The Big Trail (1930) Review

The Big Trail (1930) Director: Raoul Walsh

★★★★★

An early prelude to the forthcoming explosion of the Western genre, starring a young and unknown John Wayne in his first big role (age 23), The Big Trail is a beautiful film about the Oregon Trail pioneers. 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 movies due to the cost at the time. 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 it. According to legend, Walsh spotted John Wayne lifting boxes on a set with ease and then offered him the part. Later, John Ford would again claim credit for this story with regard to his 1939 film Stagecoach. He reiterated this obviously false story for years to come in interviews until his death.

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The film begins in Missouri where a large caravan of pioneers is prepping to head west. John Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a trapper and scout, or 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 his 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 up for 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 with a young woman, Ruth Cameron, who rejects him at first. She is pursued by another man, Thorpe, who chases 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 own life, and he brings the wagon train to a beautiful, lush valley in Oregon to settle. Before the film ends he returns to the trail to hunt down Flack and Lopez. At the close he is reunited with Ruth in that lush Spring valley amidst towering redwoods.

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Many of the scenes were shot on location throughout New Mexico to California. Some, 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 cohort of animals. Apparently, there was a big problem with the staff regularly getting drunk on the set. So much so, in fact, that Walsh started calling the film “The Big Drunk”.

Just two years prior, Raoul Walsh had lost an eye in the production of In Old Arizona, however The Big Trail surpasses his previous epic Western efforts with 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, The Big Trail deserves our attention today.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) Review

9/5/2016

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) Director: Raoul Walsh

★★★☆☆

Loosely borrowed from parts of the Thousand and One Nights, The Thief of Bagdad is a grand early blockbuster of the silent era. It stars the “first celebrity” of Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks, and it has since been reported that he considered this film his favorite. This film was later remade more than once, but the most famous is Disney’s animated film Aladdin (1992).

The Thief of Bagdad tells the story of Ahmed, a comical thief on the streets of Bagdad as he robs freely from the street vendors. In an early scene, he can be seen running from authorities as he amusingly leaps between pots in the market. This was filmed using trampolines. In his unobstructed robberies, he takes a magic rope and climbs up into the Princess’s room but he is caught by one of her Mongol slaves. He escapes and his associate reminds him of a story of a man who stole a princess. So Ahmed decides to try to steal the Caliph’s daughter.

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The next day is the Princess’s birthday and the suitors are coming to ask for her hand in marriage. An attendant of the princess instructs her that the first man to touch her rose bush will be her husband. There are three suitors, aside from Ahmed, and the leader of the Mongols, the clear villain of the three, is warned by an attendant to touch the rose bush so he can reaffirm the Princess’s superstitions, but he is scared off by a bee just as Ahmed’s horse launches him into the bush, proving the prophecy. However, later that night after she chooses Ahmed, the Mongol prince discovers that Ahmed is nothing more than a common thief and he informs the Caliph who orders that Ahmed be lashed.

In order to delay her decision, the Princess says that she will marry the man who bring to her the most exotic item over the next “seven moons”. The Persian Prince (played by a woman) retrieves a flying carpet, and the Mongol Prince gets an apple that will cure anything. He instructs his surrogates to poison the princess while he returns to Bagdad on the Persian Prince’s flying carpet. Ahmed receives a cloak of invisibility and some magic powder that will transform into anything Ahmed wishes.

Upon his return, the Mongol Prince orders his army to capture Bagdad after saving the Princess with his apple. However, Ahmed returns and storms the city of Bagdad with an army he conjures with the powder. He rescues the Princess with his invisibility cloak and as a reward, the Caliph gives him her hand in marriage.

The Thief of Bagdad is a film of epic proportions. Walsh once claimed it was the first Hollywood film to cost more than $1 million. In keeping with the tradition of other Fairbanks movies, this film is a satire of many swashbuckling movies –almost a comedy of errors. It is a long film, running at nearly two and a half hours. I’m not sure I would recommend this film much further beyond devotees of Douglas Fairbanks or else Disney purists searching for the inspiration behind the classic animated movies!