Directed by Raoul Walsh
November 1, 1930
Running time: 122 min. 70mm version / 108 min. 35mm version
A young man seeking revenge on those who killed his best friend helps a group of settlers from the Mississippi River to their destinations in the West.
This was John Wayne’s first starring role in a major production. What should have marked the beginning of his leading man status in Hollywood instead was met with a “Meh” by the public. Though not a terrible film, it is a little lackluster. It would not be until Stagecoach that he genuinely started his path to becoming a screen legend.
Director Raoul Walsh originally offered the role to Gary Cooper who passed. At some point after, Walsh spotted Wayne who was then working as a prop man moving heavy furniture with ease and screen tested him because I guess muscles means acting. When Wayne stated he had no experience, Walsh told him to just “sit good on a horse and point.”
As the lead character of Breck Coleman, John Wayne displays all of the usual John Wayne mannerisms. The tough guy look. The way in which his character walks. His unique voice. It is everything John Wayne is known for in his Western performances. But yet it does not quite work. It is almost there but it is missing something. It is not natural to him just yet here. It does not seem to come without him thinking about it.
Breck falls for a young settler named Ruth Cameron played by Marguerite Churchill who is traveling to the Oregon Territory with her brother Dave (an uncredited David Rollins). She initially rebuffs his advances and gets close to a gambler named Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith) creating a love triangle along with the danger Breck faces by pursuing the baddies.
There are three villains in the film. The chief baddie is wagon boss Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) whom Breck believes to be responsible for the death of his friend-and he is right on that. Then there is the previously mentioned Thorpe who is a scoundrel being run out of town who also happens to know Red. And then there’s Lopez (Charles Stevens) who kind of shows up out of nowhere and is essentially the henchman. It is quite the coinkydink that three such nefarious characters congregate all in one spot at the same time.
The story itself is not bad. There are plenty of good elements, but the problem mostly is John Wayne. I love John Wayne. I am always entertained by him, and I was entertained here but he was just not up to being the star at this moment. He was close but not quite there. Maybe if this had been directed by John Ford (who took credit for discovering Wayne and putting him in the later Stagecoach even though that was an obviously crap story) who directed Wayne in plenty of great films it would have turned out differently. Ford was behind some of Wayne’s best performances.
Being the time in which it was made there was a need to use a comedic character side character shoehorned in. Gus (El Brendel), a comical Swede whose character pops up on screen to create a laugh. His character contributed nothing and brought the story to a halt when on. Brendel was popular at the time and that explains his inclusion but not his character. He was just a useless side character which took away from the main narrative.
A lighter character that did not slow things up was Zeke (Tully Marshall). He was Breck’s sidekick and a source of help at points in the film. He was actually important to the stry and moved things along.
The Big Trail is photographed beautifully. It is so alive and vibrant. What is going on in the background feels as if they just set a camera and filmed it specifically in that era for real. The costumes and set decoration is great. The script, aside from anything involving Gus, is good. The failure is the then inexperienced Wayne. Your star needs to be up to the film and that is not so here.
One thing that occurs to me about older Westerns is that the older the Western is the more likely the covered wagons or the saddles or any number of things in that film could have actually been from the West. Films use actual items plenty of times from periods that are only recently passed. Western migration would be no different.
The Big Trail is a good film. It is not one of John Wayne’s best, but it is entertaining. It has a solid story and enough action to keep you interested. For John Wayne fans this is a watch it but for the general film fan this is an if you want.