The Big Trail
Directed by Raoul Walsh
John Wayne as Breck Coleman
Marguerite Churchill as Ruth Cameron
El Brendel as Gus
Tully Marshall as Zeke
Tyrone Power Sr. as Red Flack
David Rollins as Dave ‘Davey’ Cameron
Frederick Burton as Pa Bascom
Ian Keith as Bill Thorpe, Louisiana gambler
Charles Stevens as Lopez, Flack's henchman
Louise Carver as Gus's mother-in-law
John Big Tree as Indian Chief
Ward Bond as Sid Bascom
Nino Cochise as Indian
Iron Eyes Cody as Indian
Breck Coleman, a young fur trapper, is looking to avenge the death of his best friend and has his sights set on Red Flack and his henchman, Lopez. Coleman is asked to help a group of settlers make the journey from Missouri to Oregon, along the not-yet forged Oregon Trail. When Coleman discovers that Flack and Lopez have also hired on the wagon train, he agrees, as he doesn't want to let the villainous duo out of his site. This suits Flack fine, as the Oregon Trail is a dangerous place, perfect in fact to lose a suspicious guide.
Along the way, Coleman attempts to woo Ruth Cameron, who resists his advances by turning to Bill Thorpe, a no good gambler and friend of Flack. Flack tries to do everything he can along the way to get rid of Coleman, but to no avail. Coleman sets out to avenge his friend, get the wagons to Oregon successfully and get the girl as well, and by gum, that's just what he intends to do!
The Big Trail takes place sometime between 1837 and 1845, which makes the time of the first wagon train to use the Oregon Trail accurate, although the circumstances are different from those presented in the film.
Director Raoul Walsh was known for portraying John Wilkes Booth in the silent classic The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith. He would go on to direct High Sierra and White Heat.
Originally Walsh wanted Gary Cooper for the role, but Cooper was unavailable. He saw a broad shouldered prop man going by the name of Marion 'Duke' Morrison, and he cast him in his lead, renaming him John Wayne. Walsh happened to be reading the biography of General Mad Anthony Wayne at the time, which is where he claimed to have gotten the inspiration for the moniker.
John Wayne contracted dysentery during shooting and was almost replaced.
The Big Trail was one of the first films to be shot in widescreen; however, the added expense was not recouped because theaters would not charge more for the movie, fearing a low attendance due to the Great Depression.
Karl Malkames, a renowned cinematographer with a specialty in restoring old films, painstakingly transferred The Big Trail from its original film to 35mm anamorphic fine grain master film. The process took over a year and had to be done frame by frame, but we owe Malkames for ensuring that The Big Trail exists at all today.