The Big Trail (1930) dir. Raoul Walsh
Starring: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power Sr. Ian Keith
For those interested in the technical aspect of cinema one of the most interesting Hollywood stories is the 1930 Western, “The Big Trail”. It’s famous for being the leading man debut of John Wayne, who plays a frontiersman leading a group of pioneers into the West to settle new land. It’s also one of the first feature length 70mm films, shot in widescreen. The format was called ‘70mm Grandeur’, a big screen format established by Fox 20 years before Todd AO or traditional Cinemascope. It was an expensive and laborious process to shoot and so the format was abandoned before it even had a chance to become popular. But what resulted was one of the most amazing epic film experiences you’ve probably never seen before.
John Wayne plays Breck, a strapping young Frontiersman with a fearless sense of adventure. With his intimate knowledge of the land he agrees to lead a group of innocent and intrepid pioneers from Missouri to Oregon in search of new lands to settle. The convoy is massive, a hundred covered wagons, horses, and cattle. Their journey will be dangerous and over the course of a year, they will climb and descend treachorous mountains, suffer through blizzards and storms, and continually fight off the ‘hostile Indians’ who watch over them like predators on prey.
During the journey Breck is also covertly investigating the murder of a trapper by a trio of nefarious woodsmen. These woodsmen also serve as guides on the way, and there’s continual conflict among the rowdy men. Breck also falls in love with one of the ladies and so he constantly weighs his inner feelings for the lady Cameron with his needs of the convoy. Breck’s outdoor instincts, openness with the Indians and skills with a knife successfully moves the settlers to their new lands, safe and sound.
“The Big Trail” is a big film in every meaning of the word. In a time when talkies were cooped up in bullet-proof sound studios, Walsh shoots virtually every foot of film in the wilderness where the story takes place. Walsh crafts shot after shot of stunning epic grandeur. Every scene features hundreds of extras, horses, cattle and other real world production elements in the background. Some of the standout scenes include a treacherous crossing of a violent river and the circled wagon defense against the climatic Indian attack. Some of the staging of the action looks as dangerous off camera as on. At one point the entire convoy of wagons have to scale down a sheer drop cliff to a valley below. No CG, no miniatures. It’s all done for real.
Another amazing part of the story, is that the film was simultaneously shot in 1.33:1 full frame 35mm in addition to the 70mm version. Back in the day, since a different projector was needed to screen in 70mm not all theatres could play the Grandeur version of the film. This required shooting the scenes twice, or shooting with both a 35mm camera and a 70mm camera at the same time. Therefore two slightly different versions of the film exist. The new Fox DVD has both versions – which, compared to each other, are like night and day in terms of epic storytelling. Unfortunately because of the screening difficulties the Grandeur version was little seen in it’s day, and little seen until now.
For a film made in 1930, the Grandeur version of “The Big Trail” is akin to discovering a lost David Lean epic. Walsh’s final scene, the reuniting of Cameron and Breck played among the massive redwood trees is as breathtaking as the best of David Lean’s epic work. You can find this film in the new boxset, “The John Wayne Fox Westerns”. Enjoy.