The Big Trail (1930)

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Released 13-May-2003

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Western None
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1930
Running Time 103:52
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (52:16) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Raoul Walsh
Studio
Distributor

Twentieth Century Fox
Starring John Wayne
Marguerite Churchill
El Brendel
Tully Marshall
Tyrone Power Sr
David Rollins
Frederick Burton
Ian Keith
Charles Stevens
Louise Carver
Case ?
RPI Box Music R.H. Bassett
Peter Brunelli


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles Dutch
English for the Hearing Impaired
French
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, closing music continues after the end credit

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Did Marion Morrison really look this young once? I barely recognised him in his big entrance...

    Of course, we are investigating the films of The Duke making up the John Wayne Big Westerns Collection and this particular release is quite an important one. This was one of legendary John Wayne's earliest starring roles and it looks it! If you know him well from his later films, you will hardly recognise the man here. But even though the technical aspects of the film making is at times rudimentary, you can see the makings of a star just through his sheer presence (if not his lack of acting ability). What makes the film important though? Well, even though made in 1930 it was actually filmed in a widescreen format - Grandeur 70mm. We don't however get to see that version here...

    If you want to know where all those clichés of westerns in the 1960's originated, look no further than here. The setting is the mighty Mississippi and a wagon train is gathering for the big trail - all the way to Oregon. The main protagonists are: Breck Coleman (John Wayne), an independent frontiers-type man who signs on as the scout for the wagon train; Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr), a nefarious type who happens to be the wagon train boss; Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), a dazzling young belle from the South determined to make a new life in the West, also dazzling Breck; Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), a supposed Southern gentleman determined to get the hand of Ruth; Lopez (Charles Stevens), partner of Red Flack; Pa Bascom (Frederick Burton), elected leader of the Missouri contingent on the wagon train; Zeke (Tully Marshall), old timer and trusted friend of Breck; and Gussie (El Brendel), comic relief on the wagon train. While most are what they seem, Breck has some doubts about a pair who may well have been the killers of his best friend and has signed on to piece together the story and exact frontier justice. He did not bargain on falling for the Southern Belle. The trail west is fraught with perils and dangers (obviously) and only the strong will survive to settle the valley in Oregon that Breck has told them about.

    The story is not that terrific, as many years of westerns clichés will attest to, but the simple tale is surprisingly well executed. While never known for his acting ability, even at this early stage John Wayne has a certain presence here that hints of what is to come. In a simple tale, told in rather epic ways, the rest of the cast do a decent job around him. With the rudimentary film making of the time, the actors do tend to overact, especially with delivery of lines, but it has a certain degree of charm to it. Those rudiments also ensure that the "action" sequences are quite docile (the obligatory trick of speeded up film seems to have been employed liberally) whilst the effects are pretty awful (John Wayne shooting from a moving horse is almost laughable). Sound effects are rather variable. But to carp about these deficiencies is to deny the fact that the film, for all its clichés, is very watchable. You know where the story is going, but you willingly go along for the ride.

    With the grandeur of the scenery at times aping the widescreen process with which the film was shot, there is no doubt that this is an important film in the history of the western. Aside from being one of The Duke's first starring roles, it is clear that many a director in the later 1940's through 1960's periods watched this film to see how the widescreen format could be used to emphasise the vastness of the American West - and the sheer size of the huge (presumably) redwood trees. Whilst it is a great pity that we do not get to see the widescreen version of the film, what we have here gives us enough hints about how the widescreen would look, and is in its own right eminently watchable and very worthy of inclusion in the John Wayne Big Westerns Collection.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Whilst I am no expert about such matters, it should be pointed out that there are two "original" versions of the film. The one was a widescreen version filmed in the then-experimental Grandeur 70mm process, the other is a concurrently shot 35mm process version - the basis of this DVD release. The widescreen version certainly still exists as it was shown on American television some years ago. Now that would be a very interesting version to see, as what we have in the version we have here certainly indicates that the film was shot to take advantage of the widescreen format. There are certainly plenty of scenes where the action is designed to be overpowered by the vast scenery of the new frontier. It is also interesting to note that there is very minimal camera movement used - everything seems to have been shot with a fixed camera and whatever movement that happens is through the motion of the actors. It is also interesting to see the throwbacks to the silent era with the intertitles giving us a "commentary" upon what is going on.

    The transfer is presented in a full frame format that very closely approximates the Academy ratio of its theatrical release. It is, of course, not 16x9 enhanced.

    The transfer is no worse than we would expect - variable with some sections quite sharp and quite well detailed, other sections quite soft and poorly detailed. Shadow detail is very variable with some sections being pretty shocking - around 37:50 is a good example. Add into the mix some serious contrast problems at times, and you know that even allowing for the age of the film there are sections here that you are not going to admire. Grain is probably the one area where the transfer was better than expected. In broad terms though, despite the obvious problems with the transfer it is probably better than I was expecting for an unrestored effort. Indeed, there are times when I did marvel at how good it looked, but this was definitely not consistent across all reels.

    The black and white tones are all over the place too - as we would expect given the above problems. Sometimes descending too much into black and black, the overall presentation is not the greatest demonstration of black and white film you will ever see. Still, the lack of really adequate grey scale definition barely hampers the proceedings.

    Naturally in a film of this age there are going to be problems - and in that respect this is almost exactly what we would expect to see. There are plenty of issues with film artefacts, with a sizeable chunk of the latter part of the film blessed with a black line down the image. We have all sorts of scratches, blemishes and specks throughout the film, but there are only a few sections where these really get to be bothersome - such as around 26:45, 29:55 and 40:10. There is plenty of film dirt to be seen at times, and this only compounds the assorted artefacts. You may get a little motion sickness going with the copious amount of telecine wobble, notably during the opening credits but also present during the film in general. Aside from that, there did not seem to be any MPEG artefacts (any loss of resolution would be inherent in the source material I would suspect) and there was thankfully nothing much in the way of aliasing or any other major film-to-video artefacts.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change apparently coming at 52:16 - I thought it might have been just a few frames dropped out of the film, but rechecking seems to indicate that it is a layer change pause. It is rather noticeable, but probably no more so than a couple of places where frames are missing in the film.

    There are not too many subtitles options on the DVD. The English for the Hearing Impaired efforts are okay but miss a bit of the dialogue at times.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack.

    Given that this is a seventy-odd year old film, it is hardly surprising that the soundtrack does have its problems. Aside from being somewhat hissy at times, the dialogue is also a tad difficult to hear at times. This is partly due to the primitive recording techniques of the time, with fixed microphones meaning that if the actor is positioned away from the recording "sweet spot", their dialogue tends to be at a somewhat lower level. Audio sync is not much of an issue given the age of the film, but is certainly not as spot on as we would expect of films from later in the decade.

    The music score is uncredited in the film itself but apparently comes from R.H. Bassett and Peter Brunelli. Given the relative newness of "talkies" at the time, we would have to be pretty anal to complain about the rather poor nature of the score. As a piece of film history, it is quite interesting.

    There is really nothing terrific about the sound here. Lacking any sort of dynamic, aside from being hissy at times it also suffers somewhat from the sort of glitches that we would expect in a soundtrack of this age. Since we make plenty of allowances for sound of this age, the result is certainly pretty much what we would have expected. Some of the foley effects are quite primitive, and once or twice they seem to go AWOL too. The soundtrack does the job asked of it, and we really cannot ask more than that. A nice big restoration would have been nice and hopefully we will get that if they ever release the widescreen version of the film.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Nothing at all.

Censorship

    There is censorship information available for this title. Click here to read it (a new window will open). WARNING: Often these entries contain MAJOR plot spoilers.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 release misses out on:

    There is little to choose between the Region 4 and Region 1 releases, other than the original mono soundtrack. Given that the Region 4 soundtrack is virtually mono sounding anyway, it is hardly a huge incentive to head to Region 1. Still, as there are indications that the mono soundtrack is better than the stereo soundtrack, it does make Region 1 the version of choice.

Summary

    The Big Trail represents one of The Duke's earliest starring roles. More renowned for its innovation for being filmed in the then-experimental Grandeur 70mm process, it nonetheless is an interesting look at the early work of one of the greatest stars of the silver screen. It is a great shame that we do not get the widescreen version of the film, and even more of a shame that the film has not been subject to a full restoration. Still, I would be loathe to consider the film as just a filler in the box set. Well worthwhile taking the time to watch this - it really is a excellent example of the good old days of film making in Hollywood as it struggled to come to grips with the transition from silent films to "talkies" .

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Sunday, June 22, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDDenon DVD-1600, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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