By Mark Dolph, Curator of History, Gilcrease Museum
What to do with a recent donation of one-of-a-kind photographs? How about turning them into an exhibition? That’s exactly what guests will see in Exploring The Big Trail, which opens May 1 at Gilcrease Museum. The exhibition will showcase stereoscopic photographs taken during the filming of the 1930 motion picture The Big Trail, starring John Wayne. Many, if not all of these photographs are unique images never before exhibited. Exploring The Big Trail promises to provide valuable insights into the production of the film, an understanding of how the American West has been presented to audiences around the world and the role Westerns played in shaping the mythology of the West.
As a film, The Big Trail is significant in several ways. Deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by The Library of Congress, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2006. The Big Trail was the first big-budget epic of the sound era. It was noted that “the plot of a trek along the Oregon Trail is aided immensely by the majestic sweep provided by the experimental Grandeur wide-screen [70 mm] process used in filming.” Made at the then enormous cost of more than $2 million, The Big Trail was filmed on 15 far-flung locations in five Western states, which proved to be a very costly attempt at presenting the Oregon Trail migration saga as realistically as possible. Ironically, this big-budget epic was a box office flop because most theater owners refused to invest in the projectors required for the new widescreen format. Timing is everything: The Great Depression preceded the release of the film by one year.
Images in Exploring The Big Trail reveal just what $2 million in production costs looked like on the big screen in 1930. Several images show the film crew on locations with spectacular backdrops, such as the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole in Wyoming. Many photographs give a sense of the film’s enormous cast of nearly 300 principal actors and 20,000 extras. And rare for the time, hundreds of Native Americans from five tribes, including Cheyenne and Sioux, were part of the cast. In addition to the huge human cast, thousands of cattle and horses and a herd of bison were used to make the movie as authentic as possible. This attention to detail, seen in the stereoscopic stills, provides a frozen-in-time sense of what audiences of the day experienced as they enjoyed the film nearly 90 years ago.
And then there are the photographs of a very young John Wayne, just 23 at the time. The Big Trail was Wayne’s first leading role and the first film in which he appeared as John Wayne rather than Duke Morrison. Wayne was not the first choice to play the role of Breck Coleman. Raoul Walsh, the film’s director, originally offered the role to Gary Cooper, who turned it down. Walsh then asked his friend and fellow director John Ford for suggestions. Ford recommended the unknown Wayne because he “liked the looks of this new kid with a funny walk, like he owned the world.”
Wayne would go on to star in many iconic Westerns, including Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1954), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), McLintock! (1963) and True Grit (1969). But first there was The Big Trail, and the unique behind-the-scenes photographs in the exhibit Exploring The Big Trail.