The Big Trail
Black and white, 1930
Fox Film Company
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Runtime: 120 min
Starring: John Wayne (Breck Coleman), Marguerite Churchill (Ruth Cameron), Tully Marshall (Zeke), Tyrone Power Sr. (Red Flack), David Rollins (Davey Cameron), Frederick Burton (Pa Bascom), Ian Keith (Bill Thorpe), Charles Stevens (Lopez)
"Gathered from the north, the south and the east, they assemble on the bank of the Mississippi for the conquest of the west."
So reads the title card in the opening of The Big Trail. We then see many families, replete with wagons, livestock, gear, and supplies, readying for their westward trek. Onto this scene rides Breck Coleman, a young trapper and woodsman.
The wagon train's elected leader, a man named Bascomb, inquires if Coleman knows of any good lands for them to settle in the west. Coleman describes a wonderful place north of Oregon. Bascomb asks if he can lead the families there, but Coleman has other plans, declaring that he needs to "kill of couple of skunks" from the trail back in Santa Fe. Coleman then moves on to visit the Riggs family, who are friends of his that reside in town.
The scene cuts to a smoke-belching riverboat arriving on the shore of the town. Miss Ruth Cameron, a southern belle, is speaking to the boat's captain, who is trying to talk her out of traveling west. Mr. Thorpe, a gambler and thief who is traveling on the boat, also tries to talk her out of going, claiming she could come live with him at his (fictitious) Louisiana plantation. Cameron insists she must go west with her younger brother Davey and her young sister Honey Girl, to keep their family together, presumably after the Civil War has destroyed their home.
Miss Cameron is directed to see Mrs. Riggs in town. When she arrives at the Riggs home, Coleman, mistaking her for the Riggs' daughter, sneaks up behind her and gives her a kiss. Cameron is shocked; Coleman repeatedly tries to apologize, but she will not listen along enough to let him. Thorpe intervenes on the scene, and it is clear the two will be rivals for Miss Cameron's affection.
The next scene shows Coleman catching up with his fellow trappers, Zeke and Windy, who ask after a man named Ben Griswell. They heard Griswell had been killed by Indians, but Coleman tells them it was "renegade whites" who made it look like the killing was done by Indians. He explains he has been tracking the killers. A large, bearish man named Red Flack overhears this exchange, and asks his sidekick, Lopez, about Coleman. Lopez describes Coleman as an excellent shot who is also quite deadly with a knife.
As Flack and Lopez leave the scene, Flack drops a cigar butt, which Coleman recognizes as being similar to one he found at the murder scene. When Coleman finds out that Flack is the boss of the wagon train, he decides to join on as the scout so he can continue to trail Flack and eventually kill him if he proves to be Griswell's killer.
Nervous about Coleman, Flack asks Thorpe, who is handy with a gun, to join the wagon train and eventually shoot Coleman if he becomes a problem. Thorpe, who is evading the law and obviously interested in Miss Cameron, agrees to come along for the ride.
The families on the wagon train have a group prayer and begin their journey. There are numerous shots of the wagons, livestock, and pioneers pulling out of town for their 2,500 mile journey.
Coleman, who is friendly with and has lived among Indians, acts as a scout for the train. He rides ahead to find a few additional Indian scouts, and when he rejoins the group he and the scouts go on a buffalo hunt to get meat for the group. Flack, seeing an opportunity to be rid of Coleman, sends Lopez and Thorpe out to shoot him during the hunt. There are several stock scenes of a large herd of running buffalo, interspersed with shots of Coleman riding and shooting. As Coleman finishes the hunt, Thorpe shoots him from a distance. Both Coleman and his horse crash to the ground, not moving. Thorpe and Lopez return to camp and declare that the job is done.
The wagon train comes to a riverbank, and the group crosses together. Some wagons are tipped over and some people struggle in the current. Coleman returns on foot, saddle in hand, just in time to help the Cameron wagon cross. He claims his horse stepped in a prairie dog hole and he needed to walk back. Once the Cameron wagon is across the river, Thorpe, Lopez, and Flack are visibly shocked to see Coleman alive.
Not long after the group has crossed the river, a large group of Cheyenne Indians appear near the camp. Coleman realizes they have come to talk, and prevents any rash moves by the pioneers. The leader of the Indians, Black Elk, promises peace if the wagon train goes straight through Cheyenne territory without stopping to settle. Black Elk and his friends visit with the families, and joke about Coleman wanting Miss Cameron for his squaw. While she is clearly growing to love Coleman, she is upset and flustered by the teasing.
The group's next challenge is to lower their wagons, livestock, and gear down the sheer side of a cliff using ropes, pulleys, and large winches made from felled trees. This is soon followed by an arduous trek across the desert, where there is little water; many people and animals die of thirst.
After these obstacles are overcome, the group reaches the last outpost before their end goal. At the outpost, Thorpe tries to talk Cameron into going to California with him. She refuses, until she overhears that Black Elk has offered her brother horses as a bride price for her to become Coleman's squaw. Furious, she accepts Thorpe's invitation, insisting that they leave immediately.
Flack will not allow Thorpe to go, however, without finishing off Coleman. The two overhear Coleman leaving his guns to be repaired as he leaves the outpost to visit a friend. Thorpe follows Coleman, and is about to shoot him in the back, when Zeke shoots Thorpe instead. In a misunderstanding, Cameron believes it is Coleman who shot Thorpe, until Zeke sets the record straight.
The outfit readies itself to press on, though they know that Indians have been gathering and will attack if the train tries to continue west. The train is spotted on the trail, and indeed the Indians do attack. The wagons are circled, the livestock are gathered inside, and the pioneers wage a defensive battle from behind the wagons. Though they repel the attack, a number of people are killed. They bury their dead and move on.
The next scenes show further hardships-- additional river crossings, heavy rains, and deep mud. A whipping now storm in the mountains almost turns them around. Coleman arrives in time to make a "nation-building" speech, claiming they are following a trail started back in England, and that the hardships they face are all part of the greatness of their task. Inspired, the group decides to press on.
Flack tells Lopez that he must kill Coleman once he has gone to bed. Lopez jumps and stabs Coleman's empty bedroll, only to flee when Coleman confronts him. Lopez and Flack leave the camp and run for their lives. Because Coleman promised to bring the group to the end of the trail, he must wait to pursue the two villains further. As soon as he gets the pioneers to their destination, he turns back to hunt them down. During the pursuit, Lopez freezes to death, and Coleman fells Flack with a knife to the chest.
Coleman then returns to Cameron and the settlers, who have built their cabins and started their new lives. He meets Cameron at the feet of many giant redwood trees, where they embrace happily.
Plot keywords: wagon train, cross-country migration, pioneers, trappers, woodsman, mountain men, revenge, love triangle
Scenery: plains, rivers, desert, rocky cliffs, mountains, forests
The Big Trail is available on DVD.
Classic Westerns on TCM
Westerns on Fox Movie Channel