This early John Wayne film from 1931 sees a band of pioneers heading out West to start a new town along the Oregon Trail. Together the families traverse dangerous plains and treacherous rivers in search of a better life. A migrant caravan, if you will.
Wayne plays Breck Coleman, the handsome young trapper whose skill with a knife and knowledge of the terrain make him indispensable to the party. He agrees to scout for the party because they’re joined by Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) and Lopez (Charles Stevens) who Breck suspects of killing his friend.
The young John Wayne is a dashing presence, and a far cry from the gnarly, red-faced figure of his later films. He’s joined by a strong cast including Power and Marguerite Churchill as love interest Ruth. The scale of the migrant caravan is impressive, and sits well against the expansive, unspoiled American terrain.
Surprisingly it largely declines to engage in gun-toting action. Most of the set pieces are based more around the challenges they face; crossing a river, hunting bison and getting their wagons down a cliff. This increases the impact of the sparingly used fight scenes and means that the violence that does take place always has a point to it.
It also has a better representation of Native Americans than some films of the era. Wayne’s character has spent time with them to learn from them, and understands their ways. While there’s a constant threat of Indian attack, potential threats are generally resolved peacefully, avoiding bloody massacres.
While the characters are well drawn and the story is an engaging one, what’s missing is the ‘why’. To venture on such a long and perilous journey they must either be trying to get away from something or be hoping for a much better life. Beyond descriptions of an idyllic sounding valley over the horizon it’s not that apparent what’s driving them.
But it’s an effective and well-told Western, and a successful ode to the pioneering spirit of frontier days. In fact the only way The Big Trail could be more American is if they opened a KFC when they got there.