:33:1 aspect ratio – restaged and re-shot with less enthusiasm for its pictorial value. Viewed in standard, The Big Trail is a subpar western with woefully undernourished performances. It lacks originality and the breadth of that larger than life canvas that was, is and will always remain the film’s greatest – and arguably, its only – selling feature. At best, then, The Big Trail is a supremely impressive failure.
Fox Home Video has made The Big Trail available on Blu-ray as a Wal-mart exclusive. Oh boy, here we go again! You have to order the disc and then have it delivered to a retail location in the U.S. only. Wal-marts in the U.S. aren’t stocking it on their shelves. Wal-Marts in Canada can’t even get it! So a film that already has a niche market audience gets an even more miniscule opportunity to make breakout in hi-def consumer marketplace thanks to this painfully limited distribution. Dumb! Really dumb!
There’s better news about the transfer, however. While I’m not entirely convinced that this is a complete 1080p rescan – as opposed to a bumped up transfer from older digital files, the elements used are very strong and very solid, the gray scale exhibiting impressive tonality. Fine details are strikingly realized. Despite an impressive restoration, age related artefacts are everywhere. For a film that is over 80 years old these shortcomings are just par for the course and actually, not terribly distracting, although very obvious.
The Grandeur version is the preferred version, but Fox has also included the standard Academy ratio edition for our consideration. Its image is not nearly as sharp or detailed for obvious reasons; its 35mm to Grandeur’s infinitely superior 70mm. Take my advice. Bypass the full frame version entirely. The audio on both exhibits a woeful amount of hiss and pop. Again, it’s not the fault of the mastering, but simply a faithful representation of the inadequacies of early sound recording.
Extras include everything that was available on Fox’s lavish 2 disc DVD set from 2008; truncated featurettes on John Wayne, Raoul Walsh, the making of the film and the Grandeur process with some fairly informative commentary by historians and film makers alike. Good stuff. Fox pads out this offering with a DVD copy of the Grandeur version only. Bottom line: recommended for the diehard film historian.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)