wo years ago, writing about the film Just Imagine (1930) I wrote that 'no film starring El Brendel can be all good': he was a particularly irritating Jewish comedian who provided comic relief in a number of early sound films, including The Big Trail (1930). The film is notable for being John Wayne's first starring role, as a scout for a large wagon train making a hazardous journey West. Apart from El Brendel the films suffers from a certain amount of leaden dialogue and wooden acting, and some seriously heavy over-acting from Tyrone Power (the father of the well-known 1940s films star) as the villain. Wayne himself was not really experienced enough to carry a major film, and though he has a lot of charm his performance is a bit stiff and lacks the authority of his later appearances.
But all this pales into insignificance against the film itself: one of the most spectacular ever made. The statistics are impressive, showing the whole process to be an incredible achievement - particularly in only the first year of full-dialogue sound films. The shoot took four months, during which the company travelled 4300 miles through seven states: there were 20,000 extras, 1800 head of cattle, 1400 horses, 500 buffalo, 725 Native Americans from 5 tribes, 185 wagons and 93 speaking parts: a production staff of 200 included 22 cameramen.
The film was shot in four language versions with different actors (this was before dubbing or subtitling were practicable) - English, French, German and Spanish. As well as the standard 35mm English version a 70mm widescreen version was made in the short-lived Fox Grandeur system (which never caught on because of the Depression and the reluctance of cinema owners to invest in the equipment, having only just installed sound). Many scenes were shot simultaneously, with the 35mm camera usually being in the less satisfactory position, and the 35mm version is much inferior to the 70mm one.
After being unvailable for fifty years the 70mm version was restored and printed to CinemaScope prints in the late 1990s. Now at last it has been released in the USA on DVD - fortunately in a transfer from the 70mm version rather than the CinemaScope one, which has a wider (i.e. less high) ratio than the original (the still above is taken from a contemporary magazine article). It benefits from being shown on as large a screen as possible: photographer Arthur Edeson produced some superbly photographed images, making the best of the huge vistas of the West (before it became over-run with roads and gas stations) and the hundreds of extras spread out into the distance. The sound track, though primitive, is an achievement in itself - recorded live out-of-doors (always difficult, and rarely done now when post-dubbing is normal), which must have required large trucks for the sound gear as well as portable generators. The DVD release has overdone the noise reduction, so that the result is often muffled, but it's still possible to hear the dialogue clearly and the background effects are convincing (though the occasional music sounds pretty dreadful).
The DVD set also includes the 35mm version - though it is evidently pressed from an older DVD issue and the producers seem to have forgotten that this is missing some 13 minutes - it's been suggested that it's been censored because of the attitude to Native Americans and some cruelty to animals. In any case it's hardly worth watching - the 4 x 3 ratio doesn't show the detailed backgrounds nearly as well.
Director Raoul Walsh produced some impressively spectacular scenes, including an attack by Indians on a circle of wagons, and a genuinely nail-biting sequence of wagons and animals being lowered over a high cliff. The plot, such as it is, is pretty basic, but though many of the situations are stock western clichés the scenery and spectacle makes the film well worth seeing in the widescreen version.
This site has a fascinating article by Arthur Edeson about the Fox Grandeur process and shooting The Big Trail; and a contemporary technical article about the process is here.
Posted: Tue - June 10, 2008 at 09:03 AM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM