The Big Trail (1930) Director: Raoul Walsh
The Big Trail is a beautiful film about the Oregon Trail pioneers. It is an early Western film, starring a young and unknown John Wayne in his first big part (age 23). Unfortunately the film was a box-office failure, but it is nevertheless a magnificent film. It was shot in widescreen and released at a time when many theaters did not feature widescreen films due to the cost. Wayne landed roles in several other smaller Western films until his career got a major boost with Stagecoach in 1939.
John Wayne was given the lead part only after Gary Cooper was unable to accept the offer of the lead. According to legend, Walsh spotted John Wayne lifting boxes on a set with ease and then offered him the part. Later, John Ford would take credit for this story with regard to his 1939 film, Stagecoach. He reiterated this obviously false story for years in interviews until his death.
The film begins in Missouri where a large caravan of pioneers is prepping to head west. Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a trapper and scout, or a sort of a “lone-ranger” who arrives in Missouri from his business in Santa Fe. He describes his need to avenge the wrongful death of one of friends and fellow trappers. He discovers that the two wagon leaders, Flack and Lopez, are the villains who wronged his friend back in Santa Fe so Coleman signs on to the expedition to Oregon. He serves as a Scout and proves to be extremely useful in their run-ins with Indians. Along the way, he falls in love a young woman, Ruth Cameron, who rejects him at first. She is being pursued by another man, Thorpe, who pursues Coleman to kill him, but who is then killed by a friend of Coleman’s. In the end, Coleman becomes the de facto leader of the pioneers, escaping an attempt on his life, and he brings the wagon train to a beautiful Spring valley in Oregon to settle. He returns back on the trail to hunt down Flack and Lopez. At the close he is reunited with Ruth in that lush Spring valley amidst towering redwoods.
Many of the scenes were shot on location throughout New Mexico to California. Many of the scenes, such as the scene of lowering Conestoga wagons down a sheer cliffside, were filmed exactly as we see them -without the use of special effects. It was filmed across seven different states, with 93 actors and reportedly 725 Native Americans, 185 wagons and a slough of animals. Apparently, there was a big problem with the staff getting drunk on the set frequently. So much so, in fact, that Walsh started calling the film “The Big Drunk”.
Just two years prior, Walsh had lost an eye in the production of In Old Arizona, however The Big Trail surpasses his previous epic Western efforts – sweeping vistas, meticulous research, beautiful sets, and intense battle scenes. It was filmed all over the Western United States – Arizona, Utah, California, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and so on. It is an amazing film, and though not appreciated in its day, it deserves our attention today.