The Big Trail

Dir: Raoul Walsh. 1930. Starring: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill. English. U.S. Western.
The Big Trail

On the eve of the Depression, studio and theater owner William Fox decided that something new was needed in film exhibition. So he created Fox Grandeur – the first 70mm widescreen projection system. The process used to sometimes mind-boggling effect in The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh’s early sound Western.

The feature supplied the first starring role for the unbelievably young John Wayne, who plays Breck Coleman, a scout who signs on to lead a wagon train of settlers from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. Along the trail, he romances a comely pilgrim (Marguerite Churchill), is menaced by a trio of deadly baddies (Tyrone Power, Sr., Charles Stevens, and Ian Keith), and faces perils ranging from a tribe of hostile Indians to the raging elements.

The plot was simplicity itself, but The Big Trail is worth seeing for the simply astonishing vistas shot by director Raoul Walsh, whose crew covered more than 4,000 miles to reach authentic Western locations. His widescreen cameras took in breathtaking pictures that could never be approximated by contemporary digital magic. When the covered wagons ford a rushing river or careen down steep cliffs, it’s real. No other epic oater looks quite like it.

The film was a colossal flop in its day – few theatres were equipped to project the Grandeur process, and a conventional 35mm version, shot simultaneously, looked cramped and ordinary. So widescreen pictures would have to wait another two decades for the advent of CinemaScope to attain box office success. But, as it was restored for 70mm screenings during the ‘90s, The Big Trail is a visual marvel, and one of the few opportunities contemporary audiences have to see the unspoiled West in all its jaw-dropping grandeur. 

Posted by:
Chris Morris
Jun 2, 2008 5:54pm
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