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.” Tall, lithe, and graceful, the beardless and startlingly boyish Wayne plays trapper Breck Coleman. On his way to avenge the death of his mentor, friend, and fellow trapper Ben Grizzel at the hands of “renegade whites,” Breck rides into a wagon encampment that’s preparing to head northwest from the banks of the Missouri. Before Breck can turn his horse back toward Santa Fe to pursue his prey, he discovers that Ben’s likely killers are right under his nose: ogreish “he-grizzly” Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.) and his oleaginous sidekick, Lopez (Charles Stevens), employed to lead the train. Signing on to the expedition as a scout so that he can keep tabs on Red and Lopez, Breck discovers another vested interest as well: The Camerons, a family of transplanted siblings striking out on their own. More specifically, he discovers the pretty elder daughter, Ruth (Marguerite Churchill), whose derision he gently tries to overcome along the trail.
This was wheelhouse material for the director. Born Albert Edward Walsh to well-heeled New Yorkers, he had learned to ride in Central Park, but prided himself on looking like a cowboy on horseback. Walsh had caught a whiff of the Wild West in his youth, participating in a cattle drive from Veracruz to the Rio Grande as a teenager, learning rope tricks in South Texas, and breaking in geldings for the U.S. Cavalry in San Antonio. This was where Walsh got his first job in showbiz, riding a horse and carrying a flaming cross on stage in a touring performance of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman. Walsh’s riding eventually landed him work in front of the camera with Pathé, acting in early New Jersey–shot Eastern Westerns, and these in turn led to employment with Biograph and collaboration with D. W. Griffith, soon to adapt The Clansman for the screen as 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. By then Walsh had begun to try his hand at directing, but not before Griffith, in Birth, gave him his most famous role—all Walsh had to do was look nefarious under a moustache, discharge a powder flash into the head of an actor playing Abraham Lincoln, and leap onto a replica of the stage at Ford’s Theatre.
Not much of what Walsh tells of the footloose period of his life before he entered films is verifiable, and there will always be speculation as to if he’d embroidered his backstory with material from the horse operas that he’d appeared in and later directed. “Raoul Walsh” wouldn’t be the only cowboy he’d create out of thin air. After Gary Cooper’s success in Victor Fleming’s The Virginian (1929), Walsh wanted Coop for the part of Coleman, but either the script took too long to congeal or Paramount wouldn’t lend their new big man. Instead, Walsh landed on a prop boy from Glendale, California, a former USC Trojan who’d lost his football scholarship after an injury, come to Fox through the kindness of Tom Mix, and become a peripheral figure in John Ford’s circle. “Duke” Morrison was given a screen test, told to grow his hair out, taught to ride, and, at Walsh’s behest, rechristened after “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War general who’d routed the Indian confederacy in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
If Wayne looks more like a limber basketball player here than the former tackle that he was, it’s because he lost 18 pounds during shooting from a bout with dysentery (shades of Oregon Trail). Wayne would seem far more monumental in the future, but never so romantic, his faint eagerness to make good appearing as an anxious, extroverted vulnerability beyond his usual slow shyness. Talking to Ruth of his love of the outdoors after a dance, Breck comes close to cracking her determined antipathy. It’s corny stuff, “big tall pines, just a-reachin’ and reachin’, as if they wanted to climb right through the gates of heaven” and a “smilin’ moon” and all that. It’s also absolutely winning, pulled off far better than a Manifest Destiny pep talk near the end, which serves the same purpose as the occasional intertitles (the film was still so near to the silent era that there are intertitles!) underlining thematic points already made clear in the natural course of the narrative.
Wayne is a star from the first, but looking at The Big Trail today, its appeal isn’t really in its dramatic values, which at times aren’t far from those of the Chautauqua tent. Power, Sr. is a grotesque with knothole eyes, a rotten-looking grimace of toppled teeth, and lycanthrope-hairy hands, the prototypical Black Bart baddie, barking in a booming, burbling bluster. (The cartoonishness of the performance wasn’t lost on Dave Fleischer, who borrowed the voice for nemesis Bluto in the Popeye cartoons.) The revenge plot and misunderstanding-extended courtship, while handled with alacrity, are strictly boilerplate. Yet ever threatening to overwhelm this superimposed generic framework is a powerful vision of the hardship of the trail, the uncommon endurance of the common pioneer, and fear and awe at the Western landscape.
A large part of the film’s persistent majesty must be attributed to Walsh’s unprecedented application of the Grandeur frame to the landscape of the American West. In later years whenever a vaunted new widescreen process emerged, one of its definitive tests would be trying its panoramic breadth against Western vistas, from 1955’s Oklahoma! (70mm Todd-AO) to 1955’s The Far Horizons (VistaVision) to 1962’s How the West Was Won (Cinerama/ Ultra Panavision). So naturally does such a perspective seem to lend itself to Western landscapes that you can find an unorthodox “widescreen” canvas size being utilized throughout the 19th century by painters depicting the American West: Albert Bierstadt flirts with it, his pupil Henry Farny uses it consistently, and the likes of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington codified it.
Occupying the director’s chair since the 1910s, Walsh had only just negotiated the switch to sound-on-film when he was called upon to master yet another new technology. Unlike later CinemaScope, which used regular 35mm film, compressing and stretching the image with specialized lenses, Grandeur was shot on 70mm film, twice the standard width. Practically, this meant that in an early-sound era of big, bulky, blimped cameras, an even bigger, bulkier camera would be required. Make that two: due to the scarcity of Grandeur-equipped cinemas, Fox wanted The Big Trail on regular 35mm to show in other theaters, so Walsh shot two versions with two frequently side-by-side cameras and two DPs, Arthur Edeson, A.S.C. (70mm Grandeur) and Lucien N. Andriot (35mm Movietone). As if this weren’t complication enough, to maximize Fox’s investment, four foreign-language versions of the film were shot at the same locations with different casts: La gran jornada (Spanish), La Piste des géants (French), Il grande sentiero (Italian), and Die große Fahrt (German; “El” Brindel, who does an interminable “Dutch act” in Walsh’s film, lousy with mother-in-law shtick, also performed in this version.)
In an article for American Cinematographer, Edeson praised the Grandeur process, stating that the “pseudo-stereoscopic effect” of high-definition 70mm meant that “even in close-ups, the depth of focus demanded by Grandeur makes the background an important part of the picture,” and that the frame’s peripheral span came “very nearly the same proportion as the natural field of our vision.” Most people’s field of vision, anyways—Walsh had recently lost his right eye when, scouting locations for In Old Arizona outside of Zion National Park in Utah, he’d hit a jackrabbit that was propelled through the windshield of his Jeep.
This makes The Big Trail’s accomplishment in depth-of-field photography all the more remarkable. From the first, it piles on evocative images of Americana: a figural grouping of young women gathered around a dish of soapy water, washing their waist-length hair and combing it out; an arriving steamboat pulling into dock; an ocean of wagons standing at the ready. While unwieldy, the Grandeur camera provides a frame that is capable of containing multiple planes of activity. Whenever the wagon train is at rest, there’s a bare minimum of camera movement, but the frame is never still. The foreground action is always poised against a dynamic background of unceasing, surging movement, of men and livestock milling to-and-fro, of bartering, tacking horses, loading barrels and sacks, sawing wood, mending, thrashing washing in a tub, scratching a hound dog’s chin—all while loafers on the sideline carry on their own conversations.
These details, ostensibly background, carry scarcely less weight than the foreground, and this creates an unusual effect. One feels that the protagonist of the film isn’t just Breck Coleman, but the entire community that travels along with him. The drama isn’t only a matter Breck’s avenging the death of Ben Grizzel or winning the heart of Ruth Cameron, but of the communal fate. Here is Dave Kehr, reviewing The Big Trail’s DVD release in the NY Times: “[W]hat Walsh is doing does not really find an equivalent until Jacques Tati’s 70-millimeter masterpiece of 1967, Playtime.” Like Tati’s celebration of the triumph of human anarchy, Walsh’s mise-en-scène gives the viewer’s eye free range to wander where it will over each tableau, a liberating style that suits a journey into freedom.
When the wagon train is in motion, the camera(s) are usually in retreat before the oncoming herd—this was accomplished by pulling them along on a giant sled. The performances become less self-conscious on horseback, and even the booming early-sound line readings have some practical justification against the clatter of the wagon train. The kicked-up trail dust lends a ghostly, ominous quality to the long shots, as the settlers prepare to be subjected to every hardship of the journey. They face the chaos of fording a river, wagons tumbled over or swept downstream, drivers pulled by their reigns into the drink, horsemen plucking stranded passengers from foundered vehicles. The pack animals are thrashed onward as the emigrants travel through treacherous desert, over a Rocky Mountain pass in the midst of a blizzard, and across a turgid stream in the driving rain to stagger on through ankle-deep mud, all the while leaving a trail of dead behind them. Downing trees to clear a path through the forest, women and men swing axes in tandem, just as they stand and deliver fire together when circling the wagons against an onrush of Indian attackers. (Elsewhere Breck speaks with respect and affection of the Indians, and the train palavers peacefully with a band of Cheyenne, real Plains Indians with dark Edward S. Curtis faces.) Confronted with an impassible cliff, what should the settlers do? They cinch their way down in a human chain, lower livestock and wagons using a system of winches, stoic as ropes break and wagons plunge to the ground below to burst into rags and kindling.
All of these ordeals have the gravity of unquestionable veracity, for there isn’t a studio shot or a miniature effect or matte painting in the film. If the folly of actually going to the great effort of lowering a wagon train down the side of a mountain for the sake of a movie brings to mind the steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, this isn’t a wholly inappropriate comparison. Like Herzog’s film—or Apocalypse Now or Major Dundee or any number of other elaborate, burn-the-ships location shoots—The Big Trail functions narratively on two levels: the story it’s telling, and the story of its own making.
This fact was not lost upon Walsh, here quoted in Kevin Brownlow’s The War, the West, and the Wilderness: “The Big Trail means that everyone who goes over it while the cameras record will go through just as many hardships as the pioneers of 100 years ago encountered.” It was a sprawling shoot. Six weeks at a reproduction of Independence, Missouri, constructed outside of Yuma, Arizona, were followed by pickup shots at the Grand Canyon. From there to Sacramento to ford the river; to St. George, Utah, to film the cliff-side scene; to Jackson Lake and Grand Teton Pass in Wyoming; to Sequoia National Park in California; and to Moiese, Montana, for a stampeding buffalo herd. The West was Wild again. The cast and crew were many of them drinkers, frequently bleary-eyed in the morning—Walsh quipped that the film should have been called The Big Drunk. Child actor Robert Parrish, later a director himself, claimed that Ian Keith, playing the Louisiana faux-gentleman who stood between Breck and Ruth, was carrying on with Mrs. Walsh, and that when Walsh found out, the director “accidentally” broke Keith’s jaw while rehearsing a fight. Cowboy actor Cheyenne Flynn accused Stevens—who, incidentally, claimed to be a grandson of Geronimo—of cheating at cards, and bit off a chunk of his ear. The fiction is scarcely more rugged and picturesquely American than the fact.
Per Griffith, the nation may have truly been birthed in the years after 1865, where the action of the Western has tended to take place, but The Big Trail is one of the few great films to be set in the still untrammeled West, sharing this distinction with Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky (1952). Walsh, in the years after The Big Trail, turned to smaller films, to the rowdy, tumultuous urban milieu he’d known as a youth, in the process making out some of the most purely pleasurable works of his career, including Me and My Gal (1932), Sailor’s Luck (1933), and The Bowery (1933). The first is set in contemporary New York, the second in the port of San Pedro, and the third in a folk-tale version of East Side Manhattan in the Gay Nineties that owes something to Herbert Asbury. They’re prime pre-Code specimens all, full of racial wisecracks, thoroughly un-P.C. but never, notwithstanding Walsh’s history with The Clansman, xenophobic—in fact strangely utopian in their giddy pleasure at the cacophonous variety of species that make up the Genus Americanus. And while these crowded city movies may seem a world away from the fresh air and open spaces of The Big Trail, they share that film’s lively sense of the crowd as a protagonist, of disobedient, teeming life that continues right on past the boundaries of the frame, before ‘Action!’ and after ‘Cut!’
The Big Trail premiered at Grauman’s on Thursday, October 2, 1930, almost a year to the day from when Walsh had lost his eye. The date of that premiere is now, rounding up a few months, 83 years ago today—the lifespan of an old man or woman. It’s as far away, in fact, as 1930 was from 1847, when Knickerbocker Magazine was publishing Bostonian Francis Parkman’s travel sketches recounting his overland passage of the previous year, which would eventually be collected as The Oregon Trail. No date is given for the events in The Big Trail; the 26 stars on the flag intimate 1837–1945, though elsewhere 1830 is given for the centenary of the first trip up the Oregon Trail, which President Herbert Hoover had ordered a national day of observance for that year. With the other Emigrant Trails, the Oregon would continue in use past the Civil War—so when The Big Trail premiered, it is entirely possible that there were old Californians in Grauman’s who could remember being children, and bouncing across the Great Plains in prairie schooners. The history of America, of American movies, is just that short, just that long.
What folly could be more all-American than overreaching ambition? Walsh’s brash, rude utopianism was not the prevailing mood of the moment, and Fox rolled snake eyes with his Grandeur gamble. This big, beautiful showpiece film was released a year after the Wall Street crash, as the first U.S. banks began to fail, and the gravity of the economic situation became increasingly evident. Die große Fahrt at least did well in Weimar Germany, but while Hoover screened The Big Trail at the White House, cagey audiences wouldn’t plunk down the higher ticket price for grander Grandeur, and exhibitors saw no reason to invest in the pricey installation, effectively killing widescreen for more than twenty years.
Another Westward migration was soon underway, with Route 66 replacing the Emigrant Trails. This was the Okie migration, as described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, filmed in 1940 by “Duke” Morrison’s old friend John Ford, who’d finally made John Wayne a bona fide box-office star in 1939’s Stagecoach. “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization,” sneers Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone as Wayne and Claire Trevor bounce out of town on a buckboard at that film’s close, a decade and a world apart from the curtain-raiser of The Big Trail: “DEDICATED—TO THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO PLANTED CIVILIZATION IN THE WILDERNESS AND COURAGE IN THE BLOOD OF THEIR CHILDREN.”