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The Big Trail [DVD] 
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In this sweeping pioneer adventure, a courageous young scout (John Wayne) leads hundreds of settlers across treacherous cliffs, though brutal snowstorms, Indian attacks and buffalo stampedes to their destiny out West. Along the way, he loses his heart to a beautiful pioneer woman (Marguerite Churchill) and never stops trying to win her love. Tyrone Power co-stars in this visually spectacular epic.
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John Wayne is good, even better than some of his later roles. all the actors have such a strong air of belief and naturalism about them that you feel you are watching a genuine historical film rather than a movie chasing awards..!
Another interesting point; and modern film makers take note -is that there is very little music, and what there is is used very effectively.
In fact for the first half hour or so of the movie there is no music whatsoever; just talking and chatter and wagon wheels turning, and horses grunting and sounds of wind and rain etc....
So....Not your standard western with shoot-outs and saloons and sheriffs, but a wild, rolling adventure featuring the american pioneers of the 19th century.
Get it, buy it, watch it .Marvel at it.
Viewed today, the film stands up rather well against those western epics "The Covered Wagon"(23) and "The Iron Horse"(24). Spectacle certainly takes precedent over the story. The film concerns an epic wagon train journey from the banks of the Missouri to Oregon, during that period of "Manifest destiny", when settlers began to flood west to colonise the wilderness. John Wayne plays a trapper/guide who joins a wagon train for ulterior motives, when he finds that the suspected murderers of a trapper friend are also making the trip. There is action aplenty on the trip which the director Raoul Walsh handles with an assured eye. There is a massive Indian attack where the warriors attack the encircled wagon train on their beautifully painted war ponies. There is also a very impressive buffalo hunt and a river crossing scene that has never been bettered. Then there is the impressive scene where wagons and livestock are lowered down vertiginous cliffs, which was copied in the later film "The Way West"(67), where Kirk Douglas came to a sticky end. The elements also conspire against the wagon train, and they are faced with a barrage of rainstorms and blizzards. Romance is also in the air between the strangely svelte, and youthful looking Wayne, and a pretty young pioneer girl played by Marguerite Churchill. Wayne also heads inexorably to a showdown with the villains who murdered his friend. There is a lovely final scene amongst the giant redwoods.
The film is perhaps most notable for providing the first leading role for screen legend John Wayne. The director Walsh was looking for an unknown to try and save costs. Gary Cooper had already turned the role down. Walsh had seen the prop boy on a set, and enquired about him with John Ford, the director who had first come across him. At this time he had only acted briefly in a few films. He was given a screen test, and the rest as they say is history. Sadly after this film Wayne's career took a jolt and he was cast back into poverty row and the B western salt mines. It was nearly a decade later when he announced his arrival with a whirling Winchester to mega stardom as "The Ringo Kid" in Ford's "Stagecoach"(39). The film is also noteworthy for being the only talking film of Tyrone Power snr, father of screen pretty boy Tyrone Power, as Red Flack the lurching villain of the film. Power gives a performance more akin to the nasty villain you like to hiss at at the village panto. A sort of western Long John Silver. This makes the performance of Wayne look even better. That stalwart of "The Covered Wagon", Tully Marshall also appears to good effect as a trapper friend of Wayne's. It was also interesting to see that great friend of John Wayne, Ward Bond appear in a small role. They had met as American footballers and had already appeared in a couple of minor films together. Together with John Ford they enjoyed a hard drinking friendship over many years.
It has taken me many years to finally get around to watch this film, and I was pleasantly surprised at the real quality that it contains. It is not a film I can recall having been shown on TV. The film easily fulfils its credentials as an epic, especially with the opening scenes of the myriad covered wagons starting off on the long trek. The story is laboured and predictable, and the acting undeniably stilted, but the action compensates for this easily. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and wondered why I have not taken the trouble to watch it before. I have watched the one disc edition, but it sounds like the restored two disc edition might be worth a shout. A deserved four stars.
The Big Trail, an awkward young John Wayne's first shot at the big time, didn't do much for him in 1930, and it didn't do much for Fox's 70mm Grandeur widescreen system either, becoming the Heaven's Gate of its day. But seen today, Raoul Walsh's wagon train epic astonishes with its genuinely colossal spectacle: even in ordinary dialogue scenes there are hundreds of extras gratuitously placed in the background, often supplemented by a screen full of covered wagons and/or towns, riverboats or huge mountain ranges to show off the wide open spaces in the widest of screens. But Wayne would have to wait another nine years for the stagecoach to Lordsburg to make his name and widescreen would need another 30 years and the threat of television to take off. Too close to the hugely expensive changeover to sound to persuade exhibitors to expensively upgrade their theatres yet again and with the simultaneously shot `flat' version lacking the starpower to pull in big enough audiences, its failure sent Walsh and Wayne back down to the minor leagues.
It's still primitive in some ways, particularly the plotting and its villains, played by Tyrone Power's father and Geronimo's grandson. Power in particular is a sight to see - more like Bluto from the Popeye cartoons than his son, by all accounts not much acting was required or involved. Legend has it that Walsh even had him beaten up for trying to force himself on leading lady Marguerite Churchill. The plot is elementary, with the curly-haired young Duke diverted from tracking down the killer of a friend to scout for a wagon train lead by Power Sr's Bluto-like frontiersman, who chews the scenery to greatly enjoyable effect, but it still holds up as the best and most realistic of its sub-genre (shots from it were actually mistaken by some historians for ones of real pioneers!) and the widescreen version is visually stunning, whether filling the screen with prairie schooners crossing a river during a storm or briefly settling on its pioneers burying would-be settlers on the plains before moving on. It even anticipates Stagecoach in many ways, the Duke's Breck Coleman, like the Ringo Kid, along for the ride initially for revenge only to fall in love en route (though with a more `respectable' girl this time), Walsh cutting away from the final showdown after the first shot is fired just as Ford's film would nine years later (though the fullscreen version lingers longer). It certainly lacks the substance and rich characters of the classic Westerns that would follow, opting for broad archetypes in its clear aim to be nothing more than a spectacular celebration of the pioneer spirit along the lines of The Covered Wagon, but it does it well and surprisingly entertainingly. And you'll never see anything like it made again.
The original DVD issue was only of the shorter `flat' fullscreen version shot at the same time, but Fox finally made amends with an excellent US NTSC two-disc DVD set with both the 122-minute 2.10:1 widescreen 70mm version and the 108-minute fullscreen 35mm version, the latter losing a couple of scenes (Ian Keith's crooked gambler cheating gullible El Brendel's comic relief Swedish settler on the riverboat, Wayne talking about stolen wolfpelts with the villain's sidekick Charles Stevens) and using different camera angles for some scenes. There's a good selection of informative extras on the film, its star and director and the failed Grandeur system as well, though sadly no footage from the simultaneously filmed German, Spanish and Italian versions. You do still have to make some allowances when watching, however. The camera noise is clearly audible in many scenes - sometimes more audible than the dialogue, all awkwardly recorded live on location while, even in the correct ratio, the film's most truly breathtaking scene as the settlers lower wagons and horses down the side of a mountain (all done for real, remember) loses a lot on the small screen. Widescreen prints of the film do occasionally turn up at cinematheques and are well worth tracking down to see the film to its best effect, but in the meantime the two-disc set is the next best thing and is well worth seeking out.
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