The Big Trail
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A young pioneer leads the first covered wagon train west on the Oregon Trail. Directed by Raoul Walsh.
In addition to being a good movie, The Big Trail is, in and of itself, a great story. Take the 70mm Grandeur process with its still-breathtaking widescreen images, the celluloid equivalent of two conventional 35mm frames side-by-side. Studio mogul William Fox owned the process and envisioned a grand triumph for his company. Just the opposite occurred: the 70mm prints could be shown only on projectors designed for that purpose, only two theaters in America had them, and the onset of the Depression forestalled exhibitors from considering such an investment. (Mostly the film was seen in the standard 35mm version shot more or less simultaneously with the wide version--and included in this set.) Fox also took a hit because of the picture's immense scale. As a short on The Making of 'The Big Trail' recounts, the production used locations in five states and employed some 20,000 extras, 500 buffalo, 725 Indians from several tribes, 185 wagons, 22 cameramen, etc. Moreover, because sound-film technology was new, separate versions of the film were being made with different leading players for release in Italian-, Spanish-, and German-speaking markets! Total cost: $2,000,000--and that's in 1930 dollars, remember.
Not a lot of that went to the star. The former Duke Morrison, newly renamed John Wayne, had previously been prop man on some 80 Fox pictures and played a few bits and small parts, notably for director John Ford; on The Big Trail he drew $75 a week. The Creation of John Wayne sets forth all this, as well as a biographical sketch of the youth from Winterset, Iowa, by way of Glendale, Calif. The short also notes that Ford was miffed that a rival director, Raoul Walsh, would give his (Ford's) protégé a premature shot at stardom; Ford effectively dropped Wayne, leaving him to languish in B pictures for nearly a decade till casting him in Stagecoach. The film also cost its director. Raoul Walsh: A Man in His Time salutes him as "probably the greatest underrated American director," the "most authentic Westerner" among the genre's classic directors, and a more versatile entertainer than Ford. Walsh, who claimed to have "learned everything from D.W. Griffith" (for whom he played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation), enjoyed A-list standing on the basis of his silent-film career, and he had a free hand on The Big Trail--among other things, improvising the remarkable (and never equaled) sequence of the wagon train being lowered by rope down the St. George, Utah cliffs. But the film's box-office failure reduced him to cranking out (often lively) formula fare for most of the 1930s, till landing at his proper home, Warner Bros., in 1939. The 70mm version of The Big Trail is accompanied by commentary from historian and Time film critic Richard Schickel. Although given to condescension, Schickel has a sympathetic understanding of the technical limitations of early-sound filmmaking, Wayne's neophyte status, the beauties of Walsh's boisterous spirit and style, and the distinction between convention and cliché. However, somebody really should point out to him which of the cast members is Ward Bond. --Richard T. Jameson
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each(so-equipped)theater, and, of course, wider-screens. Since the film was wider, the reels were limited to six-minutes, each. The "poor" projectionists
had to change TWENTY reels to show this 121-minute movie! That was an asembly-line process... five reels for each of the four projectors. Like a soldier
marching it was 1,2,3,4 ; 1,2,3,4 ; 1,2,3,4 ; 1,2,3,4 ; 1,2,3,4. Next showing!
Luckily --- for projectionists --- the Depression killed the process, saving the projectionists' fingers for selling apples for a nickel, or joining the Army and firing rifles... which was gearing-up for the certain war in Europe.
I enjoyed the movie. It was NOT John Wayne's FIRST film. John had been a Prop-man/film-extra making $35-a-day [a lot, THEN]. When chosen as the
"Star" of this film he got $75-a-day. He didn't catch-on right away. Made 50+ B-movies --- for the next TEN YEARS --- and ACTUALLY became a star after
appearing in 1939's Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]. In the 'forties, he made war movies. In 1959 after Alaska and Hawaii became states,
"The Duke" became the 51st star on our American flag!
EVERYTHING about this movie is BIG! Wish my memory was better. One of the featurettes stated --- excuse my memory --- 20,000 extras, 50 main act-
ors; and thousands of native Americans from five tribes.
Filmed (concurrently "on-the-trail) in 70mm; 35mm full-screen... in German; Spanish; and English. There's thousands of cattle and horses. Hundreds of
cats; dogs; and domesticated farm animals. Oh yeah: 500 Buffaloes!
Hundreds of wagons in the "wagon-train"... did I mention WARD BOND is in this? Paddlewheel steamboats, stuff you'll NEVER see again... in Virgin Forests, and unspoilt Western vistas! Ah! Wonderful!
The Blu-Ray includes the same stuff on a lower-resolution DVD... as a bonus/combo.
I give this film ***** for the effort, in 1929. I give the set-decorator *****; the cameramen *****; the broadway [stage] actors *****; John Wayne's
presence/effort *****. The sound, it's 1929, rates ***. The lines written for the actors? OMG: **1/2. The over-all result is ENTERTAINING with all capi-
Please watch the BACKGROUND! There's something in almost every inch of the widescreen film on YOUR widescreen TV... before CGI and those matte-screen
WATCH the people and animals... if any of the CHILDREN are STILL alive.. it's probably the 84-year BABY in the breast-feeding scene. Every swingin' animal, man, woman, and child... dead! It's what ya call celluloid HISTORY!
I am happy with the video quality, and with the viewer-friendly options, such as Scene Selection and Subtitles, which are handy even if one is not hearing impaired.
Like many of the films of the era, it bears the mark of the silent days with an acting style that is somewhat 'camp' to modern eyes. All told, however, it is an effective film, with wonderful images in a day when there were still folks around who had lived the old way and remembered key events of the 19th century. One of my favorite Wayne pictures.
PLEASE NOTE THAT ONCE AGAIN AMAZON HAS LUMPED REVIEWS FOR ALL VERSIONS OF "THE BIG TRAIL," THUS DENIGRATING THIS DVD VERSION!!!
I am baffled as to why reviewers have given the restored 70mm (wide screen) version of "The Big Trail" anything but five stars. As other reviews have indicated, the film was made on the cusp of "talkie" movies and the innovation of William Fox's 70mm The Grandeur Process that would eventually lead to modern day wide screen format films in 1953--twenty-three years after "The Big Trail." As such, viewers need to keep in mind that the script, filming, and editing were all based, in various degrees, upon the silent film format of filming. Furthermore, this is not really what I would call a "western" by today's standards, although it clearly is the template for the genre. Nor is is it an action or drama film. Rather, "The Big Trail" is a silent movie "lag" that has seldom been repeated in movies with sound: it is, what I prefer to call (I have no idea if there really is such), an EPIC genre film. The "frontier," the "trail" and the "story" are the movie; not the characters, the plots, or the themes. The history of the film is, as discussed by others, a sad one; but hopefully this new release (2008) of "The Big Trail" will vindicate its greatness.
WARNING: If you like "traditional" westerns, lots of action, drama, or other modern aspects of the western genre, "The Big Trail" will most likely not appeal to you. "The Big Trail" was made before CGI, wide spread use of models and stage sets, and standardized props and costumes. Instead, Walsh went for "realism." And he had the advantage of having both worked as a "cowboy" on cattle drives and spending time with well known American Indian leaders. I cannot state for certain, but I believe that Raul Walsh wanted to re-establish a base line for how westerns should be made. "The Big Trail" was definitely a good start; unfortunately the economy and the times were not ready. Even more unfortunate, when Hollywood did restart the western genre, they took Raul Walsh's ideas and bent them in the "wrong" direction. As such, then, you may want to stick with your favorites or check out "newer versions" of "The Big Trail," such as "How The West Was Won."
As I stated above, I feel that "The Big Trail" is the template that started the western genre of movies with sound. In deed, I would argue, that while I label it an "Epic" genre film, it is the mother of the western genre, and one of the finest "westerns" ever made. The fact that it has not been available in its filmed format until now is most likely why so few--if any other--link subsequent westerns to this film. Most notable of these "innovations" is the use of western settings as an integral component of westerns. "The Big Trail" majestically displays the beauty and splendor of the west, as Raul Walsh filmed in at least two locations each in Arizona, Montana, and Utah; three locations in Wyoming; five locations (including Sequoia National Park for the conclusion) in California; and one or more sites in Oregon. (Many of the scenes include vistas of over five National Parks). The entire film was shot on location and on a budget of approximately $2 million dollars! Many of the locations seen in "The Big Trail" are not even there today.
Unlike many subsequent movies and television shows about "settlers" going west, "The Big Trail" actually depicts many (rather than none, one or two) of the true hardships endured in their journeys. The film shows people dying of thirst and other environmental hazards; and while not overtly stated, portrays the fact that more people died from the "elements" than from the one "Indian" attack (which have become the center piece of newer westerns). Walsh shows babies--human and animals--being born; couples getting married; spouses and children dying; the elderly dying; and many other aspects of life on the trail--including internal strife. Many of these aspects became templates for future films; others were never--to my knowledge--shown again. For example, it shows the wagons actually being lowered by ropes over cliffs! "The Big Trail" also establishes the types of characters that became central to the western genre--in particular, the rugged individualistic loner; the tough guy. Conversely, I don't think another western has come close to capturing the nature of Tyrone Power Sr.'s character, Red Flack, in costume or portrayal of the "grungy bad guy." And one cannot ignore the fact that it was Raul Walsh who dared to take an unknown "actor" named Duke Morrison, change his name to John Wayne, and cast him as the lead. That 23 year old Wayne doesn't seem polished to many should be no surprise; rather that Wayne does so well is a true harbinger of his future in films. Add to this the fact that many of Wayne's lines were not written (by request of Walsh) but rather elicited by the other character's lines--often impromptu as well--and I find Wayne's performance to be one of his finest! But I know that it will still take many years before Wayne's critics wake up and recognize that he really was a great actor as well as a great presence on the screen--his personal opinions aside.
Another phenomenal aspect of this movie, which has not really been touched on, is that there were actually four casts--American, German, Spanish and Italian stars--and the film was shot in both 70mm and 35mm (full screen at the time). That means that Walsh had to shot each scene at least four times with two different types of cameras--more cameras if he wanted extra footage. This in itself is amazing, especially given that there were: 1) nearly a thousand Native American actors and extras--including Charles Stevens, a grandson of Geronimo, and Nino Cochise (uncredited), a grandson of Cochise (both Cochise and Geronimo are legendary Chiricahua Apache leaders); 2) over 2000 extras; and 3) over 1500 animals (horses, cattle, oxen, pigs, mules, etc.).
In deed, I would (as a non-trained film critic) not be surprised to see "The Big Trail" compared to, and eventually seen as superior to, many of the movie classics. For those who have seen previous releases or the film on television, please rent or buy this version to enjoy the real version of "The Big Trail"--I have both. The quality of this DVD, especially given the age and processing that it had to go through is superior to many "new" movies. The bonus material is informative, although the the commentator, film historian/author Richard Schickel, is often biased in his comments and his commentary does have inaccurate information (e.g., Moisie is not in Utah, but Montana; and the buffalo scene was filmed there on the Flathead Indian Reservation because the herd was the only sizable herd left in 1930).
Please Note: If this review was not helpful to you, I would appreciate learning the reason(s) so I can improve my reviews. My goal is to provide help to potential buyers, not get into any arguments. So, if you only disagree with my opinion, could you please say so in the comments and not indicate that the review was not helpful. Thanks.
Here he's young, athletic, good looking, and can throw a mean knife. But it was 1930 and the
United States was more concerned about staying out of bread lines than buying movie tickets.
They filmed this movie in 70 Millimeter widescreen but sound was so new and money was so
scarce most theatres only handled 35 mm film. So regardless of which format You see the film,
You have to see this one if only to witness the birth of a screen legend. I Also see a similar
mindset from the 1923 film The Covered Wagon, the character playing John's side kick was
that movie's side kick as well. Some may say hokey, old timey. I like Hokey and Old Timey!