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May 26, 2007

The John Wayne Centennial: The Big Trail

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Raoul Walsh - 1930
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

In spite of top billing, the young actor seen in The Big Trail is not quite John Wayne. Filmed nine years before Stagecoach established him as a top star, I felt like I was watching an amateur actor playing at being John Wayne. It is as if Marion Morrison was practicing the gestures and speech patterns, but was still to grow into what would be his established screen persona. The still adenoidal voice undermines the physical presence. It isn't that the laughter or the arm movements are too broad, but that the actor is not big enough to be the John Wayne we enjoyed The Searchers or Rio Bravo.

The Big Trail is one film I wish now I had seen on a large movie screen. Raoul Walsh composed many of the shots with an emphasis on depth of field. Most of the film was shot outdoors which was a technical challenge at the time. Often when Wayne is seen in conversation with someone else, there is very distinct activity in the background. In long shots there are several focal planes. The black and white images resemble 19th Century lithographs. There is a sense of space that I have previously not associated with a Walsh film. After establishing the perception of great space, Walsh has the audacity to film Wayne stalking the bad guy in the snow, two characters barely visible in shades of gray and white. The final shot, which must have been astonishing for movie audiences, is of Wayne and Marguerite Churchill dwarfed by giant redwood trees.

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While he has no screenplay credit, the dialogue displays Walsh's boisterous sense of humor. Wayne comments on the trail boss, "What does he know about water? He's never taken a bath in his life." One of the pioneers, when told he is the father of twins, if they are both his. Made before Hays Code took effect, Wayne utters a very rare damn. With the frequent title cards, The Big Trail sometimes appears as if it was originally planned as a silent film.

The Big Trail offers the opportunity to see Tyrone Power (Sr.) as the wagon master. The big, bearded Power resembles Popeye's arch nemises, Bluto, only with an alarming need of dental work. El Brendal provides much of the comedy. Marguerite Chapman is blandly attractive, but it is not surprising that her acting career was short-lived.

The best parts of The Big Trail are purely visual. One such moment is showing the pioneers lowering their ox-carts down the side of a mountain using primitive pulleys. There is a thrill to the images of indians gathering on a hillside, or rushing on horseback towards a camera looking from the ground up. As it stands, the 35mm cinematography by Lucien Andriot is wondrous to look at even on a television screen. It is unfortunate that Fox has not bothered to make the 70 mm version photographed by Arthur Edeson available for comparison, as well as to take advantage of large home theater screens.

As for John Wayne, it only takes a few minutes to see why he had to practice his craft in programmers before being called by John Ford to play the Ringo Kid. For the big trail that was John Wayne’s film career, the star's performance can be viewed as a rough, but definitive beginning.

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Posted by peter at May 26, 2007 03:00 AM


Seeing the widescreen version of this film at the Pacific Film Archive a few summers ago during a series on the Western has been one of the highlights of my moviegoing life. I feel lucky to have a venue that can screen such rare treasures only a short train ride away.

It's interesting to wonder if this might have been planned as a silent film at some point. Certainly it must be one of the most visually-dominant talkies of its time. Hardly anything else even compares.

Posted by: Brian at May 31, 2007 02:15 AM