O Pioneers! and 70mm, Bierstadt and Vitaphone, "we're building a nation!" From Missouri to Washington state is the rugged path, Raoul Walsh opens on a bustling long-shot of covered wagons and swiftly states the style—multiple planes of action in deep focus, wide tableaux steered like oxen, human figures revealed rather than dwarfed by nature's grandeur. "No road but a will" and therein lies the tale, "history cuts the way" once guided by the young John Wayne in fringed buckskin, rangy and curly-haired and already in effortless command as the trapper leading the pilgrim caravan. The displaced belle (Marguerite Churchill) embodies romance while villainy is divided between the primeval barbarity of the gnarled "he-grizzly" (Tyrone Power Sr.) and the bogus gallantry of the Southern gambler (Ian Keith). Hunts and dances, weddings and burials, henpecked Swedes and Pawnee scouts and Cheyenne braves all pass before the camera as part of the theater of a country in flux; the landscape meanwhile swings between deserts and blizzards before settling on a redwood Eden "altogether too civilized" for some. "Rope, muscle and determination" comprise the screen just sprawling enough for the Walsh sense of adventure, a broad-backed monumentality that equally accommodates the prairie schooners under a Dovzhenko sky and the mangy vaudevillian belching out animal impressions. (The lenses stand back to absorb resplendent mountain ranges and horizons, yet lean close to register the squeaking of wagon wheels and the marvelous sight of pilgrim women washing and combing their long tresses.) "See you next year." "Bring your scalp along back!" The friendly rivalry with Ford wedges it between 3 Bad Men and Wagon Master; Altman remembers the snowy showdown in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the upwards tilt in a forest of towering trunks gives birth to a crucial Malick shot. With Tully Marshall, El Brendel, David Rollins, Frederick Burton, Charles Stevens, and Louise Carver. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce