The Big Trail

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O Pioneers!
Nick Pinkerton on The Big Trail

“Westward Ho” is branded on the American consciousness, and every generation gets its own account of the opening of the frontier as filtered through the era’s pop-culture. For some it’s a dog-eared copy of Allan W. Eckert’s The Frontiersman or a childhood coonskin cap like Fess Parker’s TV incarnation of Davy Crockett. For my contemporaries, the associations are purely pixelated, tied to playing wagon master in Oregon Trail for Apple IIe: “Should we ford the river?” and “So-and-so has dysentery” and all of that en route to the Willamette Valley. None of this, however, has quite the heft and authority of 1930’s The Big Trail.

Studio head William Fox bet the farm on The Big Trail. It was one of only a handful of features shot on 70mm Grandeur film, a.k.a. Fox Grandeur, an early widescreen process which had only been in use for about a year when director Raoul Walsh began rolling on The Big Trail, a production intended to far outstrip anything that had come before. In order to show films in Fox Grandeur, theater owners, who were still smarting from the cost of sound-on-film conversion, would now need to pony up for an entirely new projection system—thus far only Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles and the Roxy in New York City were so equipped. The idea with The Big Trail was to give audiences an incontrovertibly next-level spectacle, something that would dwarf previous Western epics like John Ford’s transcontinental railroad tale The Iron Horse (1924) or James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), so that the popular pressure for exhibitors to upgrade would be overwhelming.

Walsh, who would average around three films a year through the decade to come, was tied up all through 1930 bringing The Big Trail home. Shooting began in April and finished in August, a four-month-long production which racked up a then astronomical $2.5 million tab. Here is the film historian Michael Henry Wilson, from a supplement on The Big Trail’s DVD release, summarizing what that money bought: “There were 20,000 extras involved, 1,800 heads of cattle, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalo, 725 Indians belonging to five tribes—Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, Blackfeet and Arapahos—185 wagons, 93 principles, a production staff of 200, 22 cameramen. The company traveled 4,300 miles in seven states—Arizona, California, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Oregon. They also had 12 Indian guides and 123 baggage trains, 700 chickens, pigs, and dogs.

There was also a 23-year-old actor trying on form-fitting buckskin, his first leading role, and a new name: “John Wayne.” Read the rest of this article on Moving Image Source.