Ethan Wayne calls it an “epic,” and Patrick Wayne says it’s “so connected to our American heritage.” They’re talking, of course, of The Big Trail, one of John Wayne’s first leading roles.
Patrick and Ethan claim that The Big Trail was only “a step or two off” from what the Oregon Trail crossings were really like. Meaning, the film was incredibly accurate for its time, 1930. John Wayne was only 23-years-old when he played Breck Coleman in one of the first widescreen films. It was made in the Pre-Code era; this means in the years after films introduced sound in 1929, but before the Motion Picture Production Code put censorship guidelines in place in 1934.
In the film, a wagon train hires John Wayne’s character Breck Coleman to scout for them as they journey along the treacherous Oregon Trail. He agrees only so he can keep an eye on Red Flack, the bandit he suspects killed his friend in Santa Fe. On the trail, Coleman finds love in the reluctant Ruth Cameron. She slowly comes to accept Coleman’s attraction. Once the wagon train arrives in an unnamed land, they settle down together among the redwoods.
‘They actually had herds of longhorn oxen,” says Patrick Wayne on the Gritcast. “They had the original wagons that came across from the east coast to the west coast.”
According to John Wayne’s sons, filming The Big Trail was “treacherous” and “scary.” Director Raoul Walsh employed nearly 725 Native Americans from 5 different tribes, and, according to True West Magazine, used “185 wagons, 1,800 cows, 1,400 horses, and 500 buffalos.”
It was an enormous production, but a commercial flop; in 1930, a year after the Great Depression took hold, theaters didn’t want to spend the extra money to upgrade their projection equipment for widescreen. Barely any theater showed the film and, therefore, didn’t do well initially. According to John Wayne’s kids, though, it’s an American treasure.
John Wayne’s Most Influential Film, According to His Son
Earlier in the Gritcast, Marisa Wayne asked her brothers what they thought John Wayne’s most influential film was. Ethan said The Big Trail, but Patrick said The Searchers.
Like The Big Trail, The Searchers was also a flop initially. But, aspiring filmmakers found the movie and turned it into a cult classic. The film also starred Natalie Wood and Jeffrey Hunter opposite John Wayne as his niece and nephew.
Made in 1956, it was based on an Alan Le May novel from 1954. Set during the Texas-Indian wars, Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards and his nephew Martin Pawley search for Ethan’s niece Debbie.
The film was made in a two-picture deal with John Ford and Warner Bros., who weren’t sure about Ford making The Quiet Man with John Wayne. They made the deal that if Ford also made a Wayne western, they’d let him have The Quiet Man. Without that deal, The Searchers probably wouldn’t exist. We’d miss out on one of John Wayne’s most influential films, according to his son.