The first major sound Western, The Big Trail is also one of the greatest of the early talkies. Filmed in an experimental 70 mm wide-screen format labeled Fox Grandeur and showcasing a raw young talent named John Wayne, it possesses a dramatic sweep and swagger that Hollywood would not capture again for some 20 years. From its opening scenes, it is a revelation, and its use of wide screen is not just a gimmick but instead is an effective means of conveying the enormity of the story. The plot and characters are outdated, there are some awkward attempts at comic relief, and the inevitable Indian attack -- complete with a circling of the wagons -- doesn't help matters, but overall, The Big Trail is cinematic storytelling at its best. Director Raoul Walsh visualizes for the viewers the sort of pressures the pioneers encountered, from devastating weather conditions to overwhelming physical challenges. But more importantly, Walsh's loose, rambling approach to the story helps create the impression that the travelers never quite knew what was going to happen next and were making solutions up as each new obstacle presented itself. Shot after shot is overflowing with incidental characters floating in and out at random and filled with a chaotic clutter that makes all of the wagons and possessions look well worn and battered. Much, if not all, of the film was shot on location, adding to the authentic atmosphere. The photography is strikingly beautiful, and the natural approach to sound is innovative. Wayne gives one of his best performances, Marguerite Churchill makes a memorable leading lady, and the supporting cast is balanced by Tully Marshall and Russ Powell as two of Wayne's old buddies. But Tyrone Power, Ian Keith, and Charles Stevens are laughably one-note villains, and Stevens' portrayal of a Mexican bandit is especially unsettling. The Big Trail almost certainly did not invent any of the Western clichés it employs, but it uses them in ways that make it one of the vital entries in the evolution of the movie Western.
by Bob Mastrangelo review