John Wayne plays John Steele, a deputy lawman sent to clean up the New Mexico territory. He arrives in town and poses as a drunken drifter while sizing up local cattle baron Sam Crew. Then John is on the frontier, befriending a wagon train leader named Cal and making eyes at Cal’s niece Ginger. Then the train comes under attack from Sam Crew’s gang. To apprehend the gang, John recruits Sonora Joe, a Mexican bandit who first tries to rustle the wagon train’s cattle.
If this sounds disjointed, then I have conveyed a sense of watching this film.
A few years prior, Warner Bros. acquired First National Pictures and inherited the rights to several popular silent westerns starring Ken Maynard. These were A-list productions showcasing Maynard’s impressive stunt work.
Someone—either former First National Executive Sidney Rogell or producer Leon Schlesinger—got the idea to remake the Maynard silents with sound, recycling as much action footage as possible, and sold Jack Warner on the proposal. They just needed an actor who matched Maynard’s build. Enter Wayne who signed a six-picture contract in 19321.
And thus we have The Big Stampede which remakes and recycles footage from Ken Maynard’s 1927 silent, The Land Beyond the Law. The titular stampede, which provides the film’s climax, proves the lone memorable moment. The wide shots of rampaging cattle and runaway wagons impress. The spliced in close-ups of Wayne shouting “Hoo-ah!” do not. Wayne’s still raw. His scenes with Mae Madison, who plays Ginger, are stiff and awkward. But he’s learning.
- In John Wayne: American, Randy Roberts and James Stuart Olson say the contract was with Schlesinger and Rogell and paid $825 a picture. In John Wayne, Michael Munn says the contract was with Warner Bros. paying Wayne $1,500 a picture. In John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Leon says the contract was with Schlesinger—who “had an in at Warner”—and paid Wayne $850 a picture.↩