Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power, David Rollins, Frederick Burton, Ian Keith, Charles Stevens, Louise Carver, Ward Bond, Iron Eyes Cody
Written by: Hal G. Evarts, Marie Boyle, Jack Peabody, Florence Postal
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 122
Date: 10/02/1930

The Big Trail (1930)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Prairie Schooners

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Big Trail (1930) is an essential item in any history of the American Western for two reasons. The first is that it was John Wayne's starring debut, and the second is that it introduced a widescreen process called "Fox Grandeur." However, both of those things failed with the immense, costly failure of the movie. Wayne would slink back to the purgatory of bad "B" movies for nine more years (until Stagecoach), and widescreen movies didn't show up again until 1958. Part of the high cost is that many scenes were filmed twice, once for the 35mm camera and once for the 70mm camera. Comparisons of certain shots show that landscapes were better served by the bigger format and that close-ups were more complete in the smaller format (they were cropped for the wide format). Director Raoul Walsh's compositions are amazing, using clutter and landscape and space to fascinatingly emotional effect. (It was far too expensive and troublesome to actually move a camera.) However, the storytelling is leaden and numbingly slow, relying heavily on dialogue to dole out information. Subsequently, the actors are stuck performing as if in a community theater play. Walsh picked up the pieces and made another movie with Wayne ten years later, Dark Command (1940), and then made a much more psychologically nuanced Western, Pursued (1947).

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