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on September 11, 2010
The Big Trail (2-Disc Special Edition)
Fox // G // May 13, 2008

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 4, 2008 |
Highly Recommended

A truly epic Western of staggering proportions, Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930) is a fascinating work on many levels. Technically it was way ahead of its time; its impressive use of an early 70mm widescreen process predates Todd-AO by a quarter of a century. It also features John Wayne in his first starring role, a role that on one hand helped define his iconic screen persona but which also exiled him to the lowly world of $12,000 B-Westerns after its commercial failure. Produced for about $2 million (probably upwards of $300 million in today's money) The Big Trail is so massive in scale that it would be all but impossible to reproduce today without the aid of CGI. Best of all, the picture offers a uniquely authentic portrait of pioneer life on the trail westward, the Manifest Destiny vividly brought to life with at times the poetry of Frederick Remington's paintings.
Incredibly, five different versions of the film were shot simultaneously: one in the 70mm Grandeur process for exhibition in the biggest movie palaces, another in standard 35mm for general release, plus three foreign-language versions with (mostly) different casts, all shot in standard 35mm: in French, German, and Italian. Fox originally released The Big Trail to DVD in May 2003, but that disc consisted only of the 110-minute standard 35mm version. Fox's new 2-Disc Special Edition includes a 122-minute version of the Grandeur version (reportedly The Big Trail debuted at 158 minutes, but this is unconfirmed) in all its 16:9 enhanced widescreen glory along with some good extras on Disc 1, while Disc 2 includes the previously available 35mm version. The second disc is actually the exact same DVD from 2003.
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on September 7, 2001
Put simply if you want a real idea of the old west and how people thought and acted on their way there in the early part of the 19th century this film is it.
Every part of it reeks of the real dirty grimy and difficult life pioneering was. The acting is great and young John Wayne fill the role well. (How this film didn't launch him big is beyond me. I think it is better than Stagecoach and thats saying a lot.)
If there was ever a big return for a small investment this movie is it.
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on July 10, 2003
The Big trail tells the epic story of a wagon train of pioneers and pilgrims going into the west to find a fertile valley in Oregon, and their trials and tribulations getting there. The party encounter Indians, bad weather and hunger, while a couple of treacherous renegades are being hunted by a trapper (John Wayne) for murdering his friend in cold blood.
This seminal western proves two things: Director Raoul Walsh knew exactly where to put his camera, and - John Wayne was a STAR from the word GO. Incredibly, this film flopped and Wayne was relegated to run-of-the-mill cowboy movies for 9 years, until re-discovered by John Ford. Wayne's delivery and acting is flawless in the Big trail, he nearly puts the other actors to shame with his easy swagger and grace. He was also incredibly handsome, looking like a Californian surfer crossed with a Versace model in this. The hard-bitten look of his later westerns is not visible (well, he was 23!)

As for the rest: If you consider the mileage on the Big trail, it stands up very well. It's entertaining for a movie this old, and the easy humor is very attractive. There is a plot; you've seen it before, but probably in films made much later. In some ways, it follows in the steps of the Covered wagon, (1923). The scenes where the pioneers cross the river and the mountain plateau are excitingly edited; it looks like Walsh put his extras in real physical danger! There are also beautiful natural wonders and vistas in this movie, originally filmed in a 70mm process called Grandeur. (my disc was full-screen, I guess the widescreen version is lost).
The dialogue is sometimes memorable: A great line delivered by Wayne to rouse the spirits of the party stuck in my memory: "YOU KEEP FIGHTING -THAT'S LIFE! YOU STOP FIGHTING - THAT'S DEATH!" Old Abe Lincoln couldn't have said it better...
On the down side: The love story is not well developed, (Wayne's character would never have settled down with this girl!) and Tyrone Power sr. as Flack overacts to the nth degree. Ian Keith (mr. Thorpe) is a cardboard villain. The ending is a bit wet, but on the whole not too bad.
You can safely buy if you find the Fox budget DVD of the Big trail. The mono sound is good, the picture-quality reasonable. No extras here, but I didn't miss them. I've got my American history books.
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on June 9, 2003
This great Western bombed because of the stock market crash of '29. Movie theaters had spent their money converting to sound, and were unable to shell out the dough for 70mm conversion.
The majestic background played on "The Big Screen"-- as director Raul Walsh intended, only at Grauman's Chinese and the Roxy in New York. Everyone else saw a choppy 35mm version, cropped on both sides. Brilliant cinamotgraphy became a muddled mess, until it was restored in the 1990's.
The story is one of 'Manifest Destiny ' on the move, and of a heroine who has two men courting her. A slick, lying, backshooting gambler and the pure, outdoorsman scout--John Wayne. Will she choose the man who will cherish her or the one who will use her?
Wayne dresses in moccasins as if he escaped from 'The Last of The Mohicans', as he tells us that: "The Indian was my friend. They taught me all about the woods." So, while he carries a rifle for hunting, he doesn't even own a handgun! A knife is his only weapon for self-defense.
A third male lead completes the story; a brutish and powerfully built bear of a wagon trail leader, played by Tyrone Power Sr. (Yep, the star's father was an actor.)
Wayne signs up as the scout because he suspects Tyrone of murdering an old man for his wolf pelts (naturally the old man was Wayne's best friend) The gambler also comes along, to escape a hangman's noose--and sweet-talk the heroine with his lies. Joining forces with the grunting neanderthal wagon master against Wayne, they bide their time to ambush him, as Manifest Destiny leads hundreds of settlers through Comanche territory, floods and blizzards to The Promised Land.
It was Walsh rather than John Ford who discovered Wayne,who had only played bit parts in Ford movies previously. But who 'created' John Wayne out of Marion Morrison, after he emerged as a leading man in The Big Trail?
Among the film's delights is seeing a Proto-Wayne.
He's a protagonist with all the heroic Wayne trademarks fully formed but he's not quite "John Wayne " yet in his acting. It's good but it's not the stuff of myths , not distinct.
There is none of the Wayne walk. None of the Wayne gestures, invariably played BEFORE he said his 'punch lines', none of the cadence of "John Wayne" sentences that he broke up (as he made the gestures to deliver before the lines) so beloved of John Wayne impersonators.
In short, the most popular movie star of all time did not quite 'play himself.' He found a style of acting that held the camera's eye. He discovered the film version equivalent of the 19th century's "claptrap", which is not a venereal disease, but a theater term for getting the audience to clap and cheer at the end of a speech.
An American Original.
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on May 5, 2003
This film is definitely worth watching for the scenery alone. The dialogue and acting are enjoyable once you get used to their archaic style (Tyrone Power Sr.'s performance must have been the inspiration for Popeye's nemesis, Bluto). It's too bad the film wasn't the big hit it set out to be, for that failure not only consigned John Wayne to a decade of tacky "B" Westerns, it also sent the lovely Marguerite Churchill back to Broadway, robbing us of the pleasure of viewing her in any other films.
Tip: If you have a choice, get the square-screen presentation. Its scenes were framed for the square screens that were then the rule in most theaters, and then reframed and reshot in the special widescreen format available in only a few prestige theaters. As a result, the square-screen version is original to the film and includes all the action involved in any given scene. It does not crop out anything or anyone, as "pan and scan" video versions of most widescreen productions do. And in at least one scene --- the finale in which Wayne and Churchill are reunited at the foot of a giant Sequoia --- the square-screen version offers a more satisfying visual composition than the widescreen version does.
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on April 24, 2001
Critics generally pan this flick, probably because of its crudeness, clichés and characatures. 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, not USC quarterback John Wayne, or even Irish thespian Tyrone Power (who tried farming and hated it) are exceptions, but there is a ring of authenticity with "The Big Trail" you can't get second hand. And if those aren't real plains Indians 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 Werner Herzog's "Fizcarraldo".
Of course, the acting is hammy and dialogue corny, but also remember that early sound still had vestiges of silent film technique, which called for pantomime and exaggerated facial expression and movement.
Robert Flaherty in his landmark documentary "Nanuk of the North" actually set up the 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 a greater impact than "The Big Trail".
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on May 3, 2000
I had the chance to see this yesterday and it left quite the impression. This was definatley NOT a B movie. I can imagine what a large scale production this must have been. It concerns the plights and perils of a wagon train on their way from Missouri to the west. It appeared to be about 50+ wagons. I noticed immediatley that these were real wagons, not the scaled reproductions were used to seeing from Hollywood. They must battle raging rivers, fierce indian attacks, and manuever a treacharous cliff in a sequence like I have never seen in any western. This is definatley a must see for western/Wayne fans and is truly an early epic. Too bad this is not available in the widescreen format it was filmed in. The outdoor settings and scenery were magnificient with a finale in what appeared to be Sequoia or Redwood Nat'l Park. There is a small section of the film where the dialouge from certain characters was lost or damaged and has been subtitled. Very odd in that it is every OTHER line of spoken dialouge that is missing. Overall, a great early western with beautiful outdoor settings, a touch of comedy relief, and a very authentic look and feel. This is the movie that should have made John Wayne a star 9 years before Stagecoach. I can't believe he went back to those mediocre B westerns for almost a decade after this film. Looking forward to a widescreen release on DVD!
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on September 6, 2003
I don't know why Fox Video cut close to twenty minutes off this film for DVD. Most VCR prints of this movie run a 125min long. Plus it's only shown in full screen format. This was one of the first widescreen movies ever filmed. I'm surprised they didn't release it in it's widescreen format. Although with all this missing from the dvd the Big Trail is still a great movie to watch. This was John Wayne's first starring role as the lead character and he gives it his best. Wayne plays a scout leading settlers to there new homeland. On his Journey Wayne tries to win the heart of a young woman who wants nothing to do with him at first. But that changes when he goes on the search for the men that killed a friend of his. A great movie that deserved a better DVD. In the furture I would like to see The Big Trail in it's original widescreen format with restored footage. I heard that the film was up to 154min long. It would be great to get to see that cut of the movie if it still exsits.
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on May 3, 2004
This is a film that really deserves to be seen in its widescreen glory. This is truly an epic film. However, I feel compelled to point out that the version that is available on this DVD is not, in fact, a "cropped" version of the film. The movie was actually filmed in three different versions. The first two, featuring the original cast, were the widescreen "Fox Grandeur" version and the version available here, shot in the Academy Standard ratio, which allowed the vast majority of cash-strapped theaters (they couldn't afford the special equipment for widescreen projection) to exhibit the film. The scenes in this version were blocked appropriately for a standard film of this era. The third version, shot concurrently, was a German edition using German actors in medium and close shots and footage of John Wayne and company in the long shots.
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on May 22, 2003
Contrary to other reviews, the widescreen version of this film is the one to have and I am stunned that 20th Century Fox didn't release it on DVD. The original 70mm Fox Grandeur Version of this film was restored by UCLA and aired on AMC, letterboxed, at an aspect ratio of approximately 2:1. This was the original aperture/original image size - the widescreen version of the film was not a matted version of the full screen as stated on this review page. In fact, simultaneous versions of the film were shot in both aspect ratios. While I appreciate the release of this timeless classic, I am very disappointed at the presentation. As the first American sound epic shot widescreen, it deserved better treatment. Very sad.
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