Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Heath Holland On...The Big Trail

by Heath Holland
What do you get when you combine a cast of thousands, the entire western United States, and a very young John Wayne? You get a mostly-unseen movie made at least 20 years before its time.

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 Big Trail is a fascinating film. Or more accurately, what The Big Trail represents and what it accomplished is fascinating. 1800 heads of cattle, 1400 horses, 500 buffalo, 185 wagons, and a grand total of 20,000 extras were involved in the filming of the epic motion picture. The shooting commenced through SEVEN states: California, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, and Montana. The price tag for the film was a whopping $2.5 million. Remember, we’re talking about a movie made in 1930. It wasn’t the most expensive movie produced at that time, but it was up there.

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.
I wrote earlier that John Wayne was overshadowed by his theatrically-trained co-stars. At the peak of his powers, some twenty-five years later, Wayne MIGHT have been able to hold his own against the rest of the cast in this movie; as a 23 year old kid with virtually no lead acting experience, he never stood a chance.

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 perils in the film seem very real because they were. When the caravan reaches a river that must be crossed, we witness wagons, horses, oxen, and horses doing their best to cross the deep waters and sometimes failing. Horses go under the water and wagons are occasionally caught by the current and sent floating downstream. When the travelers find themselves atop a cliff wall with no road to any side of them except behind, they lower the wagons over the side of the cliff using ropes and cranes made of felled trees. Near as I can tell, the horses and wagons really were lowered exactly as seen with no special effects used. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a movie that’s this ambitious before. Sure, movies routinely will film in multiple locations, and I know even recently 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.

The Big Trail seems to have slowly gained respect within the last few years, thanks to DVD and Blu-ray releases as well as cable television exposure. It’s easy to see the flaws and why the film failed, but it’s also just as easy to see that it deserves a place on a shelf (a high shelf, at that) of cinematic importance. I don’t think most audiences ever got to see Raoul Walsh’s film in the way that he intended it to be seen, but thankfully we can, and we can appreciate just how ahead of its time The Big Trail was.


  1. This is definitely on my list of movies to see now, thanks Heath!

  2. Heath,

    You are 100% correct in your assessment of this amazing movie. I came across your article by accident, but enjoyed it very much. I have been a fan of "The Big Trail" for years, and when I saw one day that the Grandeur print was available on DVD, I bought a copy before I finished reading the article. I have given lots of copies of this movie to people, so that they could get a look at a true spectacle. I tell them that no one will ever capture the look and feel of the wagon train experience like this. You could CGI your boots off and never get the "weight" of the real thing. Thanks for helping others to discover this classic.