The Big Trail

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The Big Trail 7The Big Trail (1930)

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Written by Hal G. Evarts

Starring: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tyrone Power Sr., El Brendel

Breck Coleman (Wayne) has been asked to lead a wagon train West from the Mississippi. Along the way he’ll have to contend with the elements, the hardship of the trail, and treachery in the form of Red Flack (Power Sr.) Along the way Coleman unexpectedly finds love growing between him and Ruth (Churchill). As he seeks to right the wrongs that Flack has done, Coleman is also hoping to get the settlers out West safely.

The Big Trail 4If you want proof that the Depression hurt the advancement of film technology, this is a great film to look at. The technology of the early Grandeur 70mm film was ahead of its time and theaters were unwilling to adapt to this widescreen format. With film that was twice as wide as the Hollywood standard of the time, the adjustment was unfortunately too expensive. Because of the lack of theaters able to show this film in the proper form, it was quickly dismissed and lost until digital restoration brought it back to life. Most audiences at the time saw a version shot on standard film that lost much of the visual power. If you’re lucky enough to see this movie as it has been restored today, you’ll get a chance to see an impressive cinematic achievement.

The Big Trail 1This film is an excellent example of early attempts at epic Westerns. The story for this movie was written by Hal G. Evarts (Tumbleweeds). The legendary Raoul Walsh (High Sierra) took on this major film project as director. The film was supposed to be the big break for the young John Wayne (McLintock!) who was essentially unknown at the time. He was recommended for the role by the legendary director John Ford (Stagecoach). The film also starred Marguerite Churchill (Dracula’s Daughter), Tyrone Power Sr. (Fury), and El Brendel (Wings).

The Big Trail 3This is an incredible film from a visual perspective. In addition to the 70mm magic created by the Grandeur system, the film also utilized real locations for all filming. This amounted to five locations spread out over 2,000 miles. The film included some of the more realistic clothing and props ever used since researchers were hired to promote authenticity. The movie also employed hundreds of extras as well as livestock and anything else they felt was necessary to making this an epic cinema experience. The visuals are the true strength of this movie.

The Big Trail 2The story is relatively formulaic and predictable. At over two hours long, the movie moves far too slow, likely due to the desire to use so much of the wonderful footage captured during filming. The acting is also pretty straight-forward, leaving little doubt about the nature of the characters or their eventual fates. The score of the film is also pretty common and unimpressive. Nothing about this movie is bad, but nothing seems to stand out as doing anything impressive once you get past the images.

The Big Trail 6This is a unique film that offers a look at one of the earliest widescreen technologies. Having been produced soon after sound became part of films, this is a wonderful movie from a historical standpoint. I’m sure that this is a film that inspired many future film makers in their attempts to bring stories to life on a grand scale. If you’re a fan of Westerns or movie history this is one you should see. I give this one 3 out of 5 stars.

Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 158 Minutes

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