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The Big Trail

The Big Trail
Fox Home Video
1930 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 108, 125 min. / Street Date June 10, 2003 / 19.98
Starring John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power Sr., David Rollins, Frederick Burton, Ian Keith, Charles Stevens, Chief John Big Tree, Ward Bond, Iron Eyes Cody
Cinematography Lucien N. Andriot
Production Designer
Film Editor Jack Dennis
Written by Hal G. Evarts
Produced by Winfield R. Sheehan
Directed by Raoul Walsh

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 -
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
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 Movietone audio.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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