A heroic young trail scout leads a large party of pioneers along THE
BIG TRAIL to the West, with Indian attacks, natural disasters &
romantic complications all part of the adventure.
As sweeping & magnificent as its story, Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL is
a wonderful film, as entertaining as it was more than seven decades
ago. With very good acting and excellent production values, it lives up
to its reputation as the talkies' first epic Western.
John Wayne, pulled from obscurity for his first important movie role,
looks impossibly young, but he immediately impresses with the natural
charm & masculine authority he brings to the hero's role; he quietly
dominates the film with the attributes which would someday make him a
huge star. Marguerite Churchill is fetching as a lovely Southern belle
who slowly warms to the Duke's attentions. Dialect comic El Brendel is
great fun as a Swedish immigrant beset with mule & mother-in-law woes;
his appearance in a scene signals laughs for the viewer.
Looking & sounding like a human grizzly bear, Tyrone Power Sr., vast &
repulsive, makes a wonderful villain. Slick cardsharp Ian Keith is a
sophisticated bad guy. (His famous physical similarity to John Gilbert
is very apparent here.) Silent movie character actor Tully Marshall is
impressive as a wily old mountain man who helps guide the wagon train.
Corpulent Russ Powell, as a friendly fur trapper, puts his vocal talent
for making nonsense noises to good use. Sharp-eyed movie mavens will
spot Ward Bond as one of the Missouri settlers.
What will surprise many modern viewers is that THE BIG TRAIL was filmed
in an early wide screen process, called Grandeur. More than living up
to its name, the picture looks marvelous, with Walsh showing a mastery
of the new technology. He fills the screen, every portion of it, with
action. Notice during the crowd scenes, how everyone is busy doing real
work, which adds so much to the verisimilitude of these sequences.
Walsh deserves great credit for being one of the first directors to use
wide screen. In addition, the film is blessedly free of the rear
projection photography which blights so many older films. It should
also be stressed that it is only natural that the soundtrack sounds a
little primitive; talkies were still in their cradle. That Walsh was
able to use a microphone at all, with most of the scenes shot out of
doors, is more kudos for him.
THE BIG TRAIL was not a box office success. In 1930, William Haines'
comedies were the big money makers and the public was looking for fare
other than intelligent Westerns. Most of the cast slipped into
obscurity, including Wayne. It would not be until 1939, when John Ford
rescued him in STAGECOACH, that John Wayne's legend would begin in
earnest. And despite its grand & sweeping vistas, it would be another
25 years before wide screen caught on with Hollywood, largely as an
answer to the economic threat from television.