The Big Trail
|The Big Trail|
Movie poster for The Big Trail
|Directed by||Raoul Walsh|
|Produced by||Winfield R. Sheehan|
|Editing by||Jack Dennis|
|Distributed by||Fox Film Corporation|
|Running time||122 min. 70 mm version, 108 min. 35 mm version|
A large caravan of settlers attempt to cross the Oregon Trail. Breck Coleman (John Wayne) is a young trapper who just got back to Missouri from his travels near Santa Fe, seeking to avenge the death of an old trapper friend who was killed the winter before along the Santa Fe Trail for his furs, by Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.) and his minion Lopez (Charles Stevens). At a large trading post owned by a man named Wellmore, Coleman sees Flack and suspects him right away as being one of the killers. Flack likewise suspects Coleman as being somebody who knows too much about the killing. Coleman is asked by a large group of settlers to scout their caravan west, and declines, until he learns that Flack and Lopez were just hired by Wellmore to boss a bull train along the as-yet-unblazed Oregon Trail to a trading post north of Oregon, owned by another Missouri fur trader. Coleman agrees to scout for the train, so he can keep an eye on the villains and kill them as soon as they reach their destination. The caravan of settlers in their Prairie schooners would follow Wellmore's ox-drawn train of Conestoga Wagons, as the first major group of settlers to move west on the Oregon Trail. The action takes place between 1837 and 1845. This is historically accurate, as the first major wave of settlers on the Oregon Trail was in 1843 (though the details were completely different).
Coleman finds love with young Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), whom he'd kissed accidentally, mistaking her for somebody else. Unwilling to accept her attraction toward him, Ruth gets rather close to a gambler acquaintances of Flack's, Thorpe (Ian Keith), who joined the trail after being caught gambling. Coleman and Flack have to lead the settlers west, while Flack does everything he can to have Coleman killed before he finds any proof of what he'd done. The three villains' main reason for going west is to avoid the hangman's noose for previous crimes, and all three receive frontier justice instead. The settlers trail ends in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where Coleman and Ruth finally settle down together amidst giant redwoods.
- John Wayne as Breck Coleman
- Marguerite Churchill as Ruth Cameron
- El Brendel as Gus, a comical Swede
- Tully Marshall as Zeke, Coleman's sidekick
- Tyrone Power, Sr. as Red Flack, wagon boss
- David Rollins as Dave "Davey" Cameron
- Frederick Burton as Pa Bascom
- Ian Keith as Bill Thorpe, Louisiana gambler
- Charles Stevens as Lopez, Flack's henchman
- Louise Carver as Gus's mother-in-law
- John Big Tree as Indian Chief
- Ward Bond as Sid Bascom
- Nino Cochise as Indian
- Iron Eyes Cody as Indian
Director Walsh was casting his lavishly expensive epic and had offered the lead to Gary Cooper, who couldn't accept it, and saw a broad-shouldered young prop man carrying furniture named Marion "Duke" Morrison. He cast Morrison in the lead and renamed him "John Wayne" because Walsh happened to be reading a biography of General Mad Anthony Wayne at the time. After making Stagecoach almost a decade later, John Ford pretended in interviews for the next thirty years that he had discovered Wayne as a prop man when casting Stagecoach, despite the fact that Wayne had been top-billed with his name above the title in more than thirty movies by the time Stagecoach was produced. Filming on The Big Trail began in April 1930. During production, John Wayne fell sick from dysentery and was nearly replaced.
Legend has it that the director Raoul Walsh had co-star Tyrone Power, Sr. almost beaten to death for forcing himself on the leading lady, Marguerite Churchill. Power would die just a year later from a heart attack.
Although the 23-year-old Wayne delivered an intriguing and charismatic performance as wagon train scout Breck Coleman, the expensive shot-on-location movie was financially unsuccessful as a result of being an early widescreen release during a time when theatres would not change over due to the encroachments of the Great Depression. After making The Big Trail, Wayne found stardom only in low-budget serials and features (mostly B-westerns). It would take another nine years—and the film Stagecoach—to return Wayne to mainstream prominence. Actor Ward Bond had a minor role in the film that had him on camera for much of the movie and foreshadowed many future appearances in Wayne projects, especially in films directed by John Ford. Bond developed a successful career playing character roles and later portrayed wagon-master Seth Adams in the similarly themed TV Western Wagon Train, which featured a scout dressed in buckskins similar to Wayne's outfit in The Big Trail. Bond, basically an extra in The Big Trail, can be seen somewhere in the frame in an extraordinary number of scenes.
The Big Trail was shot in an early widescreen process using 70 mm film called 70 mm Grandeur film which was first used in Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. Widescreen, along with Technicolor, were picked up by movie studios as the next big technological advancement for films in 1929. In 1930, a large number of films were produced which featured either widescreen or color. Color fared better than widescreen because no special equipment was needed to view color films whereas theatres needed to buy special projectors and screens to project widescreen films.
Late in 1930, however, when the effects of the Depression were beginning to be felt by the public, studios abandoned the use of widescreen and color in an attempt to decrease costs. Because only a small number of theatres could play widescreen films, two versions of the widescreen films were always simultaneously filmed, one in 35 mm and one in the 70 mm Grandeur process. By doing this, the film would be able to be played throughout the country in 35 mm at the same time it was being played in deluxe theatres capable of screening widescreen films. The movie's scenes were often filmed at very different angles for the widescreen and standard releases, with the best angles reserved for the widescreen version. A good example is the scene of Breck Coleman talking with the children, the same sequence simultaneously shot from starkly different angles.
The wagon train drive across the country was pioneering in its use of camera work and the stunning scenery from the epic landscape. An extraordinary effort was made to lend authenticity to the movie, with the wagons drawn by oxen and lowered by ropes down canyons when necessary. Tyrone Power's character's clothing looks grimy in a more realistic way than has been seen in movies since, and even the food supplies the immigrants carried with them were researched. Locations in five states were used in the film caravan's 2,000 mile trek.
In the early 1980s, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which housed the 65 mm nitrate camera negative for The Big Trail, wanted to preserve the film but found that the negative was too shrunken and fragile to be copied and that no film lab would touch it. They went to Karl Malkames, an accomplished cinematographer and a leading specialist and pioneer in film reproduction, restoration, and preservation. Malkames was known to be a “problem solver” when it came to restoring early odd-gauge format films. He immediately set about designing and building a special printer to handle the careful frame-by-frame reproduction of the negative to a 35 mm anamorphic (CinemaScope) fine grain master. The printer copied at a speed of one frame a second. This was a painstaking year-long undertaking that Malkames oversaw from start to finish. It is solely because of him that this film survives in this version.
The 70 mm version was seen on cable television at a time when only the 35 mm version had been released to VHS and DVD. A two-disc DVD was released in the US on May 13, 2008, containing both versions. This movie comes on Fox Movie Channel sometimes.
Another widescreen western was also produced the same year, Billy the Kid, starring John Mack Brown as Billy the Kid and Wallace Beery as Pat Garrett. No widescreen prints of Billy the Kid survive; only a standard-width version shot simultaneously remains.
Two versions 
Beyond the format difference, the 70 mm and 35 mm versions vary substantially from each other. They were shot by different cameras, and footage for each format was edited separately in the cutting room. Some scenes were shot simultaneously by both cameras, the only difference being the angle (with the better angle usually given to the 70 mm camera). Some scenes were shot first by one camera, and then retaken with the other camera. The 70 mm cameras could not focus well up close, so the shots were mainly panoramas with very few close-ups. The 35 mm cameras could move in and focus at short distances. Thus scenes in the 70 mm version might show two characters talking to each other in the same take, while in the 35 mm would have close-up shots cutting back and forth between the two characters.
In the editing of the films, some scenes were edited out for one version but allowed to remain in the other version. The 35 mm version was edited to be shorter (108 minutes rather than 122 minutes), so many scenes in the 70 mm version are not found in the 35 mm film. However, there are a few scenes in the 35 mm version not found in the 70 mm.
The 70mm version has been released on VHS as well as DVD in its widescreen original, but also reformatted to fit a traditional TV screen, despite the availability of the 35 mm version which is closer to that format. The 35 mm version is included along with the 70 mm version in the 2008 2-disc DVD release.
Foreign language versions 
A fairly common practice in the early sound era was to produce at least one foreign language version of a film for release in non-English speaking countries, an approach later replaced by simply dubbing the dialogue. There were at least four foreign language versions made of The Big Trail, using different casts and different character names:
- French: La Piste des géants (1931), directed by Pierre Couderc, starring Gaston Glass (Pierre Calmine), Jeanne Helbling (Denise Vernon), Margot Rousseroy (Yvette), Raoul Paoli (Flack), Louis Mercier (Lopez). La Piste des géants at the Internet Movie Database
- German: Die Große Fahrt (1931), directed by Lewis Seiler and Raoul Walsh, starring Theo Shall (Bill Coleman), Marion Lessing (Ruth Winter), Ullrich Haupt (Thorpe), Arnold Korff (Peter), Anders Van Haden (Bull Flack), Peter Erkelenz (Fichte), Paul Panzer (Lopez). Die Große Fahrt at the Internet Movie Database
- Italian: Il grande sentiero (1931), starring Franco Corsaro and Luisa Caselotti.
- Spanish: La Gran jornada (1931), directed by David Howard, Samuel Schneider, and Raoul Walsh, starring Jorge Lewis (Raul Coleman), Carmen Guerrero (Isabel Prados), Roberto Guzmán (Tomas), Martin Garralaga (Martin), Al Ernest Garcia (Flack), Tito Davison (Daniel), Carlos Villarías (Orena), Charles Stevens (Lopez). La Gran jornada at the Internet Movie Database
See also 
- Ruth tells Honey Girl that there are 26 stars in the flag, dating the movie between Jan., 1837 and March 1845.
- Luisa Caselotti's younger sister, Adriana Caselotti, was the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney's animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
- Villarías is best known for playing the title character in the Spanish language version of Dracula (1931).
- Stevens plays the same part in both the English and Spanish versions of The Big Trail.
Further reading 
- Elyes, Allen. John Wayne. South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1979. ISBN 0-498-02487-3.
- Magnified Grandeur – The Big Screen, 1926–31, David Coles, 2001
- "Wide Film Cinematography: Some Comments on 70 mm Camerawork From a Practical Cinematographer", Arthur Edeson, A.S.C., American Cinematographer, September 1930.
- The Big Trail at the Internet Movie Database
- The Big Trail at AllRovi
- The Big Trail at the TCM Movie Database
- The Big Trail at Rotten Tomatoes