THE BIG TRAIL, 1930, Fox Film Corporation
The Investment: The film would cost over $4M 1930 dollars, use over 20,000 players, travel over 4,000 miles, involve 93 speaking roles, churn up 1,300,000 ft. of film(500,000 of Grandeur), and cover 4 months(8 weeks in Jackson Hole) in this new phenomenon, the "talkie," before its completion.
John Wayne and Raoul Walsh: Walsh had intended to play the lead role himself, but while filming In Old Arizona, he lost an eye. He had only several months prior to filming and at the behest of John Ford, noticed a young extra working on another film and thought him appropriate for the leading role in The Oregon Trail. Walsh wanted Tom Mix or Gary Cooper for the role, but Fox had lost a great deal of money in the stock market crash. Walsh didn't want to make the film on the backlot, rather go to a number of visual locations and Fox said he had to economize with an unknown actor to take the film on the road. The media identified him as Marion Michael "Duke" Morrison.
The appellation was bestowed by a fire company in California that Morrison hung around when a child. He was a recent USC football phenom, but his name was changed just prior to the film by Fox's Head of Production, Winfield Sheehan. He earned $75. a week to work on the film, became John Wayne and as the saying goes, "The rest is history." It is purported that this was Wayne's first role where he rode a horse, and it was reported that he got off to a rather poor start as he had "Montezuma's revenge" for the first few weeks of filming.
El Brendel, was a Swedish comic actor (actually it was a persona by an American actor Alfred Brendel from Philadelphia) that was out of place, but had a role written in for him. During filming, Brendel wanted to acquire an Indian's saddle that was covered with silver ornaments. He tried bargaining first by himself in sign language, then through an interpreter. The Indian wanted too much for the saddle which caused frustration and finally the Indian rose in a threatening manner at Brendel. While the Indian apparently wanted $100. and Brendel would only go to $80., he finally realized that the Indian thought he was bargaining for his squaw! While the Chief was a little put out, apparently his squaw thought the whole incident rather humorous.
The lowering of 150 wagons, oxen and people over Spread Creek Cliffs was intended to duplicate a similar real life situation of the pioneers. In the film, a wagon is dropped and plummets approximately 150 feet to the base of the cliff. While it looks planned, Walsh later admitted that it wasn't deliberate and that fortunately no one was injured during the scene.
Lights, camera, action: The Indian attack on the wagon train was frenetic with horses bumping into each other and Indians dressed only in breechcloths taking falls into the rough sagebrush. There were numerous cuts and bruises and nine Whites and Indians were rendered unconscious. One Indian, trained by the White stunt men, made over 20 falls while another made 3 in one scene alone, and with hundreds of horses charging behind them.
The film was also shot simultaneously in German(Die Grosse Fahrt) for a European version with El Brendel in the lead. There was also a Spanish version(Horizontes Huevos); a French version(La Piste des geants); and all these other versions were released by Fox in 1931. In Italian it is Il grande sentiero.
Painted billboard in Los Angeles, CA
Things didn't fare so well for Fox Films as the movie was poorly received critically and financially. Theaters could ill afford the equipment necessary to show a film in 70mm Grandeur. As a result, Fox filed for bankruptcy shortly after the film's release.