Big Trail, The (1930): Raoul Walsh’s Epic Western Featuring the Young John Wayne

In 1930, Raoul Walsh was casting a big-budget Western, “The Big Trail,” and needed a rugged, handsome guy to play the lead. The part was first offered to Gary Cooper, who reportedly turned it down, and, besides, Paramount refused to lend him out to Fox. Ford suggested Wayne for the part and showed Walsh a clip from Men Without Women, upon which he decided to meet him. Walsh first met Wayne on the studio lot carrying an overstuffed chair into the property warehouse. His first impression was of a “tall young fellow,” who “had wide shoulders to go with his height.”

Walsh watched Wayne “juggle a solid Louis XV sofa, as though it was made of feathers, and pick up another chair with his free hand.” Their first conversation was awkward, with Wayne telling the veteran director that he wanted to get into pictures but “this is as far as I’ve come.” Asked what else he could do, Wayne grinned, “I can play football.” Impressed with his honesty and naivet, particularly “the tone of his voice and the way he carried himself,” Walsh told him to let his hair grow and to come and see him in two weeks.

After watching his first screen test, Winfield Sheehan, Fox’s production chief, was surprised to learn that Wayne had been on the studio’s payroll. Wayne had two more tests before landing the part; his second test was with voice, and for the third he read some scenes from the screenplay.

Walsh decided to give him the starring role “partly because there was something about the hang of his shoulders and that shuffle, that I thought I could use in the picture, and partly because I had to find somebody immediately.” “To be a cowboy star,” Walsh held, “You’ve got to be six-foot-three or over, you’ve got to have no hips, and a face that looks right under a sombrero,” and Wayne met these requirements, especially in his masculine look and his “feeling of honesty, of sincerity.”

In The Big Trail, the story of a pioneer trek along the Oregon trail, Wayne plays Breck Colman, the leader of the wagon trail seeking to avenge his friend’s, murder. Despite a big budget, an unprecedented 2 million dollars, location shooting, good actors (Tyronne Power Sr. and Marguerite Churchill), and a big publicity campaign, the movie failed at the box-office. The Big Trail was released in two versions: the conventional 35mm print size and the large 70mm print, called “Fox Grandeur.”

One problem was that it was released during the Depression, in October 1930, and very few houses could afford to buy the new expensive projector, particularly that many had just recently wired their houses for sound, which was very costly. The Big Trail was one of the two major pictures produced in 70mm (King Vidor’s Billy the Kid at M.G.M. was the other), but after a few showcase runs, it was distributed in the standard 35mm gauge.

Wayne received top billing, though he was still an inexperienced actor. Contrary to popular notions, neither Wayne nor the movie received unfavorable reviews. The N.Y. Times critic, for instance, wrote that Wayne “acquits himself with no little distinction. His performance is pleasantly natural.” The picture was described as “an overwhelming task,” “a monumental work,” one “that is stimulation in much the same way as that old silent film classic, The Iron Horse, was in its time.”

Indeed, in scope and action, The Big Trail was one of the more impressive Westerns; its Indian battle scenes were later used to pad out numerous cheaper Westerns. The Times critic felt, nonetheless, that the authenticity of detail and the sweep of action were let down by the standardized “B” plot. The Big Trail turned out to be one of the few Wayne movies to have lost money in the American film market, though it proved to be a greater success in Europe.

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