Though the plot of the 1930 Western The Big Trail is one steady march from the banks of the Mississippi to Oregon territory, it's otherwise a film of false starts. Director Raoul Walsh, who enjoyed considerable success in the silent era, and experienced a second golden age from the late '30s on, thanks to films like They Drive By Night and White Heat, employed 70mm film and a then-new widescreen process called "Fox Grandeur," an early form of what would later be known as Cinemascope. As his star, he plucked from relative obscurity a baby-faced, wavy-haired young actor named John Wayne. Trouble was, with the onset of the Depression, few theaters had the technology to show the film as it was meant to be seen. The Big Trail flopped, and Wayne labored on in B-Westerns until Stagecoach made him a star in 1939.
Did audiences miss much? Yes and no. Like a lot of early talkies, The Big Trail struggles to incorporate dialogue gracefully, even breaking up the action with old-fashioned title cards that are more expressive than the exchanges between characters. And even with all the new technology, the story must have looked tired. While traveling cross-country, Wayne seeks revenge on a pair of buddy-killing nogoodniks (Charles Stevens and the much-less-handsome-than-his-son Tyrone Power Sr.) while romancing the spirited Marguerite Churchill. Between the action scenes, El Brendel provides ostensible comic relief as a slow-witted Swede.
Fortunately, film is a visual medium, and Walsh provides one breathtaking vista after another as the scenery shifts from river to desert to mountains. Beyond and above the drama of Wayne's quest for vengeance is the drama of a graceful, committed man moving against landscapes whose magnitude and danger are matched only by their beauty. As a movie, it's only so-so, but as a dramatic travelogue of the American West, it's a treasure.
Key features: Time critic Richard Schickel provides a typically insightful commentary track. A second disc supplies a 35mm version of the film.