If you like a good Western, 20th Century Fox has something for you.
Marion Robert Morrison, aka John Wayne, was a 23-year-old bit player and extra who grew up in Glendale when director Raoul Walsh cast him in his first leading role, as Breck Coleman in “The Big Trail,” a panoramic epic that was released in 1930.
Fox’s two-disc special edition DVD, which was released last week in time for Wayne’s 101st birthday, is a gem for fans of Wayne and the Western.
“The Big Trail” marks the beginning of one of Hollywood’s biggest film icons.
Wayne — who was born on May 26 — plays Coleman, a scout who leads a wagon caravan while seeking vengeance for the death of one of his friends. He helps the settlers navigate their way to a new life.
“Duke” Morrison, having injured his shoulder bodysurfing in Long Beach, as mentioned in the DVD’s background notes, lost his USC football scholarship and went to work for Fox as a prop worker. It was at Fox that he came to the attention of several of the directors, including John Ford and Walsh.
Ford often chided Wayne for having little acting “chops.” In fact, Ford didn’t think Wayne was ready for “The Big Trail” when Walsh felt otherwise. Duke went from $35 a week as prop worker to $75 a week as an actor.
It was for this film that Wayne learned to ride, shoot, rope, throw a knife and act like a real, reel cowboy.
It was also in this film that Morrison became John Wayne, according to the DVD commentary. It would be nine years and several films later when he would be cast in “Stagecoach,” the breakout film that made him a star, yet Wayne’s performance in “The Big Trail” is a treat because you can see the beginnings of the superstar’s on-screen persona.
“The Big Trail” was an epic for 1930 — huge, even by today’s standards. There were 20,000 extras, 1,800 heads of cattle, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalo, 725 American Indians (from five tribes), 185 wagons, 93 principals, a production staff of 200, 22 camera operators, 4,300 miles were covered during the shooting, 12 Indian guides, 123 baggage trains and 700 chickens, pigs and dogs.
The film was shot in “Fox Grandeur,” a technique that — similar to CinemaScope, which didn’t arrive on the scene until about 20 years later — was filmed in 70mm, standard motion-picture specs at twice the size.
The technology was too expensive for theater owners to install, and when the Depression hit, company owner William Fox suffered, as did the rest of the nation. “The Big Trail” was shot several times. The main shoot was done using Fox Grandeur. Then, the film had to be shot again using the conventional method of the day.
One reason this DVD set is so interesting is that Disc 2 contains what Fox calls the “Academy Aspect Ratio Version” of the film. True film fans can compare the way the movie was meant to be seen versus the way most people saw the film. To be honest, the “Academy” version leaves so much out by way of pure visuals, you feel cheated.
Extras with the two-disc, special-edition DVD set also include: “Raoul Walsh: A Man In His Time,” “The Big Vision: The Grandeur Process,” “The Making of ‘The Big Trail,’” a photo gallery and plenty of commentary and background information.
So saddle up, pilgrim.
CLIFF REDDING is a copy editor who has written for several publications. He can be reached at (818) 637-3231 or email@example.com.