The Big Trail (1930)
“The Most Important Picture Ever Produced”
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel
Synopsis: Breck Coleman leads hundreds of settlers in covered wagons from the Mississippi River to their destiny out West.
There are no less than three bad guys in Raoul Walsh’s epic scale The Big Trail. The first is Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith — Abraham Lincoln, Five Graves to Cairo), a Southern gentleman who boasts of being the owner of a plantation that doesn’t actually exist in his efforts to win the heart of fellow pioneer Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), the second is Lopez (Charles Stevens), who’s a low-life Mexican sidekick of the film’s chief villain, Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.), the head of the wagon train, who is the spitting image of Popeye’s brawny nemesis, Bluto. Power, as his name suggests, was the father of the 1940s matinee idol who shared his name, and although there’s little resemblance between the two, existing photographs of a much younger Power Sr. show a remarkable resemblance. A persistent rumour suggests that, on the set of The Big Trail at least, Power Sr. was a bad guy in real life. According to this unconfirmed rumour, Power raped leading lady Churchill, and when the assault was discovered, director Walsh had Power severely beaten.
But, of course, The Big Trail is remembered today as the first big chance of stardom for its youthful leading man, a 23-year-old John Wayne (The Barbarian and the Geisha, The Sons of Katie Elder). It was an abortive attempt, and Wayne would spend most of the 1930s toiling in B-movie hell, churning out a string of cheap Westerns for Poverty Row studios like Lone Star and Republic, until John Ford gave him an unexpected second shot at stardom by casting him as the male lead in Stagecoach. There’s no doubt that Wayne is far from the actor he would eventually become — which, let’s face it, wasn’t a great one; Wayne was always more of a screen presence than an actor of versatility or skill — but he’s no worse than most of his fellow cast members, and better than some. He certainly looks the part of a rugged Westerner in The Big Trail even if his acting range seems to extend no further than vigorously clenching and unclenching his jaw when angered.
The film follows the trials of a huge group of settlers as they travel the Oregon Trail in search of a place to settle. Young trapper Breck Coleman (John Wayne), returning from his travels near Santa Fe and in search of the killer of his friend and fellow trapper, initially turns down a request to act as scout for the train, but changes his mind when he learns that Red Flack and Lopez, the two men whom he suspects of the murder, are to boss the train. Breck is also keen to make amends with plucky young Ruth Cameron, whom he deeply offended by kissing when he mistook her for somebody else, and who is also wilting under the constant attentions of that fake Southern gentleman, Bill Thorpe. The fact this means that Breck will have to contend with three men who would like to see him dead (Flack and Lopez are only too aware that the young trapper knows they’re responsible for his friend’s murder) is tempered slightly by the fact that old friend and fellow trapper Zeke (Tully Marshall — Grand Hotel, A Yank at Oxford) has his back.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer scale of The Big Trail when one considers it was made at a time when filmmakers were still learning to adapt to the new set of skills required to make talking pictures. Not only does The Big Trail tell a story on a grand scale in every imaginable variation of weather, but virtually every scene is filmed outside on location with such highlights as sweeping shots of a wagon train made up of dozens of wagons followed by an even bigger herd of cattle as it heads west, and shots of stampeding buffalo. The scenery is stunning at times, and the movie ends with a truly breath-taking scene in which the actors are surrounded by towering redwood trees.
On the minus side, the acting leaves much to be desired. That’s to be expected to a degree: for actors in the late 1920s and early 1930s, talking movies were as much of a challenge as they were for the technical crew. Wayne’s uncertain performance can be put down to the fact that this was his first starring role, while it was also Power’s first and only talking role (he died of a heart attack in 1931). Even so, the manner in which he bellows every line as if trying to talk over a noise only he can hear proves to be highly distracting. Most of the rest of the cast are equally poor, although Marguerite Churchill, a forgotten actress with unusually modern looks, acquits herself well in a role which, for the period, is refreshingly free of the burden of being merely a pretty face for the leading man to repeatedly save.
(Reviewed 29th August 2014)