Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh) **

Raoul Walsh

Cast: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tyrone Power Sr., El Brendel

Background: Marion Morrison had appeared in movies over the last several years in small bit parts, often in films directed by John Ford. It was director Raoul Walsh who gave him his first starring role here, and producer Winfield Sheehan who helped come up with the legendary name John Wayne.

Story: Breck Coleman (Wayne) joins a group of settlers heading west, suspecting that the person leading the group is responsible for the death of a friend. During the long journey, he falls in love with one of the settlers (Churchill) and works to protect her.

Thoughts: Even in 1930, John Wayne had it. The amazing screen presence that would go on to fascinate audiences for decades was evident in one of his earliest roles. Director Raoul Walsh does him some favors with some stunning showing the barren plains of the trail out west and the very long line of stagecoaches and horses making the perilous journey. There's a particularly brilliant shot when they attempt to navigate a steep hill. It certainly helps that the modern print of this film looks amazing, perhaps the cleanest print I've seen of a movie this old. The problem with the film is that there's not enough material to support the 120 minute running time. As great as Walsh does with the visuals, he has issues with pacing. Perhaps the idea was to give the audience a feeling of what it was like for the people who made this long, tedious journey. If so, then he was all too successful. This film feels like a long journey, but the destination just isn't worth it.

Postscript: Wayne would of course go on to be one of the most iconic stars in Hollywood history, but it didn't happen right away. Wayne toiled away for most of the 30s, until John Ford cast him in Stagecoach. That is the movie that would make Wayne a star. Raoul Walsh would continue a long directing career, making several films with Errol Flynn and James Cagney. His last film was 1964's A Distant Trumpet.

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