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The Big Trail

dir. Raoul Walsh
1930 / Fox Films Corporation / 122′
written by Hal G. Evans, Raoul Walsh, Marie Boyle,
Jack Peabody
, and Florence Postal 
directors of photography Lucien N. Andriot
and
Arthur Edeson
musical director Arthur Kay
starring
 John WayneMarguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power Sr., David Rollins, Frederick Burton, Ian Keith, and Charles Stevens
The Big Trail
is now available as a Walmart exclusive Blu-ray / DVD combo release.

While Fox Film Corporation advertised their production of The Big Trail with the usual hyperbole (to the left is one of the few ad images that doesn’t tout it as “The Most Important Picture Ever Produced”), rarely has such hyperbole felt so appropriate – more than 80 years later it remains difficult to overstate the shear scope of the thing. Simultaneously filmed in no fewer than five versions for a reported budget of $2 million (mountainous for the time), The Big Trail fulfills the promises of its eponymous adjective time and again, and with more than just its hundreds of extras and vast locations. A financial disaster at the time of release, the film is perhaps best known today for being one of the earliest of the big-format film productions, exploring the possibilities of 70mm widescreen two decades and more before processes like CinemaScope and VistaVision became the Hollywood norm.

Of course, The Big Trail has at least one other claim to historical import. Though director Raoul Walsh had originally hoped to cast Gary Cooper as the picture’s lead, the latter’s contract with Paramount (and that studio’s reticence to loan him out) eliminated him from contention. Ultimately the role went to a young man Fox billed as John Wayne, a 23 year old prop hand and aspiring actor who had up until that time managed only a single credited supporting role – in the early musical Words and Music. By all rights The Big Trail should have made a star of Wayne, but its middling reception only prolonged his obscurity, and left him to squander his budding talents in B-list productions and serials until John Ford’s Stagecoach arrived in 1939.

As a film The Big Trail serves as cinema’s most spectacular presentation (for better or for worse) of the American myth of Manifest Destiny, the belief that heralded the nation’s often violent expansion in the 19th century. The story follows a caravan of settlers as they head west in their prairie schooners to claim the Pacific Northwest for their own, and the various trials and tribulations they must endure along the way. Wayne stars as trapper Breck Coleman, who signs on to scout for the caravan after discovering among its ranks the gargantuan Red Flack (Tyrone Powers Sr. in his only sound role) and his cohort Lopez (Charles Stevens) – two men he suspects of having killed a fellow trapper on the Santa Fe Trail. As the migration progresses Breck’s quest for justice is waylaid early and often by his obligations to the settlers, who desperately need his experience to guide them across rivers, down canyons, and through interminable desert heat. All the while Flack and Lopez, with the help of itinerant sleaze Thorpe (Ian Keith), conspire to end Breck Coleman before he has the opportunity to end them.

The biggest issue with The Big Trail for most modern viewers will undoubtedly be its politics, particularly with regards to Native Americans. However accurate to the times the film’s events may be, it’s become increasingly difficult (and rightly so) to sympathize with white trailblazers when they earn the violent ire of a tribe or two for trespassing. The concept of Manifest Destiny has become problematic enough in its own right, of course, and the thought that anyone has any sort of God-given right to conquer a territory and subjugate its people is worse than preposterous anymore.

Despite its troublesome as its politics The Big Trail remains an undeniably impressive show. Hell-bent on convincing a Depression-era film-going public that their 70mm widescreen Grandeur process was the next necessary evolution in film, Fox Film Corp. pumped no end of resources into the production of the picture. The most startling, stunning aspect of the production is the fact that the vast majority of it was filmed on location. Rather than rely on process work and second unit background plates Fox literally took their show on the road, allowing their substantial credited cast and even more substantial fleet of extras to play pioneer with breathtaking natural scenery serving as the backdrop. Special effects are practical on a scale that begs belief at times – the precipitous lowering of covered wagons, people, livestock and supplies down steep canyon walls is done, and in harrowing fashion, for real. One gets a sense that this was a hellish production even before the oddball shooting format and live audio recording (the handful of looped lines are painfully obvious) are taken into account, what with thousands of props, animals, and people to wrangle about on location for what must have been endless takes (aside from two English editions, in 70mm Grandeur and flat 35mm, there were alternate 35mm German, Spanish and Italian versions, each with their own cast, filmed simultaneously), but all that work pays off in spades. Westerns just don’t come much bigger than this.

And a big part of The Big Trail‘s big appeal is that aforementioned shooting format – this was one of just a handful of pictures photographed in Fox’s proprietary 70mm Grandeur process, and must have been a real novelty for those few who were able to see it projected as such upon release (there couldn’t have been too many of them, as only Grauman’s Chinese and New York’s Roxy Theatre were equipped to play the format at the time). Despite their inexperience with the format both director Raoul Walsh and director of photography Arthur Edeson (Lucien N. Andriot, credited above, served as DP for the standard 35mm version) take to it quite naturally, particularly during the large-scale action setups. Dialogue scenes can appear a bit too static at times (the shear heft of the 70mm cameras was prohibitive to movement) and there are occasional freshman issues with how to focus important action in the frame (like a secondary character entering or leaving), but Walsh and Edeson get it right more than they get it wrong. There’s a convincing documentary verisimilitude to The Big Trail‘s expansive depictions of life during the great Westward migration, and in its action the film can appear considerably more modern than its age might imply.

With full knowledge of what he would go on to become, it’s fascinating to see an impossibly young John Wayne feeling his way through his first starring role. Still, his performance is only one of many that makes the film so interesting for the classic film fan. Tyrone Power Sr. makes a huge impression as Flack, a grungy behemoth whose evil disposition seems to seep from his rotten teeth outward. Power, a silent film veteran, might have proven himself a formidable character player in the early sound era were it not for a fatal heart attack in late 1931 – The Big Trail was his only sound performance. DeMille regular Ian Keith (The Crusades) is appropriately slick as Thorpe, a perennial louse who looks to take the compulsory love interest (Marguerite Churchill, offering a very good performance in her own right) by hook or by crook. Best of them all is Tully Marshall, here cast as Wayne’s charismatic old trapper pal Zeke. A popular character actor from the middle teens until his death in 1943, Marshall here exhibits a raw energy that reminds wonderfully of Walter Houston. One wonders where he found it – The Big Trail was just one of the twelve films to credit him in 1930 alone.

Long available in its shorter Academy ratio 35mm variant only, the full 70mm version of The Big Trail was only recently restored, and made rounds on TV and at revival screenings before eventually seeing release on DVD from 20th Century Fox in 2008. With the advent of Blu-ray I started itching for a taste of this ’30s widescreen anachronism in high definition, and Fox have finally delivered, albeit with a release that is, for now at least, a Walmart exclusive.

I’ve no doubt that the same HD masters sourced for the 2008 DVD issue were also sourced for this Blu-ray edition, but the boost in resolution and texture suits them very well. Fox present The Big Trail in both its 122 minute 70mm (1080p at a ratio of 2.10:1) and 108 minute 35mm (1080p at a ratio of 1.20:1) versions, and those with appropriate expectations should be very pleased. There’s a lot of damage in evidence across both versions, though most obviously in the 70mm, which suffers from no end of persistent emulsion scratches – the included screenshots give a good indication of what to expect. Still, I didn’t find it to be at all untoward for a lesser-known effort more than 80 years old. Otherwise the 70mm versions looks very good, with tight contrast and healthy detail. In motion this image really pops, and the grain, though a bit clunkier than on might expect from a later Fox transfer, goes blessedly unmolested. The 35mm variant has a more diffuse appearance, but can still look mighty impressive – perhaps the most amusing revelation of its inclusion is that the expository intertitles are actually different across the two cuts! Technical specs are strong if not exactly earth-shattering. The two cuts (totaling just shy of 4 hours) are spread across a dual layer BD50, with the MPEG-4 AVC-encoded video receiving an average bitrate of 22.0 Mbps (with peaks up to 40.0 Mbps) in both cases. For The Big Trail this appears to be more than good enough, and I noted no distracting artifacts either in playback or upon closer examination.

Audio is… well… it is what it is. The Big Trail was recorded live and on location with precious little looping in post, and the limitations of early sound technology are obvious throughout. Dialogue is frail and occasionally unintelligible, and those expecting the expansion in depth that often accompanies HD tracks may be disappointed. But expectations are everything, and while the lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic audio for The Big Trail never sounds good by any estimation, it also never sounds any worse than it should. Unlike their Twilight Time-licensed titles, Fox have included the usual slate of subtitles here – all optional, in English SDH, Spanish, and French.

Supplements appear to duplicate those of the 2008 DVD (except for the image galleries, which only appear on the included DVD, which in turn only includes the 70mm cut of the film), and while there’s nothing new here I’ll take it all the same. The Big Trail arrives on Blu-ray with a feature commentary track from historian Richard Schickel (70mm version only) and a selection of featurettes, all in SD: The Big Vision – The Grandeur Process (12 minutes), The Creation of John Wayne (14 minutes,), Raoul Walsh: A Man in His Time (13 minutes), and The Making of The Big Trail (13 minutes). The two discs come packaged in an eco-friendly 2-disc Blu-ray case, with some not-so-subtle attention paid to ensuring that buyers know exactly who the star of the show is.

The Big Trail is a pretty good film in its own right, but that it was produced in 70mm widescreen decades in advance of that format’s popularity make it an absolute must-see for those large format aficionados out there. 20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray presentation is as good as I might ever have reasonably expected, and for the $16 it ran me I’m not complaining. Good stuff, and highly recommended!

122 minute 70mm Fox Grandeur (2.10:1) version

108 minute 35mm (1.20:1) version

Screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

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