Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This is an odd DVD development ... several years ago the AMC cable channel, when still a reputable
all-movies no-commercials outlet, graced one of its yearly Film Restoration festivals with a really
nice treat, the 1930 70mm version of The Big Trail. Along with a few other
titles like The Bat Whispers, it was filmed in the Grandeur process, basically the same
65mm format that returned in the 1950s for super epics. It was indeed fascinating to see a film
with crude 'all talkie' audio framed in a mighty widescreen aspect ratio, and I was looking forward
to a DVD restoration to really evaluate the film without the steep compression of cable TeeVee.
For reasons that are unclear, this DVD release ignores the legendary 70mm version and instead
presents the normal, flat 35mm version that was shot simultaneously with it. 1
This is the version that most of America saw, and it's a not-bad primitive talkie with some
breathtaking scenery and setpieces. And, of course, it has John Wayne, fresh from the USC
football squad with his less-luminary pal Ward Bond, acting like an amiable galoot.
A wagon train starts out from the Missouri river, with Ruth Cameron (Marguerite
Churchill) and foolish Swede Gussie (El Brendel) among the settlers hoping to reach the
promised land of Oregon. Scout, frontiersman and all-around hero Breck Coleman (John Wayne) takes
on the job of wagon guide, as it fits in with his plan to track down the scoundrels who killed
his partner. But what nobody knows, not even the loyal mountain man Zeke (Tully Marshall),
is that the culprit is none other than the Wagon Boss Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.).
Huge and static, Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail was clearly designed for a giant screen epic. It
is composed in locked-down angles that resemble tableaus vivants, probably because the Fox
executives thought that the pictorial sweep of the giant format voided the need for montage
cutting or camera motion. Although an okay plot is cooked up, with revenge-seeker Wayne mooning
after chaste pioneeress Churchill while the swarthy villain cooks up murderous ideas, the show
now plays rather ponderously. Indian attacks, a desert crossing and other natural perils are
counted off with frequent silent-style intertitles. It's almost more of a parade than a movie, but
the giant vistas of plains, cliffs and river crossings filled with wagons and horses must have
been fascinated audiences way back at the birth of sound.
This parallel-shot 35mm version mimics the large format's look. Being just as static, it has the
disadvantage of seeming more primitive than most pictures before or since. 2
The camera remains locked off, and people stay rooted like plants to read their lines - loud and
clear. I didn't see any poorly-hidden microphones or boom shadows, but it's clear that the
actors wanted to avoid the curse of not 'recording well' - everybody uses so much emphasis that
screen acting is put back by at least 15 years.
John Wayne is fine, although his voice, considered to be on the thin side, may have contributed
to his instant demotion to the minor leagues, there to toil for nine years before being tapped for
stardom by John Ford. There are so few closeups, it's hard to see if Marguerite Churchill is even
pretty. Tully Marshall is a fine folksy sidekick, kind of a proto- Arthur Hunnicutt type. There's a
'Tyrone Power' listed in the credits, and I was having trouble connecting Churchill's squeaky-voiced
little brother with the later matinee idol. But the Tyrone here is Tyrone Power
senior, who plays the huge, uncouth villain, a guy who chortles like Bluto through bad
teeth and really sounds strange as he offers his vile threats with perfect diction. It is easy to
picture Phoebe Dinsmore-type dialogue coaches having more performance input than the director on
the Big Trail set. Ian Keith rounds out the main players as a slimy Southern
cardsharp who turns hired killer for the evil Trail Boss, and for a while has the impressionable
heroine wrapped around his finger.
In for laughs is comedian El Brendel, who typified ethnic 'stupid Swede' humor. Science Fiction
fans know him as the star of Fox's giant Science Fiction musical Just Imagine, made the
same year, with the same 'by golly' and 'yumpin' yimminy' jokes. He has a lot of screen time
early on, including an atypical funny joke where someone finds him sitting foolishly in the mud.
When asked how deep the mudhole is, he replies that he's sitting on his horse!
The film seems to forget about Brendel later on. Although the running time is 108 minutes, the longer
original length listed in the IMDB indicates that this 35mm version may have been severely
cut sometime during its popular run, or for later reissues. Perhaps we're missing more side-splitting
El Brendel gags.
Visually, the show is not bad at all. The mass action scenes show wagons being
lowered over cliffs on ropes (oops, lost another one) and most scenes play out in real locations
instead of sets. The romantic finale has Wayne returning to Churchill through a stand of colossal
redwood trees, which creates a massive sense of scale on a television large enough to do
it justice. Historically, this is a significant Western, but mainly because of Wayne and the large
format. In ordinary 35mm, its impact is somewhat diminished.
Fox's DVD of The Big Trail is okay on DVD. The liner notes don't mention 70mm anywhere, so I
guess it's honest marketing, but I grabbed it assuming it was the restored version. The picture is
slightly worn but intact, and the photography interesting in its clarity and simple lighting effects. Different
DP's shot the two versions, so if Fox ever gives us the Grandeur version, we'll be able to compare.
There are no extras, not even a trailer. The cover wisely uses a full portrait of Wayne. He's
so young, it looks like a baby picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Trail rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2003
1. Scuttlebutt has it that
an archive, or AMC footed the bill for the 70mm transfer, and that the orig negative
might not even be in Fox's possession, factors that blocked its consideration for release.
2. Although nothing can beat the stultifying boredom of other 'dawn of
sound' epics, as Hollywood fumbled its new sound technology. At UCLA we were shown a clip from
The Desert Song (in two-strip Technicolor, I think). The camera just sat staring at a stage-ful
of sand and phony palm trees, while a singer in the middle of the screen chirped away in tinny
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson