Big Trail [1930]

One of very few widescreen productions filmed at the dawn of the talkies, The Big Trail was dismissed by reviewers of the day, little seen, and soon shelved and forgotten--for more than half a century, as it turned out. For movie buffs, it became a sort of Holy Grail. After all, the esteemed Raoul Walsh had directed, the early 70mm angle was tantalizing, and wasn't this the movie that was intended to make a star of Duke Morrison, a 22-year-old former prop man whom Walsh had rechristened John Wayne for the occasion? For curiosity value alone, surely it rated a look. Restored in the late 1980s and warmly embraced by film festival audiences, The Big Trail proved to be more than just a historical footnote. What were those 1930 reviewers thinking?! Wayne is fresh, exuberant, matinee-idol handsome, and irresistibly charming (only a little purple prose trips him up, and no one should have been asked to speak such early-talkie flapdoodle anyway). The scenario winds through epic settings from the banks of the Mississippi by way of the Grand Canyon to the snows of Oregon and the mountain vistas of Washington, marking both a wagon train's journey and the settling of a personal score between trail guide Wayne and Tyrone Power Sr. as a veritable ogre of a villain. (A villain off-camera, too: Legend holds that Walsh had the actor beaten nearly to death for attempting to force himself on leading lady Marguerite Churchill.) The Big Trail is now an authentic classic, and a swell movie. Probably always was. --Richard T. Jameson

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