When you think of John Wayne’s most memorable films, chances are you probably aren’t thinking of those made during his early years with the Fox Film Corporation. After all, of the nearly 200 movies in which he appeared, only a handful were made by Fox and most of them were low budget affairs in which he was little more than an extra. By 1930, he’d made small appearances in a dozen films for the company but had yet to create any recognition or success.
Enter filmmaker Raoul Walsh with an incredible gamble. The director was mounting an epic western that would stretch technology to the limit and push the boundaries of cinema. The goal was to film a wagon train as it made its way across the nation, showing the hardships that would occur in vivid detail. There would be no way to fake this sort of realism on a soundstage. Walsh was intent on really taking the journey, just as settlers had a hundred years before, and filming it as he went. Even more audacious, he planned to shoot the whole thing simultaneously in several different film formats -- including the new 70mm process, which would offer audiences a new, wider view of the action.
When Gary Cooper couldn’t get out of his Paramount contract to star, Walsh found himself searching for another young actor to play the lead character, the scout and tracker Breck Coleman. Walsh found good counsel in John Ford, who vouched for Marion Morrison, the tough kid who’d been an extra and background actor in a few of Ford’s films. Realizing that no respectable heroic actor could be named Marion, Walsh and the studio brass decided that this young actor needed a manlier name and John Wayne was born.
The movie was filmed simultaneously in the new 70mm Fox Grandeur process, as well as 35mm; at the same time, Spanish, French, German, and Italian versions were filmed with almost an entirely different cast. The Fox Grandeur format required theaters to have very specific equipment in order to correctly project the film (a modern comparison would be what we’ve seen recently with digital conversion, only 70 years earlier) and Fox was taking a huge chance by spending so much on this film starring a relative unknown.
The roll of the dice didn’t pay off for Fox. Most theaters weren’t equipped for a widescreen presentation and didn’t have the money to convert their screens because of the financial hardships brought on during the Great Depression. Fox Grandeur was considered a failed experiment and widescreen cinema wouldn’t catch on for two more decades. Equally unsuccessful was John Wayne’s performance, which seems wooden and uncharismatic, especially when compared to the talents of his theatrically-trained co-stars; he’d spend the next nine years languishing in B-movie hell before he finally found mainstream success with John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939. The Big Trail was a bust in just about every single way possible and was mostly forgotten for around 50 years, remembered only as a folly and a curiosity.
It’s too bad, because The Big Trail is a really powerful experience. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not a GREAT movie in terms of storytelling and drama. There’s not actually much of a plot; John Wayne’s Breck Coleman sets out to lead a wagon train to a fabled valley far away where settlers can start a new, happier life. Along the way the caravan suffers through illness, attackers, and Mother Nature herself. That’s really all there is in terms of a main story, but how the movie goes about telling it is where The Big Trail shines.
Tyrone Power Sr, the father of the swashbuckling actor Tyrone Power, appears in his only speaking film role, and let me tell you, it’s something. Tyrone Sr. was an English actor who was sent to America, where he had a successful stage career spanning thirty years. If you search for pictures of Tyrone Power Sr. online you’ll find a very handsome, dashing man, which makes his physical appearance in The Big Trail all the more intimidating. I’m pretty sure he’s a werewolf because he doesn’t even look like the same person. This hairy, bearded creature with a wicked snarl looks like he killed and ate Tyrone Power Sr. and then wore his skin as a suit. His performance is totally menacing and believably threatening. It’s a real shame that he died the year after this film was released and wasn’t able to establish himself in the “talkies.”
Slightly less impressive but still better than John Wayne are performances by Marguerite Churchill (who can be seen in Dracula’s Daughter and opposite Spencer Tracy in Quick Millions), and a Swedish Vaudeville comedian named El Brendel as an immigrant seeking his piece of the American dream. Rounding out the regular cast is Tully Marshall, who’d been acting for over 40 years by the time he found himself cast in The Big Trail. Every actor seems to excel at the material and makes the film as much of a character showcase as a western epic.
But it IS undeniably a western epic. The camera captures rolling hills, endless plains, snow-peaked mountains, bottomless canyons, and arid deserts. At times I found myself wondering if some scenes were using painted backgrounds because they seemed impossibly beautiful and too perfect for a film made during this period. But sure enough, a bird would fly into frame in the far distance and I’d realize I was looking at miles and miles of scenery behind the principal actors. Poor John Wayne wasn’t just upstaged by his co-stars, he was upstaged by the scenery itself.
The Lone Ranger shot extensively in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado, but that seems to pale in comparison to what Raoul Walsh did here. They lived on the trail. They fought the elements and risked life and limb for the sake of film.