Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Hal G. Evarts
Whether talking at great length and detail or discussing the Western genre casually with someone far less familiar with its intricacies, touchstone films and stars, the mention of John Wayne should be something with which everyone is familiar with. Perhaps less so in today’s day and age, as we move further and further away from his time of prominence, but John Wayne is not just a Western star, he is not just a movie star. John Wayne is an American star. The type of larger than life persona who becomes a part of culture. Wayne is synonymous with rugged American masculinity. He will feature prominently throughout this marathon, with the Western landscape being Wayne’s home for many years. With The Big Trail, we are treated to his first opportunity to turn in a lead performance. As an added bonus, this is also the first Raoul Walsh directed film of the marathon, a name we will see again many times in the future.
It may be disappointing, however, to learn that Wayne’s first crack at lead reins comes within the confines of yet another “travel west” narrative as he plays experienced trapper Breck Coleman, who is tasked with leading a wagon train west on the Oregon Trail. Coleman, who has recently returned from the West after his friend was killed for his furs, decides to take the job leading the wagon train after he learns the presumed killer of his friend and his minions are also heading West on the trail. Meanwhile, Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.), the presumed killer, suspects Breck knows too much and sets to have his right hand man, Lopez (Charles Stevens), kill Breck. All the while, Breck is also balancing a budding romance with Ruth (Marguerite Churchill), who at first spurns Breck for gambler Thorpe (Ian Keith), an associate of Flack.
If you are coming to this film with the promise of seeing John Wayne star, you certainly won’t be disappointed. Wayne has immediate screen presence, and even at such a young age, and inexperienced in lead roles, has his famous larger-than-life personality and presence. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast in his charisma and acting sensibilities. He will have better performances latter on, more subtle and nuanced, but The Big Trail is a great jumping off point for Wayne and his seemingly perfect match with the machismo of the American West. Tyrone Power Sr. is also good, but there is no doubt that Wayne steals the show in this film. However, it becomes disappointing to discover that the greatness of the films in which he stars will come later in his career, as The Big Trail fails to blaze its own unique trail within the genre, or do anything noteworthy with its promising premise.
I must admit some of my disappointment likely comes from seeing the “travel west” story done a few times already in this young Westerns marathon. The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse both did it better too. Taken by itself, the story is intriguing, but as a re-tread of the two previous films, it feels stale at this point in the genre’s history, especially considering Walsh brings nothing new, or particularly memorable about the characters, landscape, or story. At the surface, the plot summary sounds like a prototypical Western with the potential to capitalize on the premise, but overall it fails to do so. I can’t help but feel that with a more experienced and dynamic cast, a story like this would succeed more. Wayne does his best to carry things, but even he is not yet in the prime of his career. The supporting cast doesn’t do much in the way of helping create the appropriate aura for this narrative.
Greener pastures await those involved in this film when they reach the pinnacle. Both Walsh and Wayne have much more respected and celebrated films on the list, and I look forward to getting to them. I don’t want to completely sweep The Big Trail under the rug. It’s fine, but nothing more. The story is nice, and as I said, prototypical Western, so it has both its merits and high points, but it is also evident that Walsh and Wayne are destined for greater things. They flash the potential that will later come to fruition, and as such, The Big Trail serves as a perfect entry into this marathon, the type of film that serves as a foundation for understanding the evolution of the genre, the stars, and the directors involved to produce a truly American experience. The West.