THE BIG TRAIL was a road less traveled by audiences when it was released back in 1930, their dollars sufficient to bring it only as far as hitching post #37 that year, when its massive cost of nearly $2,000,000 required much more of a response just to break even. Fox gambled big on the first epic western in new-fangled sound, with unheard-of location filming on a massive scale, by shooting several different versions, and critically, in employing a 70mm process that was available in exactly two theaters in the entire country. Nearly everyone who did see it saw the 35mm version, still impressive but nothing like intended or promised, and the film was marked as a disaster, losing more than a million bucks. Hubris and excess rebuked seek blame, and the lions share dropped unfairly on the shoulders of another of the production’s calculated risks, the tall, remarkably handsome, completely untrained 23-year old leading man, a prop boy who’d spoken barely two lines in a bit part before. Virile, gregarious and sincere Duke Morrison gave it all he could summon, but as re-christened John Wayne he took the fall for the The Big Trail fail, and would labor for nine more years before getting a chance at something better. He’d be ready. *
The 1840s. A wagon train heads to Oregon. The pioneers are a mixed lot—some hopeful, brave and naive, some coarse, scheming and villainous. The scout (Wayne), at least, knows what they’re up against. Sage and friendly, tough but fair, bound to honor his responsibility for the group, he also falls (jiffy-time) for a frustratingly indecisive gal (Marguerite Churchill, 19), and on the side has a vendetta score to settle with a trio of scurvy bad guys. Not everyone will make it to Pacific Standard Time.
From a story by outdoorsman novelist Hal G. Evarts, the script and dialogue (four writers worked on it uncredited) is lumpy, the purplish exposition, folksy declarations and cornporn humor so archaic they squeak like wagon wheels. The hay-fresh newcomer to the side, the acting is theatrical. “Yumpin- yiminy”comic relief from El Brendel will make your ears bleed. Pretty Miss Churchill photographs like a peach, but the script has her behavior and choices flip faster than a grasshopper. Prize for Biggest Ham-Job of the Era goes to stage veteran Tyrone Power Sr. Sixty at the time (his soon-to-be-famous son was just 17), in his first and only talking picture, Power, made up to look like a caveman crossed with a grizzly bear, growls, snorts and snarls like a one-man-zoo.
With barely a few weeks of prep (horseback riding, learning how to throw knives and handle props, finding where to hit his mark in a scene) Wayne’s a mix of hesitant and determined. Despite the awkwardness in delivery—which comes off both natural (refreshing against the phony Eastern staginess of the others) and rather endearing—the callow but game youth begins to feel his way toward a persona. He’s far from good, but he’s not awful. The star quality is in there, trying to get to the surface (the script would poleax a bison). He hadn’t gotten the intimidating stare down pat, but the good-natured smile is warm as sunshine.
Visually, the movie is flat-out stupendous. Director Raoul Walsh flicked the reins on a bulging-to-burst production that used 200 wagons, 1,700 cattle, hundreds of horses and hordes of extras with 93 speaking parts, spread across nearly five months of location work. Walsh put the crew through the wringer in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, in California’s Sequoia National Park, in Arizona around Yuma and near The Grand Canyon, in Utah and Zion National Park and assorted spots in Montana. Since the story is about The Oregon Trail, it’s noteworthy that the film-makers dispensed with topographical accuracy by having the showbiz frontier folk trekking through all manner of famous, far-flung western terrain. Today in 2018, we’re 88 years from the production, and supposedly more selective about realism, but in 1930, the Interstate Highway System was a quarter-century in the future: most people had never driven—if they had a car–anywhere that wasn’t local, so the films could play free with landscapes to suit drama rather than history. For that matter, most Americans today don’t know where the next state is, so much for progress…
Even with the stagy performances, the feel of the frontier came across, as they were approximately the same time frame away from the real-life action they were recreating as we are now from their Depression day make-believe. The acres of authentic props and costumes, and the sheer scale of things is bracing.
Teams of oxen, river crossings, rainstorms, a buffalo stampede, snowstorms, a massed Indian attack: it’s a heck of a trek. The showstopper is an astounding sequence of multiple wagons being lowered down a cliffside—it’s the real, dangerous, jaw-dropping deal. The finale, with the lovers forest clinch in the shadows of the giant Sequoias is a classic of 19th-century romanticism. Many shots are redolent of the epic landscape canvases painted by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church.
“We can’t turn back! We’re blazing a trail that started in England. Not even the storms of the sea could turn back the first settlers. And they carried it on further. They blazed it on through the wilderness of Kentucky. Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them. And now we picked up the trail again. And nothing can stop us! Not even the snows of winter, nor the peaks of the highest mountain. We’re building a nation and we got to suffer! No great trail was ever built without hardship. And you got to fight! That’s right. And when you stop fighting, that’s death. What are you going to do, lay down and die? Not in a thousand years! You’re going on with me!”
With Tully Marshall, Ian Keith, David Rollins, Charles Stevens. A burly buddy of young Morrison/Wayne shows up, uncredited, in the 7th of what would tally 273 credits, 27-year old Ward Bond. The 70mm version runs 122 minutes, the 35mm cut was trimmed to 108.
* Casualties of the trail. Critics sniffed, studio execs shied and westerns were relegated to Hicksville. They languished for years until the former prop boy’s mentor John Ford brought his protégé out of the studio wilderness and respect back to the genre with Stagecoach. Part of the excess tab on this opus was due to filming not just the barely, rarely seen 70mm edition and the standard 35mm print, but redoing non-action scenes with separate casts for foreign language versions in German, Spanish, French and Italian. The box-office loss scared away Big Screen formats until the early 50s, when they roared back with a vengeance to combat the evil little hobgoblin of television. Raoul Walsh’s career backed off big budgets and took nearly a decade to fully recover. Marguerite Churchill fizzled out in a few years. Tyrone Power Sr. died of a heart attack a year later, in the arms of his son. Morrison, now and forever onwards John Wayne, would survive the debacle to learn, hone and master his craft and outpace and outlast them all.