Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail from 1930 is one of the most beautiful movies in the history of cinema. Almost every shot is masterfully composed, lit and choreographed, moving effortlessly between the lyrical and the epic, astonishing at every turn.
It was filmed in an early widescreen process that didn’t catch on but the movie survives in that form, and is now available in a Blu-ray edition that does more than a measure of justice to Walsh’s achievement, which is really amazing. He made one of the first full-scale widescreen films and it’s as elegant and accomplished as any that have followed it, including the widescreen pictures of John Ford and David Lean.
Unfortunately the film was an early talkie, and though the sound recording on a wide variety of exterior locations is technically impressive, the actors deliver their lines in a stilted, declamatory style, perhaps for the benefit of the microphones, which seriously undermines the total effect of the movie. It doesn’t help that their dialogue is clumsy in its own right, very badly written.
Once you get past this flaw, however, you’re treated to a visual feast that’s inexhaustible, a pageant of breathtaking images that are simply unforgettable.