Directed By: Raoul Walsh
Starring: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel
Tag line: "The Most Important Picture Ever Produced"
Trivia: Gary Cooper was originally offered the role of Breck Coleman and wanted it, but he was under contract to Paramount Pictures
“Dedicated to the men and women who planted civilization in the wilderness and courage in the blood of their children”
A grand, sprawling motion picture about the pioneers who pushed their way west, The Big Trail also marked the first time a young man named John Wayne was given a starring role in a film, and both he and its director do their part to make it as auspicious a debut as possible.
As the movie opens, a large band of pioneers is gathered along the Mississippi River, preparing for the long journey to Oregon, where they plan to start a new life for themselves. To help them on this westward trek, they’ve hired a grizzled old buzzard named Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) to serve as Wagon master, and also ask young Breck Coleman (Wayne), who had spent years traveling across country, to act as scout. While he’s certainly happy to assist his neighbors, Breck also took the job because he believes Flack and his partner Lopez (Charles Stevens) murdered an old friend of his, and he intends to exact some frontier justice on the two once they reach Oregon.
Also joining the wagon train is former Southern belle Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) and her younger siblings David (David Rollins) and Honey Girl (Helen Parrish). Breck’s first encounter with Miss Coleman doesn’t go well; thinking she was someone else, he grabs her from behind and kisses her. His attempts to apologize are thwarted by Miss Coleman, who instead turns her attentions to fellow southerner Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), a gambler who, unbeknownst to her, isn’t quite the “gentleman” he proclaims himself to be. Joined by hundreds of others, including Swedish immigrant Gus (El Brendel) and his loud-mouthed mother-in-law (Louise Craver); as well as Breck’s good friends Zeke (Tully Marshall) and Pa Bascom (Frederick Burton), the wagon train sets off on a journey that will last for months, filled with hardships that will claim the lives of many settlers before they ever reach their “promised land”.
Though he wouldn’t become a full-fledged star until the later part of the 1930’s, when John Ford cast him in Stagecoach, John Wayne makes for a fine hero in The Big Trail, portraying Breck Coleman as a young man who knows his way around the wilderness and is prepared to do whatever it takes to see the settlers through safely. As with most movies of this ilk, Breck has his share of enemies, including Flack and Lopez, who murdered an old trapper friend of Breck’s a while back; and Bill Thorpe, who sees Breck as a romantic rival for the hand of Ruth Cameron. All three are shady characters, and agree amongst themselves that Breck must die before they reach Oregon. As the love interest, Marguerite Churchill is more than adequate, and El Brendal’s Gus provides some comic relief along the way (the funniest bit involves him trying the help his mother-in-law across a mud puddle).
The first half hour or so of the movie is dedicated to these characters, and we get to know each of them well enough. But it’s when the journey begins that the true spectacle of The Big Trail kicks in, with large-scale scenes that reveal, sometimes in brutal detail, just how difficult an undertaking the westward expansion was for those who attempted it. At one point, the wagon train has to cross a river, and the current is so strong that it sweeps some of the wagons away, leaving many to rebuild before they can begin again. Other obstacles await the settlers as well, including sheer cliffs (the company, cattle and all, has to be lowered by ropes) and, as they get closer to their destination, hostile natives who have no intention of sharing the land of their ancestors (the film’s most exciting scene involves a battle between the settlers and the Native Americans). Throw in a harsh, unforgiving desert (where water is scarce) and raging snowstorms, and you’re left to wonder how anyone could survive such a treacherous expedition.
Utilizing dozens of wagons, hundreds of extras, and at least that many horses and heads of cattle, Walsh brings an epic feel to practically every scene in The Big Trail while, at the same time, never losing touch with the personal tragedies and triumphs that make it so rewarding. An ambitious film from start to finish, The Big Trail is one hell of an impressive motion picture.