100 Years of Movies

100 Years of Movies
One cinephile's chronological journey through a century of film...

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Big Trail (1930)

Directed by Raoul Walsh
Starring John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill and El Brendel
Produced by Fox Film Corporation

Breck Coleman is one of the best trackers in the West.  He has befriended tribes of Indian tribes and learned to hunt and track as well as any man.  And he is absolutely deadly with his knife.  He's just the kind of man a group of settlers blazing a path from Missouri to Oregon would want along for the trip.

Unfortunately for the travelers, Coleman has only one thing on his mind: revenge.  He's just returned from Santa Fe where his trapper friend was murdered for his bounty of wolf skins.  Coleman is tracking the killers so leading a group of pilgrims across the plains and through the mountains is out of the question. Unless...

Coleman begins to suspect Red Flack and his henchman are the murderers.  And it just so happens they have been hired to lead the caravan of prairie schooners across the country.  Coleman changes his mind so he can investigate the men.

Helping his decision to leave with the group is Ruth Cameron, an attractive settler moving west with her family.  He makes several attempts to woo her, but they all end in rejection.  And complicating things is another suitor, Thorpe, who also happens to be running from debtors and is friends with Flack.

Will the settlers reach their new homes in the West?  Will Coleman get his men or will he be shot down by the jealous Thorpe? And who will win the hand of Ruth?

Let's get this out of the way up front: The Big Trail is about as cliched and predictable a movie as you could ever see.  They set up various plot threads in the first ten minutes and you know exactly how the next hour and a half is going to play out.

The hero is going to get the girl.  He's going to get his frontier justice.  The settlers are going to get to Oregon and, while there may be a couple casualties, it won't be anyone we care about.

There are two big reasons to watch this however.  The first is all of the stuff that happens in between the plot machinations.  It's more thrilling than any of the interpersonal stories.  There's a harrowing attempt to ford a river that ends with some of the wagons and animals being swept downstream.  There's the attempt to descend a cliff face by lowering wagons by rope; again, not all of the wagons survive.  And the film makes you appreciate that each travelers survival depends entirely upon these horse-drawn, rickety bits of wood and canvas.

The most fun scene though may be an Indian attack late in the film.  The travelers literally circle their wagons and fight off the onslaught, but they pay a price for it.  As they bury their dead and women weep over lost husbands and children, the settlers move on, except for one dog who lies down next to his master's grave.  It's a great sequence in the film.

The second reason is of course John Wayne.  When he first saunters onto the screen, he could be any young actor in the world.  He doesn't have that saunter or those distinctive lines across his face that only age can provide.

Then, he starts talking about justice and seeking his friend's killer.  That familiar drawl comes out, the eyes narrow and the Duke is standing before you.  It's an inexperienced version, without that bit of gravel in the voice, but it's unmistakably him.  And you smile knowing everything that lies before him and his audience.

I wish the story itself was any good.  There's some decent character work here Tyrone Power, Ian Keith and Charles Stevens make up our triumvirate of baddies and they are all very good, particularly the Powers as the grizzly-bear-like Flack.  Coleman gets a couple of supporting partners who provide a lot of fun, especially Tully Marshall as Zeke. And El Brendel provides some much needed comic relief as a settler who is constantly at odds with his mother-in-law.

I wish Marguerite Churchill was given a bit more to do as Ruth.  Her job is essentially to constantly rebuff Coleman for no reason whatsoever, until the writer decides it's time for her to profess her love.  We know it's coming so her scenes tend to be more frustrating than anything.

All in all, The Big Trail is a good if not great early Western.  The set pieces are great and you get to see a star born before your eyes.  Just wish I couldn't predict every beat of the tale.

***1/2 out of *****

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