The Big Trail (1930)

Adventure, Western, Romance
John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall
Breck Coleman leads hundreds of settlers in covered wagons from the Mississippi River to their destiny out West.
  • Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Company:
  • Passed Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 01 Nov 1930 Released:
  • 20 May 2003 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Hal G. Evarts Writer:
  • Raoul Walsh Director:
  • N/A Website:

All subtitles:



Grandeur Version vs. Standard Version: They are not the same.10/10

Contrary to the comment posted directly below, The Big Trail (1930) was not filmed in a three-camera process "much like the later Cinerama." That was the finale to Napoleon (1927), a different film entirely! The Big Trail was simultaneously shot in both 35mm and 70mm (Grandeur) versions, and both versions are shown on Fox Movie Channel from time to time, so it's easy to compare one with the other. The Grandeur version (broadcast in letterbox @ approximately its original 2-1 ratio) is more impressive cinematically with its wide angle panoramas, but suffers from the same problem that beset early CinemaScopes, a lack of close-ups forced upon director Raoul Walsh because of focus problems. Scenes involving individuals rather than crowds or long shots are much more effective in the standard version because the camera can move closer to the players thereby achieving a greater sense of involvement for the viewer. Watching the two versions simultaneously, one gets an accurate idea of which shots Walsh chose to shoot close-up, in the standard version, but could not, in the Grandeur version. There are also a couple sequences involving El Brendel: a shell game with Ian Keith, and some business with his wife & a jackass, which are in the Grandeur version, but missing from the standard version.

For the record, The Big Trail is the only one of three Fox Grandeur films which has survived in its original wide screen format. (The other two are Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, completely lost, and Happy Days, which survives only in standard format.) Other studios also experimented with wide film at this time, but the only other one still known to exist in both formats is The Bat Whispers, filmed in both 65mm and 35mm, and released by United Artists. Other wide films were MGM's Billy the Kid (1930) and The Great Meadow (1931), RKO's Danger Lights (1930), and WB's The Lash (1930), all of which can be seen in their standard format versions on Turner Classic Movies. WB's Kismet (1930) was also filmed both wide and standard, but seems to have completely disappeared; it is rumored to be lost.

Why did wide film fail in 1930? Theaters were reeling (pun intended) under the impact of the stock market crash of October 1929, and the spiraling costs of installing sound equipment, and so were adverse to taking on the added expense of installing additional new projection equipment and new wider screens to accommodate just a handful of films, photographed in a variety of different systems that were not even always compatible with each other. It would not be until 1953 when Fox, now Twentieth Century-Fox, would try again, and this time succeed, with the introduction of wide screen CinemaScope.
How the West was Won5/10

Critics generally pan this flick, probably because of its crudeness, cliches and caricatures. The critics are wrong. What we are watching in "The Big Trail" is the closest to the history of the American west that we will ever see, outside the silent classics of William S. Hart.

Early movies could use or consult people WHO HAD BEEN THERE. Of course, USC quarterback John Wayne, or even Irish thespian Tyrone Power, Sr. (who tried farming and hated it) are exceptions, but there is a ring of authenticity with "The Big Trail" which you can't get second hand. And if those aren't real plains Indians by the hundreds, I'll eat my breech clout!

And the scenery! Unfortunately, cinematographers hadn't mastered filters, so the sky is always washed out, and dust and haze obscure the deep focus. But even these limitations paradoxically serve to provide a feel of endless horizons. And the locations are spectacular, especially the Indian village, which is so enormous that at first I thought half of it was backdrop. Then, there is the spectacular rope drop of animals and equipment down an escarpment that could have inspired Herzog's "Fizcarraldo".

Of course, the acting is hammy and dialog corny, but remember, The Big Trail is from 1930 and that early sound movies had yet to evolve fully from silent film technique, which called for pantomime, with its exaggerated facial expression and movement. Also bear in mind that the style of reading lines came directly from the theater stage from which lines, lacking voice amplification, were delivered as oratory to be heard in the back rows.

Robert Flaherty in his landmark documentary "Nanuk of the North" actually set up his scenes dramatically. He was by no means a fly on the wall. If Flaherty could have made a documentary about the epic journey of a pioneer wagon train through the great Western prairies, I doubt if he could have achieved much greater impact than "The Big Trail".
Big, gritty and ... wide screen in 1930?9/10

John Wayne's first starring role just blew me away. Televised letterbox style on AMC, I had to check and make sure I had the right date. Sure enough, this 1930 film was made using a 55 mm wide-screen process. Aside from that, it features some of the grittiest, most realistic footage of the trek west I've seen. Wagons, men and animals are really lowered down a cliff face by rope. Trees are chopped by burly men -- and burly women -- so the train can move another 10 feet. The Indians are not the "pretty boy" city slickers who portrayed them later; they're the real deal. A river crossing in a driving rain storm is so realistic, it has to be real (In fact, I understand that director Raoul Walsh nearly lost the entire cast during this sequence). I could smell the wet canvas. Each day is an agony. The various sub-plots are forgettable but the film as a whole is not. I can't think of another title that can beat The Big Trail in evoking a sense of living history on the trail to Oregon. Bravo.
An Epic, Trailblazing Western10/10
A heroic young trail scout leads a large party of pioneers along THE BIG TRAIL to the West, with Indian attacks, natural disasters & romantic complications all part of the adventure.

As sweeping & magnificent as its story, Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL is a wonderful film, as entertaining as it was more than seven decades ago. With very good acting and excellent production values, it lives up to its reputation as the talkies' first epic Western.

John Wayne, pulled from obscurity for his first important movie role, looks impossibly young, but he immediately impresses with the natural charm & masculine authority he brings to the hero's role; he quietly dominates the film with the attributes which would someday make him a huge star. Marguerite Churchill is fetching as a lovely Southern belle who slowly warms to the Duke's attentions. Dialect comic El Brendel is great fun as a Swedish immigrant beset with mule & mother-in-law woes; his appearance in a scene signals laughs for the viewer.

Looking & sounding like a human grizzly bear, Tyrone Power Sr., vast & repulsive, makes a wonderful villain. Slick cardsharp Ian Keith is a sophisticated bad guy. (His famous physical similarity to John Gilbert is very apparent here.) Silent movie character actor Tully Marshall is impressive as a wily old mountain man who helps guide the wagon train. Corpulent Russ Powell, as a friendly fur trapper, puts his vocal talent for making nonsense noises to good use. Sharp-eyed movie mavens will spot Ward Bond as one of the Missouri settlers.

What will surprise many modern viewers is that THE BIG TRAIL was filmed in an early wide screen process, called Grandeur. More than living up to its name, the picture looks marvelous, with Walsh showing a mastery of the new technology. He fills the screen, every portion of it, with action. Notice during the crowd scenes, how everyone is busy doing real work, which adds so much to the verisimilitude of these sequences. Walsh deserves great credit for being one of the first directors to use wide screen. In addition, the film is blessedly free of the rear projection photography which blights so many older films. It should also be stressed that it is only natural that the soundtrack sounds a little primitive; talkies were still in their cradle. That Walsh was able to use a microphone at all, with most of the scenes shot out of doors, is more kudos for him.

THE BIG TRAIL was not a box office success. In 1930, William Haines' comedies were the big money makers and the public was looking for fare other than intelligent Westerns. Most of the cast slipped into obscurity, including Wayne. It would not be until 1939, when John Ford rescued him in STAGECOACH, that John Wayne's legend would begin in earnest. And despite its grand & sweeping vistas, it would be another 25 years before wide screen caught on with Hollywood, largely as an answer to the economic threat from television.
Unbelievable beautiful!10/10

I just saw The Big Trail in Vienna's Filmmuseum for the first time. Immediately I was astonished by both the pictures optical high quality and unusual format and by its beautifully detailed story. Who has ever seen such a documentary style western with John Wayne? And there is so much time, you can actually look around on the screen, there is so much to see! One is ever grateful that the scenes are often static, because every single shot is so well composed and you want to take it it. Even the acting is good and fits in well. The long running time of the picture is wonderful, you don't want to miss a minute of it!