The Big Trail ★★★★

Who knew John Wayne was such a pretty boy in his younger age? He was also somewhat of a stale actor (Don’t worry folks! He gets much much better by the time Ford comes around). But the melodrama here – neatly packed into an A-B-C set of storylines (revenge, romance, comedy) – is simply the necessary devices to tell this grand epic of the first settlers in what at least gives the appearance of true-to-fact historical recreation. The widescreen frames are fantastic on multiple levels, as the scope is enormously complex. Walsh emphasizes movement across and in and out of the frame – you truly get a sense of him building a world. Plus, it allows him to create multiple perspectives within a frame. He often uses movement of characters to point you to what is going to become the main action of a scene, despite characters in the center of the frame discussing whatever exposition is at hand. That’s narrative economy. More than that, the large frames give him a chance to have things occupy the frame that tell their own stories (most disturbing is that dog lying down by the grave of his owner as everyone else walks away, which is never given a close-up that emphasizes it; it’s simply left on the bottom of the frame for you to discover). Somewhat clunky both in the speed of the dialogue and the action scenes, which are cut oddly in a way that never really invested me (except for the final confrontation, told in one bold widescreen shot). But that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to astonish the eyes: the plodding of cattle through a dessert, wagons collapsing as their lowered down a cliff, and huge vistas filling the frame from left to right with settlers as far as the eye can see. As the final sequence among the towering redwoods suggests, this isn’t a tale of human melodrama, but of a country.