The defining word in the title of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is big. The 1930 drama built around a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail from the banks of the Mississippi to the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest was the first outdoor epic of the young sound era of cinema. It’s a simple story with a vast cast of characters embarking on the promise of a new start in the untamed wilderness of the American west, led by a strapping, plainspoken young scout in buckskin named Breck Coleman. And it introduced American audiences to the actor who would become one of the biggest stars to ever dominate the big screen: John Wayne, who anchors the film in his first significant screen role as Breck.
The silent cinema had presented its share of grand western epics and pioneer odysseys, among them James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) but nothing approaching that scale had yet been attempted since the transition to the talkies. Walsh had already embarked on Hollywood’s first outdoor western with In Old Arizona (1928), but he had to hand the directorial reins of that film over to another when he lost his left eye in a freak automobile accident; a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of his car and he lost his left eye to the shattered glass. He was determined to make The Big Trail his own and he had big ideas for the film.
Plays on TCM on Monday, April 21