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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

THE BIG TRAIL -- DVD review by porfle


It's not every day you get to watch a 1930 blockbuster movie in widescreen, with enough sheer spectacle to leave even modern viewers breathless.  The movie in question is Raoul Walsh's Western epic THE BIG TRAIL, a young John Wayne's first starring role and a genuine treasure for Western fans.

Shot on 70mm film using an early widescreen process known as "Fox Grandeur", THE BIG TRAIL was expensive to shoot and expensive to project--new equipment had to be installed in theaters just to show it--and with the onset of the Great Depression, it seemed the "Fox Grandeur" process had come along at just the wrong time.  Only a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles ever exhibited the widescreen version, while everyone else saw a much less impressive 35mm Academy aspect ratio version that was filmed simutaneously.  It would be another two decades before Cinerama offered moviegoers such wide vistas again.

The story takes place as a cattle drive blazes the trail for a wagon train full of settlers bound to reach the land north of Oregon.  For five months, director Raoul Walsh and his crew filmed 185 full-sized Conestoga wagons (or "prairie schooners") and thousands of extras on a 2,000-mile trudge across five states, facing conditions much like those experienced by the actual pioneers.  The settings, including a bustling river town, a massive riverboat, and various outposts along the trail, are meticulously detailed and wonderfully authentic, as are the costumes, props, and all other aspects of the production. 



The 23-year-old John Wayne plays buckskin-clad Breck Coleman, a tall, good-natured frontiersman who hires on as the group's scout for two reasons.  One, he's infatuated with a lovely young pioneer woman named Ruth (Marguerite Churchill), who can't stand him, and two, he's sworn revenge against the burly bullwhacker Frack (a Bluto-like Tyrone Power, Sr.) and his weaselly henchman Lopez (Charles Stevens) for murdering his best friend in order to steal his valuable stock of wolf pelts.  To complicate things, these skunks are in cahoots with a lowdown riverboat gambler named Thorpe (Ian Keith), who is also smitten with Ruth and is looking for an opportunity to shoot Breck in the back somewhere along the trail.

The actors, from the stars down to the extras, all look and act as though they belong in that era, despite the sometimes stilted acting styles (a leftover from the silent era, along with the expository intertitles).  And when the settlers encounter various tribes of Indians along the way, both friendly and not-so-friendly, they definitely aren't refugees from central casting--they're the real thing.  Much of this film is like a window into the past because the Wild West as we know it still existed at the time this was made, and Walsh's cameras were there to record it in its gloriously uncivilized state.



Breathtaking scenery and amazingly rich tableaux fill the screen throughout the film, with wagons, horses, and cattle often stretching as far as the eye can see.  One sequence shows the wagon train during a harrowing river crossing, while another details the grueling task of lowering the wagons, livestock, and people down the face of a sheer cliff by ropes.  We also get the obligatory "circling the wagons" scene (never as well-done as it is here) as the hostile Cheyenne attack and the settlers fight desperately to repel them. 

The excitement comes from knowing that these events are actually taking place and not being simulated by special effects or augmented by CGI.  From the rolling hills and mountains of the midwest, through miles of burning desert, and finally to the lush, majestic redwood forests (with a brief stop-off at the Grand Canyon along the way), the genuine locations used for THE BIG TRAIL are a non-stop feast for the eyes.

As Bill Cooke recently stated on the Classic Horror Film Board, "John Wayne may be a little rough in his first acting role, but was never more charming."  The financial failure of THE BIG TRAIL would relegate Wayne to a long string of B-movies until his breakthrough role as "The Ringo Kid" in John Ford's 1939 classic STAGECOACH, but his Breck Coleman character is just as likable and appealing as any he ever played.  He's earnestly convincing whether palavering with his friends the Indians, bashfully courting the gal of his fancy, or stalking his best friend's killers with deadly determination.



Marguerite Churchill, whom I always liked as Otto Kruger's sassy secretary in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936), is winsome as the girl Breck must try his darndest to win over.  As the loathesome Frack, Tyrone Power, Sr. is almost cartoonishly villainous, but he's a formidable bad guy nonetheless.  Tully Marshall is outstanding as Breck's pal, the aging frontiersman Zeke, while vaudeville comedian El Brendel provides love-it-or-hate-it comedy relief as a Swedish doofus named Gus who is constantly being harangued along the way by his tyrannical mother-in-law.

20th Century Fox's 2-disc DVD of this restored version of THE BIG TRAIL is a real treat for fans of John Wayne and of Westerns in general.  Despite some rough patches here and there, the film looks great and is always visually impressive.  Four informative featurettes and some photo galleries make for interesting supplemental viewing, although the same can't be said, unfortunately, for Richard Schickel's boring commentary track.  The second disc contains the standard fullscreen version, which is interesting for comparative purposes although you probably won't care to sit through the whole thing after watching the widescreen version.

For me, the combination of a great Western adventure with the novelty value of seeing a beautiful widescreen film shot in the early days of talking pictures is a thrill that's hard to beat.  Add to this the opportunity to watch John Wayne shine in his starring debut and director Raoul Walsh at the height of his creative skills, and you've got THE BIG TRAIL--surely one of the most spectacular and irresistibly entertaining Westerns ever made.  To borrow another quote from Bill Cooke:  "By the time this one is over, you actually feel as if you've taken a wagon train out West."


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2 comments:

Michael McGregor said...

This is a great review of The Big Trail. I loved the in-depth detail of it.

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks, glad you liked it!