“Remember this, the three of you, I’m not your friend!”
In 1929, John Wayne was making a modest salary as a prop and occasional stunt man at Fox Studios where he was working mainly with John Ford. It would, however, be director Raoul Walsh who would give Wayne his first big break in films. The film in question was The Big Trail; it was intended to be a major Fox production and accordingly would use Fox’s sound-on-film technique (Movietone) and a 70mm widescreen process known as Grandeur. The latter was something that Fox Studios hoped would attract customers and so help to balance the company’s precarious bottom line. Unfortunately, most theatres were not equipped to show the widescreen version, so The Big Trail would also be shot in conventional 35mm.
Fox has now released the latter on DVD in a fairly bare-bones version.
The story is quite straightforward. It’s a tale of a major wagon train heading west from Missouri to Oregon and all it encounters along the way from Indian attacks to difficult river and mountain crossings. John Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a young scout and trailblazer, who eventually has to assume leadership of the trek. Along with the natural barriers, Coleman must also contend with a slick southern gambler and a misanthropic trail boss with a sneaky henchman, not to mention trying to romance an attractive young woman.
The most impressive aspect of The Big Trail is the sheer spectacle that it presents. It was shot entirely on location, at spots ranging from Yuma (where an impressive re-creation of the town of Independence, Missouri was built along the Colorado River), Sacramento, and Jackson Hole to the Grand Tetons, Sequoia National Park, and Moisie, Montana. These settings combined with some incredible shots of wagons being manhandled down steep cliffs, across treacherous rivers, and through snow-covered mountain passes impart a real feel for the hardships that must have been faced by the actual pioneers.
The acting is something else. John Wayne, for a relative neophyte, comes off quite well — his performance remains appealing over seven decades later. Although some of his lines sound a bit stiff and he occasionally looks uncomfortable, most of the time he seems quite natural and he certainly looks the part. His voice lacks the distinctive cadence for which he would become known, but there’s no denying the presence he brings to the part. Many of the other main roles, however, went to trained Broadway actors such as Tyrone Power and Tully Marshall, and their stage technique looks very out of place on the screen. Tyrone Power (Sr. — not his son, who would become a star at Fox in his own right a decade later) creates in his performance of the trail boss a bear-like, almost incoherent characterization that has to be seen to be believed. Marguerite Churchill, who played the female lead, was like Wayne a relative unknown. Her part does not demand much and her work is adequate if not particularly memorable. Of course, it didn’t help the performances that apparently bootleg liquor flowed freely during the location shooting. That, combined with numerous retakes needed for the separate 35 and 70mm versions as well as a German version using German-speaking leads, led to endless complaining — the sort of unhappy shoot that can get translated to the screen.
The Big Trail did not do particularly well at the box office. Despite Fox’s big plans, there were only two theatres in the country equipped to show the Grandeur version. All the other theatres were stuck with the 35mm version, which lacked the scope and grandeur (I had to say it) of the widescreen one. The unknown leads — Wayne and Chapman — didn’t have the drawing power either, despite being dispatched on a country-wide publicity tour. As a result, the film failed to recoup its considerable costs.
Would that Fox’s DVD presentation were more of a positive factor than it is. The most anticipated aspect of the release was the opportunity to see the widescreen version, but initial indications that only the full-screen 35mm version would be presented proved to be correct. Not that there’s anything too wrong with the latter — it’s in decent shape for a film that’s undergone no restoration, although inconsistent with clear sharp sequences followed by washed-out ones and the typical speckles and scratches for a film of this vintage. It’s just disappointing that Fox didn’t go the extra mile here to make the widescreen version available too. Reportedly, Fox felt that the it was not in such condition as to yield a good result on DVD, yet it has been available on television in quite a good-looking version.
The audio is also acceptable. There’s minimal hiss and distortion, but neither track (it’s offered in both mono and stereo) gives any great sense of presence.
Extras on the disc are limited to trailers for three John Wayne films: The Undefeated, The Comancheros, and North to Alaska.
Despite the verdict implied by its original lack of success and Fox’s merely adequate disc, I suggest that The Big Trail is worth an investment of your time and money. The location work is worth the price of admission alone and the opportunity to see a star in the making in the person of the young John Wayne is not to be missed. Additionally, we have too few chances to see one of the major productions from the dawn of sound. The combination is too appealing to pass up.