REVIEW: The Trail Beyond (1934)

A university graduate (John Wayne) rides out to Canada in search of a missing girl, only to stumble into a mess involving card cheats, a hidden gold mine, and a criminal gang in Robert N. Bradbury’s 1934 western The Trail Beyond. The film represents one of the earliest phases of Wayne’s movie career, and an early example of the western genre. Is it good? Absolutely not, but it is an education on both Wayne and the genre that made him famous.

Wayne had spent the 1920s working as an extra, bit player, and prop boy in Hollywood, but it was director Raoul Walsh who cast him as the lead in his 1930 western epic The Big Trail. Despite its large budget and scale – it was one of the first major attempts at a ‘blockbuster’ talking picture – it failed to find an audience. Wayne was for about ten years relegated to ‘poverty row’, a group of low-budget film companies that churned out inexpensive, unambitious ‘horse operas’ for a Great Depression audience. By Wayne’s own estimation, he starred in roughly 80 of these pictures during the 1930s. He only escaped them via John Ford’s smash hit Stagecoach (1939), which led to the long, iconic career that audiences remember.

Produced in 1934, The Trail Beyond sits somewhere in the middle of Wayne’s poverty row period. It, like its many contemporaries, was produced as filler: something disposable for a mass audience to consume and forget. The film, which is in the public domain, is easy to find online – and it is certainly a lot easier to find than it is to watch. It reflects its disposable nature and its small production budget in its quality, but it is at least an interesting insight into both Wayne’s early starring career and the American western during the 1930s.

The narrative of The Trail Beyond never slows down to give the audience pause. Wayne plays Rod Drew, a young university graduate tasked with riding to Canada and tracking down the daughter of a long-missing farmer. On the train he meets a fellow graduate, Wabi (Noah Beery Jr), who gets entrapped in a rigged game of cards that leads to being framed for murder. Rod and Wabi jump off the train and take shelter in a nearby deserted shack – which reveals both the fate of the missing farmer and a map to a hidden gold mine. That is all within the first 15-20 minutes. There are structural links from plot point to plot point, but not logical links. Taken as a whole and it all resembles a small child’s attempt at storytelling: ‘…and then, and then, and then.’ It passes the time, and allows for regular action and chase scenes, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The performances largely come across as terrible, although closer inspection suggests the real problem is with the budget and the editing: one simply means there is no opportunity for extensive retakes, and the other because it weirdly incorporates long pauses every time the shot changes and the resulting gaps between lines could probably be seen from orbit. To the film’s credit, this all does speed up as it goes. There is a lot of energy to the various chases, and while under-rehearsed the fisticuffs play fairly well. Sadly there is little excusing the bad French Canadian accents in the second half, but lovers of so-bad-it’s-good cinema would likely argue that away as a highlight.

Unlike the majority of poverty row features, The Trail Beyond incorporates a solid proportion of location filming. This provides the small bonus of seeing California’s Mammoth Lakes standing in for the Canadian countryside, and a much broader visual scope than films of this nature typically allow.

As I mentioned earlier, The Trail Beyond is worthwhile more as an education in mid-1930s cinema than as entertainment. It is not a good film. Typically rushed shooting and generic scripting all-but-guarantees that to be the case. There is, however, a charm to young John Wayne (he was 27 at the time) and an honest goodness to his character. It is easy to see how he eventually became a household name, although interestingly his famous drawl is yet to emerge. It also demonstrates many of the facets of the western were already fully-formed: the honourable protagonist, and the taming of both an American wilderness and a chaotic frontier of crime and violence. There is also a firm ‘othering’ of both the Native Americans – there is one in the criminal gang, played by a white actor in brownface – and the French Canadians. In this film, and for many westerns to come, taming the frontier is a remarkably white experience.

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