The Big Trail 70mm

by Glenn Erickson May 16, 2023

CineSavant takes a break to catch up with a ‘Wonder Movie of the Ages’ — from 93 years ago. Raoul Walsh led an enormous company all over the West to film an immense wagon train epic — in a short-lived 70mm film process called Grandeur. The vistas of pioneer action are staggering, and so is the star . . . for this is the debut starring feature role for none other than John Wayne, and he’s not at all bad. Fans of big format road show epics will be impressed: Fox also shot it in flat 35mm, and both versions are present on this Blu-ray from 2012.

The Big Trail

Blu-ray + DVD
20th Fox Home Video
1930 / B&W / 2:10 widescreen + 1:37 Academy / 122 + 108 min. / Street Date November 13, 2012 / Available from Amazon
Starring: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power Sr., David Rollins, Louise Carver, Frederick Burton, Ian Keith, Charles Stevens, Chief John Big Tree, Ward Bond, Iron Eyes Cody, Marilyn Harris, William V. Mong.
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson, Lucien N. Andriot
Settings by: Harold Miles, Fred Sersen
Film Editor: Jack Dennis
Dialogue and Screenplay by Marie Boyle, Jack Peabody, Florence Postal, story by Hal G. Evarts
Produced by Winfield R. Sheehan
Directed by
Raoul Walsh

If you ever get an opportunity to see a real restored 70mm roadshow film on a big screen, give it a chance. In the late 1980s, restored re-premieres of Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus re-energized the industry with visions of the incredible large-format wonders that flourished roughly between 1952 and 1970. The most astonishing screening I ever saw, for big screen spectacle, was a 2003 restored Ryan’s Daughter, at a packed Academy screening. A movie frame looks different on a screen 95 feet wide, with far more visual information than standard 35mm projection.

Thus we format-obsessed fans were impressed when, back in the 1990s, a film restoration festival on the old AMC cable channel showed a widescreen, letterboxed The Big Trail. The Fox Film Corporation gambled that the coming of sound called for an improved, larger film format. Along with a few other titles like The Bat Whispers, The Big Trail was filmed in the Grandeur process, basically the same 65mm format that returned in the 1950s for super epics. It is indeed fascinating to see a film with vintage ‘all talkie’ audio framed in a mighty widescreen aspect ratio. On Blu-ray we can better appreciate the film’s big-screen proportions, and imagine the impact it must have had on viewers back in 1930.


But most of America saw only a standard Academy ratio 35mm version, the normal version that was filmed simultaneously. This partly-restored encoding gives us the young John Wayne, not that far removed from the USC football squad. In at least in one version of the Wayne origin story director Raoul Walsh claimed to have discovered Wayne as a prop man. Newly name-changed from ‘Marion Morrison,’ Wayne reportedly asked if his USC buddy Ward Bond could have a role on the film as well. Raoul Walsh’s autobio is mostly a collection of celebrity anecdotes, but he seems genuine when recalling that Wayne and Bond were dependably loyal and earnest on location — some of his lead actors were stone drunk half the time.

A wagon train starts out from Missouri, with Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) and foolish Swede Gussie (El Brendel) among the settlers hoping to reach the promised land of Oregon. Frontier scout and all-around hero Breck Coleman (John Wayne) signs on as wagon guide, as it fits in with his plan to track down the scoundrels who killed his partner. What nobody knows, not even the loyal mountain man Zeke (Tully Marshall), is that the culprit is none other than the Wagon Master Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.).


Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail was clearly designed for the giant screen. It is composed in locked-down angles that resemble tableaus vivants, probably because the Fox executives thought that the pictorial sweep of the giant format voided the need for montage cutting or camera motion. It’s true — many shots teem with activity that makes our eye jump about the screen, from one center of interest to the next. An okay plot was cooked up, with revenge-seeker Wayne mooning after chaste pioneer gal Churchill.  The storyline is plain-wrap but there is no lack of incident. Indian attacks, a desert crossing and other natural perils are announced in frequent silent-style intertitles. It is at times less a movie than a pageant, but the giant vistas of plains, cliffs and river crossings filled with wagons and horses still impress. They must have wowed audiences back at the birth of sound.

Walsh’s memoir lists the film’s wide-ranging locations: Yuma Arizona . . . along the Colorado River . . . then to Northern California and to Sacramento for more river scenes. ‘Canyon’ scenes followed in St. George, Utah, then back to California’s Sierra Nevada and Sequoia National Park, presumably for the impressive ‘big tree’ scenes. The shoot ended in Moise, Montana, to stage a buffalo stampede. Walsh claims that the spectacular images of the wagons lowered down the side of a cliff were ‘invented on the trail,’ so to speak.  Even if Walsh exaggerates, transporting all those wagons, animals and people back and forth across the country sounds pretty incredible.

Walsh recalled that John Wayne took direction well. The director  used a somewhat condescending analogy to describe the young actor being a football player anxious for guidance from his coach. Wayne’s natural charm and likability certainly comes through in this first picture. His delivery of dialogue is only partly formed. Walsh says that everything Wayne learned about horses and performing for westerns was all learned on this show, and we don’t doubt it — ‘Breck Coleman’ looks natural in the saddle, and has a great presence when just walking through scenes.

Walsh’s memoir makes a (likely exaggerated) joke of  ‘4 drunk Broadway stars’  hired to compensate for John Wayne’s lack of experience. Of the main male players only a couple seem to have had big careers on Broadway. According to Walsh, they hated location shooting and couldn’t be depended upon for anything; Walsh even says that “as it was, the night stops were turning into orgies.” Of such ‘memoirs’ are Damien Chazelle movies made.


The size of this production still impresses, knowing that all the horses, wagons and action we see on screen are real. Most every shot is a wide master. Even for scenes of two people speaking, the deep background reveals epic-gauge activity in progress — there’s not a lot of privacy in a wagon train. They say the Walsh’s wagon train consisted of 185 full-sized functioning conestoga wagons, and in some shots the lines stretch back to the horizon. Almost a thousand genuine Native Americans were hired for the spectacular attack scene.

The direction uses few close shots and no close-ups. As with CinemaScope twenty years later, the philosophy seems to be that facial expressions will be easy to read on such a big canvas, even in wide shots. The blocking of many scenes arrays characters around the space formed by a well-placed camera. The compositions are always handsome, often strikingly so. Walsh plays the violence in wide shot or lets it happen off-screen. The Indian attack and the buffalo stampede employ a number of dynamic shots, such as low angles of Comanche horses charging over a buried camera. Most of the movie relies on breathtaking tableaux.


This can’t have been a favorite film of Marguerite Churchill, who often looks as if she were indeed camping in the rough. The story arc for the romance is little more than ‘Ruth hates Breck’ / ‘Ruth realizes Breck is OK’ / ‘Ruth loves Breck.’  Tully Marshall is a fine folksy sidekick, kind of a proto- Arthur Hunnicutt type. The ‘Tyrone Power’ given major billing is Tyrone Power senior, who we’re told was once a matinee idol in silent films. Power’s huge, uncouth villain chortles through bad teeth like Bluto. He blusters his vile threats with perfect diction — nobody takes chances with the primitive sound recording. Ian Keith rounds out the main players as a slimy Southern cardsharp who turns hired killer. For a while he has the impressionable heroine wrapped around his finger.

We assume that The studio was covering its entertainment bet when it added comedian El Brendel, Hollywood’s main purveyor of ethnic ‘stupid Swede’ humor. Brendel’s popularity escapes us now, but he was a big name for a few seasons. Fantasy fans know him as the star of Fox’s giant Science Fiction musical Just Imagine made the same year, with even more ‘by golly’ and ‘yumpin’ yimminy’ jokes. El Brendel’s clown is given a lot of screen time, mostly taking the abuse of his stern mother-in-law. His one genuinely funny joke shows him sitting foolishly in a mud puddle. When asked how deep the mudhole is, he replies that he’s sitting on his horse!


On the disc extras assembled for this 2011 Blu-ray we learn that the studio’s hopes for both The Big Trail and 70mm Grandeur were dashed by the 1929 stock market crash. Theaters could barely afford the new sound equipment, let alone the bigger projectors and screens required to screen Grandeur. The 70mm version played in only a few big cities. John Wayne’s followup pictures were cancelled, along with the effort to make him a star. He’d labor for eight years on micro-budgeted program westerns, until his rediscovery and jump to instant stardom with John Ford’s Stagecoach.

The show is indeed spectacular on a large video screen, where we can imagine it splayed across a vintage picture palace. Everything is an impressive location vista, and the painterly compositions are often breathtaking. The show conveys an impressive sense of scale, the best example of which is reserved for the romantic finale. Wayne reunites with Churchill in an Ansel Adams-like stand of colossal redwoods. He’s first seen as a tiny figure dwarfed by the giant trees. The Big Trail is historically an important western, with its unique impression of a giant moving mural painting. It’s great fun to see John Wayne stepping up to the plate and putting his best effort into his incredible career opportunity. He would wait 30 years before again stepping in front of a 65mm movie camera, directing as well as starring in his own Road Show epic The Alamo.



20th Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray + DVD of The Big Trail hails from 2012 and appears to still be in print. With the entire 20th-Fox library now locked up by Disney, remaining Blu-rays and DVDs are presently the only way to see a great many Fox pictures. I’ve wanted to review the widescreen ‘Grandeur’ The Big Trail for quite a spell. At DVD Savant back in 2003 I reviewed a DVD that contained only the standard flat version. As I said above, Fox’s Blu-ray has both versions. They were photochemically restored back in (I think) the late 1990s.

Amazing Matte Paintings.

It looks as if surviving 70mm prints were the source for the restoration. The 70mm version is intact, and with very good audio, perhaps aided by modern clean-up. Many shots are crystal clear but a great many wide masters of ‘classic’ action exhibit plenty of fine, light scratches. Many of the wide master shots enhance skies and add partial backgrounds with skilled matte paintings. These were either accomplished on location with glass paintings, which considering how many shots are involved is highly unlikely. I bet that Rocco Gioffre would say that the paintings were done back at the studio, working with ‘latent image’ techniques. Each painting composite was perfected by exposing just single frames. Then one latent camera take at a time was fully exposed until an exact match was made — hoping not to use up the supply of unfinished takes.

OR,  Fox may have commissioned a 65mm optical printer to combine original photography with paintings, one generation down.  Whatever the technique was, these mattes are superb. Only a few use ‘automatic matting’ processes, and look much worse —- they are easily spotted. A worthwhile ‘NZPete’ web page from 2017 shows many mattes from this show: Forgotten Gems of Visual Effects Part Seven, The Big Trail.  I’ve swiped Pete’s graphic, a vintage comparison chart between standard 35mm Movietone ratio and ‘Grandeur.’    It’s easy to see why the large format negative is a natural for special effects compositing — after being reduced to standard 35mm, matte lines in the 70mm original will be ⅓ as thick.

The old Blu-ray comes with very good featurettes hosted by critics and restorers, among them a young-ish  C. Courtney Joyner. Subjects covered in separate pieces are John Wayne, Raoul Walsh, the Grandeur format and the overall production. Richard Schickel gives forth with an audio commentary. The older DVD had no extras at all, which makes these informed mini-docus all the more appreciated.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Big Trail
Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Movie: Excellent — remarkable, even with its ‘fossil’ qualities
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements (on both discs):
Commentary by Richard Schickel
The Big Vision — the Grandeur Process
The Creation of John Wayne
Raoul Walsh — A Man In His Time
The Making of The Big Trail
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray (both versions) plus one DVD (70mm widescreen version only) in Keep case
March 31, 2023

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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