The Birth of John Wayne
Breck Coleman (John Wayne) is on the trail of a "pair of skunks", two men who murdered a trapper friend and stole his wolf pelts and nothing is going to get in the way. It is why after running into old friend, Wellmore (William V. Mong), who asks Breck to track and guide for a wagon train he set up Breck turns him down. But between meeting the attractive Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) and becoming suspicious of bull whip, Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) Breck changes his mind and agrees to guide the wagon train through Indian Territory. But Breck not only finds himself trying to deal with Flack and his sidekick Lopez (Charles Stevens) who are wary of the young scout but also Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), a liar and a gambler who plans to con Ruth in to marrying him.
Let me tackle "The Big Trail" as a piece on western entertainment to start with and I hate to say this but as entertainment it is not all that. The trouble really comes from this clearly being a big production aiming to be an epic western which it undoubtedly scores heavily on the look but the storyline itself is not great. If you break it down you have some danger on the journey, Breck trying to get himself the two men he suspects of murder and a shady card sharp who plans to con a woman in to marrying him. For me that is barely enough for a 90 minute western let alone a 125 minute one.
But "The Big Trail" whilst not the most entertaining of westerns has enough other things going on to make a lasting impression. The first thing is that visually it is stunning, so rich in detail that you can watch it many a time and still pick up on something in the background you might have missed previously. Part of that is down to the fact that this was shot in Fox Grandeur, a short lived 70mm wide screen format which lends itself beautifully to soaking in the detail of a wagon train, bringing to life the depth of a shot.
Of course there is something else which "The Big Trail" is famous for, it gave us John Wayne. Now Marion Morrison had made various uncredited performances before this but this was his first starring movie and the studio wanted a better name for the young actor, as such John Wayne was born. And it has to be said an incredibly thin looking John Wayne with reports of him having lost a stone and a half just before filming due to dysentery. Now of course this isn't a great John Wayne performance but you can see the potential which others saw in him and his youthful looks.
On a slightly sadder note this also features Tyrone Power Sr. who after being a star of the silent screen made his first talkie with this and cuts a rich character on the screen as Red Flack. But sadly he died of a huge heart attack before he made another and we were robbed of a great actor who would of gone on to make "The Miracle Man" which saw his son, Tyrone Power Jr. make his screen debut.
What this all boils down to is that as a piece of western entertainment "The Big Trail" comes up short and I can understand why audiences were not flocking to see it back on its first release due to it feeling drawn out. But historically it is significant with it being the first starring role for John Wayne and visually it is beautiful and so rich in detail that it can still take your breath away.