“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.”-Raoul Walsh
Raoul Walsh is one of the big names in studio-era Westerns, often appearing alongside names such as John Ford and Howard Hawks in film journals. And like them, Walsh’s life was disproportionate to the rest of existence as if he were a character in one of his own films. Still, despite his fame and reputation, Walsh’s silent films about poverty and his early “talkies” go unrecognized by most. This is likely due to the fact that these early films by the director do not come equipped with a reputation earned during their original release. These films, including The Big Trail, were rediscovered and re-evaluated some thirty years or more after the fact.
Raoul Walsh brings to The Big Trail (1930) something never seen on the same scope again in any of his films, an epic sense of mise-en-scène. Walsh’s ability to control as well as to construct shots with gigantic set pieces and a horde of extras comes as a by-product of his years working under D.W. Griffith. Add to that the new technology he was able to apply to the picture, 70mm film, and this particular talent is made even more apparent.
Lucien Andriot’s cinematography also recalls Griffith’s silent epics with its use of light; smokey and faded. The dreamy effect of the photography instills Walsh’s images with a Romanticism fitting the films narrative which, from today’s perspective, seems a bit contrived and overly familiar. But it is the Romantically pastoral images of The Big Trail that set it far apart from other early sound Westerns. In 1930 Westerns were predominantly a genre of low-budget “quickies” meant to fill out a day’s worth of programing at the theaters. The Big Trail was a prestige picture with a momentous budget and considerable resources. The failure of the film to find its audience seriously jeopardized the careers of not just Raoul Walsh, but also the film’s star, newcomer John Wayne.
What’s problematic today about viewing The Big Trail is just how much we, as an audience, take sound for granted. In terms of sound design and even the manner in which particular characters talk, The Big Trail established the codified sound cues that are essential to the contemporary Western. Tyrone Power Sr.’s performance as Red Flack in the film invented what has become the archetypal villain in “wagon train dramas”, most obviously referenced in Anthony Mann’s Bend In The River (1952) with Arthur Kennedy’s portrayal of Emerson Cole or Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992). That The Big Trail was so hardly seen and yet so influential speaks to the uniqueness of Walsh’s talents.