John Wayne’s first lead role in The Big Trail was supposed to be his big break – but it set him back nearly a decade. While trying to find his way in the movie business, Wayne spent his early days making uncredited acting appearances or being a prop man. While he later became one of the Western genre’s defining leading men – thanks to his unmistakable voice and walk – this wasn’t always his career plan. Wayne even attempted to break out of Westerns during the ’30s when he became a leading man in b-movies, but after appearing in a series of box-office duds, he literally got back on the horse.
A then 23-year-old Wayne was cast by Raoul Walsh (White Heat) to be the lead in his 1930 widescreen epic The Big Trail. This saw Wayne’s Coleman leading a group of settlers along the Oregon Trail, and he finds love and adventure during the trip. There are conflicting accounts about how the relatively unknown Wayne was cast, though the accepted version is that Walsh – who was having trouble casting the lead – saw Wayne lifting furniture and decided to screen-test him. The Big Trail was an expensive Western epic, but it wasn’t the box-office success it was predicted to be.
Wayne’s – who starred in 80 Westerns – The Big Trail sold itself on its scale, with the film being shot in several states and using a new widescreen process known as 70 mm Grandeur. Multiple versions were shot at the same time too, including 70 mm, 35 mm and foreign language versions with different actors. The film is now viewed as groundbreaking in its techniques and has even been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. However, it was a flop, due to a combination of the Depression and a lack of theaters able to afford the upgrades needed to show The Big Trail in 70 mm.
With The Big Trail flaming out, Wayne spent much of the ’30s starring in “Poverty Row” Westerns. This includes Wayne’s only “horror” movie Haunted Gold. Most of these were shot quickly and on tiny budgets, but at least they gave Wayne time to develop his onscreen persona further. A couple of these early Wayne films have been lost to time, as no negatives of The Oregon Trail or Adventure’s End are known to exist. 1939 would be the year that changed his fortunes, however.
John Ford cast Wayne as The Ringo Kid in 1939’s Stagecoach, which transformed his career almost immediately. Wayne was part of an ensemble cast, but his charisma and star power made him the breakout. In the years that followed, he repeatedly worked with Ford on the likes of The Quiet Man and The Searchers – which inspired Star Wars – the latter of which is considered their best collaboration. Wayne came a long way from The Big Trail, which was really the victim of bad timing more than the quality of the final product.
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