In 2006, the United States Library of Congress deemed this film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry, saying "the plot of a trek along the Oregon Trail is aided immensely by the majestic sweep provided by the experimental Grandeur wide-screen process used in filming".
A large caravan of settlers attempt to cross the Oregon Trail. Breck Coleman (John Wayne) is a young trapper who just got back to Missouri from his travels near Santa Fe, seeking to avenge the death of an old trapper friend who was killed the winter before along the Santa Fe Trail for his furs, by Red Flack (Tyrone Power, Sr.) and his minion Lopez (Charles Stevens). At a large trading post owned by a man named Wellmore, Coleman sees Flack and suspects him right away as being one of the killers. Flack likewise suspects Coleman as being somebody who knows too much about the killing. Coleman is asked by a large group of settlers to scout their caravan west, and declines, until he learns that Flack and Lopez were just hired by Wellmore to boss a bull train along the as-yet-unblazed Oregon Trail to a trading post north of Oregon, owned by another Missouri fur trader. Coleman agrees to scout for the train, so he can keep an eye on the villains and kill them as soon as they reach their destination. The caravan of settlers in their Prairie schooners would follow Wellmore's ox-drawn train of Conestoga Wagons, as the first major group of settlers to move west on the Oregon Trail. The film is set somewhere between 1837 and 1845. This is historically accurate, as the first major wave of settlers on the Oregon Trail was in 1843, although the details were completely different.
Coleman finds love with young Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), whom he'd kissed accidentally, mistaking her for somebody else. Unwilling to accept her attraction toward him, Ruth gets rather close to a gambler acquaintance of Flack's, Thorpe (Ian Keith), who joined the trail after being caught gambling. Coleman and Flack have to lead the settlers west, while Flack does everything he can to have Coleman killed before he finds any proof of what he'd done. The three villains' main reason for going west is to avoid the hangman's noose for previous crimes, and all three receive frontier justice instead. The settlers trail ends in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where Coleman and Ruth finally settle down together amidst giant redwoods.
After the film was given the greenlight by the producers at Fox Studios in early 1930, Walsh offered the lead to actor Gary Cooper, who couldn't accept it. He then asked friend and fellow director John Ford for suggestions: Ford recommended a then-unknown named John Wayne because he "liked the looks of this new kid with a funny walk, like he owned the world". When Wayne professed inexperience, Walsh told him to just "sit good on a horse and point". Filming began on-location just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico in April 1930, which was unheard of at the time and quickly became very costly to the studio.
The film was shot in an early widescreen process using 70mm film called "70 mm Grandeur film", which was first used in the film Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. Grandeur was a forerunner of the Todd-AO 70mm system which was introduced in 1955. Grandeur was one of a number of wide screen processes which were developed by the major Hollywood studios alongside sound in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A combination of the Great Depression and the costs of converting thousands of cinemas to sound prevented the successful introduction of any of these projection systems on a commercial scale.
The scene of the wagon train drive across the country was pioneering in its use of camera work and the depth and view of the epic landscape. An effort was made to lend authenticity to the movie, with the wagons drawn by oxen instead of horses - they were lowered by ropes down canyons when necessary for certain shots in narrow valleys. Tyrone Power, Sr.'s character's clothing looks realistically grimy, and even the food supplies the 'immigrants' carried with them in their wagons were thoroughly researched. Locations in five states, starting from New Mexico to California, were used to film the caravan's 2,000-mile (3,200 km) trek.
According to the Nov. 12, 1930 issue of the Idaho Falls Post, this movie was once set to be titled "The Oregon Trail". The change, as stated, was made in response to the requests from nearby residents of Jackson, WY, where the bulk of the movie was filmed.
After shooting, the film was previewed to select audiences and generally released on October 1930. The movie quickly became a box office bomb because it was released as a widescreen film during a time when theatres would not change over their standard screens due to the huge cost, and mainly because the Great Depression left so many exhibitors almost financially ruined and the film barely made its huge investment back. It would be almost 20 years before the concept of widescreen films would be put back into general production.
After completion of the film, Wayne found stardom only in low-budget serials and features (mostly Poverty Row westerns); it would take nine years and the film Stagecoach to bring Wayne to mainstream prominence.
The film was mostly forgotten to history until the early 1980s, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which housed the 65mm nitrate original camera negative, wanted to preserve the film but found that it was too shrunken and fragile to be copied due to lack of real preservation, and that no film lab would touch it. Karl Malkames, a cinematographic specialist and pioneer in film reproduction, restoration, and preservation designed and built a special printer to handle the careful frame-by-frame reproduction of the negative to a 35mm anamorphic CinemaScope fine grain master to duplicate the original 70mm process. The printer copied at a speed of one frame a second, leading to the film's year-long process in preserving its original look.
Beyond the format difference, the 70mm and 35mm versions vary substantially from each other. They were shot by different cameras, and footage for each format was edited separately in the cutting room. Some scenes were shot simultaneously by both cameras, the only difference being the angle (with the better angle usually given to the 70mm camera). Some scenes were shot first by one camera, and then retaken with the other camera. The 70mm cameras could not focus well up close, so their shots were mainly panoramas with very few close-ups. The 35mm cameras could move in and focus at short distances. Thus, scenes in the 70mm version might show two characters talking to each other in the same take, making greater use of the widescreen frame, while the 35mm version would have close-up shots cutting back and forth between the two characters.
In editing the films, some scenes were edited out for one version but allowed to remain in the other. The 35mm version was edited to be shorter, so many scenes in the 70mm version are not found in the 35mm. However, there are a few scenes in the 35mm version not found in the 70mm. The 35mm version was 108 minutes, but the 70mm was longer at 122 minutes. The 70mm version has been released on VHS as well as DVD in its original widescreen format, but it was also panned and scanned to fit a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio TV screen, despite the availability of the 35mm version which is closer to that format.
The 70mm version was finally seen on cable television in the late 1990s. A radically different 35mm version had been released to VHS and DVD previously for several years. A two-disc restored DVD was released in the US on May 13, 2008 featuring the 35mm and the 70mm version. A Blu-ray edition featuring the 70mm version was released in September 2012.
A fairly common practice in the early sound era was to simultaneously produce at least one foreign-language version of a film for release in non-English speaking countries; an approach later replaced by simply dubbing the dialogue. There were at least four foreign-language versions made of The Big Trail, all filmed in 35mm, 1.20:1 ratio and using different casts and different character names:French: La Piste des géants (1931), directed by Pierre Couderc, starring Gaston Glass (Pierre Calmine), Jeanne Helbling (Denise Vernon), Margot Rousseroy (Yvette), Raoul Paoli (Flack), Louis Mercier (Lopez).
German: Die Große Fahrt (1931), directed by Lewis Seiler and Raoul Walsh, starring Theo Shall (Bill Coleman), Marion Lessing (Ruth Winter), Ullrich Haupt (Thorpe), Arnold Korff (Peter), Anders Van Haden (Bull Flack), Peter Erkelenz (Fichte), Paul Panzer (Lopez). Die Große Fahrt on IMDb
Italian: Il grande sentiero (1931), starring Franco Corsaro and Luisa Caselotti.
Spanish: La Gran jornada (1931), directed by David Howard, Samuel Schneider, and Raoul Walsh, starring Jorge Lewis (Raul Coleman), Carmen Guerrero (Isabel Prados), Roberto Guzmán (Tomas), Martin Garralaga (Martin), Al Ernest Garcia (Flack), Tito Davison (Daniel), Carlos Villarías (Orena), Charles Stevens (Lopez). La Gran jornada on IMDb