John Wayne: Why The Duke’s First Featured Role in ‘The Big Trail’ Was a Box-Office Flop

by Jon D. B.

If you’ve heard John Wayne is responsible for the failure of the first film he ever starred in, ‘The Big Trail,’ we have good news for you, Duke fans: it wasn’t his fault. Not in the slightest!

It’s a persistent Hollywood tall tale, indeed. Somehow, the notion that John Wayne was simply too young to carry a “big picture” in 1930 remains a pervasive myth. The young Duke was, after all, cast in and completed the film. So what led to his early Western epic, ‘The Big Trail,’ floundering at the box office?

Firstly, watching this remarkable piece of Hollywood history settles the case for any viewer: there was no fault with John Wayne’s performance. Although 23-years-old at the time, Wayne was ready to handle the weight of an epoch. He does so as scout Brent Coleman, too, as he leads an enormous band of wagons into the Westward Expansion.

But the fact remains: ‘The Big Trail’ was a financial disaster for FOX Film Corporation. And as it turns out, it had everything to do with the studio’s grandiose ambitions.

To cut straight to the chase: it was FOX’s choice of using the widescreen “Grandeur” process of the time that set up ‘The Big Trail’ to fail. In 1930, America was well into the throes of The Great Depression. To screen a film shot with this grandiose, 70mm methodology, an entirely new screen and projection equipment was required. This was simply beyond the means of the majority of theaters.

In addition, most movie theaters had just finished converting to accommodate the inclusion of sound with motion pictures, Pioneer Press cites. Combine these strangling economic factors, and you have “doom” already spelled on the wall before ‘The Big Trail’ would ever even hit the screens.

John Wayne’s ‘The Big Trail’ Hit at the Wrong Time

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

As a result, the 70mm “Grandeur” version of ‘The Big Trail’ would only screen in a handful of locations across the country. To salvage their film, FOX sent out a 35mm edition to the majority of theaters. Pioneer Press adds that these “lesser” editions ran “anywhere from 94 to 100 minutes and lacked the stunning impact of the widescreen effort.”

To their explanation, it sounds like audiences wouldn’t really see John Wayne’s first starring performance as it was intended for several generations. Once movie theaters caught up with the technology, and home video release became a reality, the 70mm version of ‘The Big Trail’ would finally be available to the masses.

And it’s a good thing it did, too. The film has a remarkable mojo to it, unlike anything gracing screens today. Sure, 1930 is a lot closer to the 1800’s Pioneer days than we are now, but things changed rapidly in the 20th century. To have a period Western film shot three decades into a new century feel so utterly real was and is truly impressive to this day.

This was largely due to director Raoul Walsh’s determination. He and his crew utilized over a dozen locations across seven states to make the long journey of John Wayne’s scout and his party all feel as authentic as possible.

Needless to say, if you can track down a 70mm copy of ‘The Big Trail’ today, it is beyond worth the watch – whether you’re a John Wayne fan or not.