Wednesday, August 12, 2009

John Wayne Westerns Pt. 1: The Big Trail

This is where it all began. In the first five years of his film career, John Wayne appeared in 19 movies. 18 of those parts were unbilled. His third film, The Great K&A Bank Robbery, was a Tom Mix western, but Wayne was only an extra. Finally in 1930, in The Big Trail, he got his first leading role.
Legend has it director Raoul Walsh wanted Tom Mix or Gary Cooper for the part. When he couldn‘t get them, he settled for the relatively unknown 23-year-old Wayne. Wayne was paid only $75 a week, a move that allowed Walsh more money for production. The film eventually cost $4 million, and was released in the full bloom of the Great Depression. Ouch.

“The Most Important Picture Ever Produced” didn’t quite meet expectations. Had the film been a success, Wayne’s star might have risen right then. As it was, he was relegated to serials and B-pictures for nine more years until getting another big break in Stagecoach. The Big Trail was filmed in an early version of 70mm widescreen. Since most theaters didn’t have the equipment to play it, a 35mm was released at the same time. The widescreen version was unavailable to the home market until just last year. It’s a half hour longer, and reportedly pretty cool. Among the supposedly 20,000 other cast members were Ward Bond and Iron Eyes Cody.



Great review - I hope you can do all of the Duke's films - even the non westerns

Joanne Walpole said...

I'm a JW western fan so I hope you do some more too.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

The movie suffered many of the same problems early talkies did, like overacting by the villain, but the scenes of the wagon train were impressive.

Michael Powers said...

Tyrone Power, Sr.'s work as the villain was magnificent and he physically looked amazing, with clothes realistically grimier than any recorded on film since. His voice and facial expressions are unforgettable and he could act rings around his later more famous son. The movie itself is sensational, shot on location across the west, and John Wayne's first performance as a leading man is, strangely enough, his most charismatic. This whole movie is electrifying when seen on a big screen in its original widescreen version (the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan runs it at least once a year, as it should). John Wayne, under the tutelage of master director Raoul Walsh (who discovered Wayne as a prop boy and renamed him), comes to the screen full-blast as the incandescent cinema force whom we all came to know so well, with nothing missing.