In reading Scott Eyman's 2014 bio John Wayne: The Life and Legend, I was struck (once again) by the injustice heaped upon young "Duke" following the failure of The Big Trail. Prior to this film he'd had bit parts in 19 movies (18 of them uncredited), and appeared in only one western, The Great K&A Bank Robbery, as an extra.
Legend has it director Raoul Walsh wanted Tom Mix or Gary Cooper for the lead in The Big Trail. When he couldn‘t get them, he settled for the relatively unknown 23-year-old Duke Morrison (rechristened, especially for this picture, John Wayne). Wayne was paid only $75 a week, a move that allowed Walsh more money for production. The film eventually cost $4 million, and was released in the bloom of the Great Depression. Ouch.
“The Most Important Picture Ever Produced” didn’t quite meet expectations. Had the film been a success, Wayne’s star might have risen right then. But because it lost money, much of the blame was dumped on Wayne. Sheesh. Sure, he was a little stiff, a little awkward, and no great shakes as an actor, but it wasn't his fault the movie bombed. Still, he was made the goat, and relegated to cheap serials and B-pictures for the next nine years. Even then, he was damn lucky John Ford gave him a break in Stagecoach.
The Big Trail was filmed in an early version of 70mm widescreen. Since most theaters didn’t have the equipment to play it, a 35mm was released at the same time. The widescreen version was unavailable to the home market until a few years ago, but here it is, with thirty minutes of footage not included in earlier releases. Among the supposedly 20,000 other cast members are Ward Bond and Iron Eyes Cody. And (surprise!) it has absolutely no connection to the Continental Op.