The Big Trail (US, 1930)

A very big trail

This is a fascinating ‘prestige picture’ from the early days of Hollywood cinema. The fascination comes from John Wayne’s first lead, though his breakthrough Stagecoach is nine years in the future, and the staging of the wagon train trek west. Director Raoul Walsh and his crew go to extraordinary lengths for authenticity including wagons, and oxen, being lowered down cliffs, and crossing extremely fast rivers. The sense of threat to the settlers is palpable.

In the opening scene a montage of preparations at the start of the trail includes women washing their hair. However, this is ameliorated soon after when we see a woman wielding an axe. Unsurprisingly the narrative is dominated by men with a revenge sub plot not unlike that of Stagecoach, however it is the spectacle that is the most important element of the film.

It was shot in what was a new process, Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format that proved the film’s commercial undoing as few theatres could screen it as the studio wanted. The sound’s not bad but it’s clear the silent era isn’t far away from Tyrone Power’s (Sr.) execrable performance: he mugs and can’t speak a line.

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