Historic 'Big Trail' makes widescreen DVD debut

Doug Nye
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

One of the great Hollywood fables is that the 1930 Western epic "The Big Trail" was a box-office failure because of its young star, John Wayne.

It definitely was a financial flop, but it wasn't Wayne's fault. That's apparent to anyone who purchases and watches "The Big Trail: Fox Grandeur Special Edition" (20th Century Fox, $19.98) which arrives Tuesday on DVD.

For the first time on home video, the film is presented in its original 70mm widescreen format.

To be sure, Wayne, then 23 years old, looks incredibly young and trim but he handles himself well as scout Brent Coleman, who helps lead a massive wagon train westward. You can spot some of the mannerisms - the walk, the smile and the resolve - that would be so much a part of his screen persona when he became a major star.

It was the widescreen Grandeur process - not Wayne - that doomed "The Big Trail." Most of the nation's movie theaters had just finished a costly conversion to sound and few could afford to shell out more big bucks to accommodate the new process in those Depression days. That would have involved installing a new screen and purchasing new projection equipment.

Thus, the widescreen version received very few bookings across the country. Instead, what most people saw was a 35mm edition that ran anywhere from 94 to100 minutes and lacked the stunning impact of the widescreen effort.

"The Big Trail" has such an authentic atmosphere it feels as if it was actually shot in the19th century during a real wagon train trek. That could be because many of the people who worked on the film had been around for the settling of the American frontier.

Director Raoul Walsh and his crew used more than a dozen locations in seven different states. Fox's restored 122-minute edition captured the majestic wonder of these Western landscapes. The director makes full use of the wide screen, with activities going on in every inch of nearly every frame.

The pioneers have to survive steep cliffs, driving thunderstorms, raging blizzards, a buffalo stampede and other obstacles. All are stunningly enhanced by the Grandeur process.

Marguerite Churchill, who later married cowboy star George O'Brien, plays Brent Coleman's love interest Ruth Cameron, a member of the wagon train. Tully Marshall, who was born in 1864 in California and obviously had known many a pioneer, is just right as Wayne's veteran sidekick Zeke.

Tyrone Power Sr. plays the grimy, grizzly villain Red Flack, the wagon master. He consistently is at odds with Coleman, who suspects Flack of murdering a friend. It is obvious that the two eventually will square off in a showdown

"The Big Trail" was considered important enough that in 2006 it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. The DVD includes commentary from noted film historian/author Richard Schickel, features on Wayne and Walsh, a history of the early widescreen Grandeur process, and a "Making of ..." special.

After the film's failure, Wayne spent the rest of the 1930s starring in B-budget movies - mostly Westerns - until director John Ford finally rescued him with a meaty role in "Stagecoach" (1939). After watching "The Big Trail," many will wonder why it took so long for Wayne to be "re-discovered."

"The Big Trail" also is part of the "John Wayne: The Fox Westerns" collection ($39.98), which includes the Duke riding the range in "North to Alaska" (1960), "The Commancheros" (1961) and "The Undefeated" (1969).

Keeping with its Wild West theme, Fox is releasing on Tuesday a "Western Classics" set ($19.98) highlighted by "The Gunfighter" (1950), one of the 100 top Westerns of all time, starring Gregory Peck as aging and famous gunslinger Jimmie Ringo, who is trying to escape his past. Also included are "Rawhide" (1951) with Susan Hayward and "Garden of Evil" (1954) starring Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Hayward.

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