“The Big Trail” is a 1930 film, and in the category of Western movies, this one would have to be considered important. It covered so much new ground, took chances previous movies never had and failed at the box office — a failure that banished a young John Wayne to almost a decade of minor roles and minor movies.
“The Big Trail” is a story of a huge caravan of settlers rolling across the Oregon Trail. The caravan and the scenery are the real stars of the movie, even though John Wayne — who got the role when Gary Cooper declined — Tyrone Powers, and Marguerite Churchill (as the love interest) are listed as the stars. Wayne signs on to help lead the caravan when he discovers that two other men who are going along have in all likelihood killed his friend. Wayne (as Breck Coleman) predictably falls for the beautiful Ruth Cameron (Churchill) and battles the killers, and there are some comedic roles as well that lighten the trip and the movie.
The movie, by almost any definition, was huge. The budget was over $2 million, and there were more than 100 actors, 700 Native Americans, close to 200 wagons, 1,800 cattle, nearly 1,500 horses, 500 buffalo and nearly 1,000 chickens. The movie was filmed across seven states.
It was shot in 70 mm Grandeur film — one of the reasons it ultimately failed. Showing the film required theaters to upgrade their equipment, which most theaters were unwilling to do in the middle of a recession. The movie was also shot in 35 mm, which was a technical challenge, with some scenes having to be reshot because of the limitations of one or both technologies. The film was also shot in multiple languages, sometimes with different actors in the lead roles, requiring more expensive reshoots.
This was one of the early Western “talkies,” and the sound is terrible and hard to follow, but the dialog is not nearly as important as the scenery. Many of the scenes involving animals would not be allowed today, and I’ve read conflicting reports that range from no animals being hurt to many having been killed.
I had the opportunity to watch this on the big screen at the Lone Pine Film Festival, and it was awe inspiring. While there are at least a half dozen good reasons to see this film — especially if you consider yourself a fan of Westerns — the scene where the caravan is lowered down a sheer cliff in order to cross to the other side is spectacular and well worth the time and the cost of admission.
I’d love to hear from others who have seen this film.