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What Was John Wayne’s First Movie?

by Atlanta Northcutt
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

How did John Wayne first begin his prolific career of becoming the most iconic Western film star?

At the beginning of his 50-year career as an actor, director, and producer, John Wayne was working smaller roles and going by Duke Morrison until he landed his first big break as the star of The Big Trail.

The 1930 Western film was ahead of its time when it came to filming techniques, seeing as it was shot in an early widescreen Grandeur film process. Although the technique is impressive, most movie theaters weren’t equipped to handle the larger-sized film. The Big Trail was originally planned to be the biggest Western production of the summer, costing an unheard-of amount of $2 million. Instead, it was a box office failure.

The Name John Wayne Comes From “The Big Trail”

The film stands out as one of the actor’s most important roles. The Big Trail is the beginning of the name John Wayne. The star, whose original name is actually Marion Robert Morrison, was going by Duke Morrison at the time. The film’s director Raoul Walsh didn’t believe the current name was going to cut it. Therefore, the actor became John Wayne.

Wayne stars as Breck Coleman, a young trapper who’s on the hunt to avenge the death of his murdered friend. The movie is filmed across the sprawling American West while following a large caravan of settlers along the Oregon Trail.

After the flop of The Big Trail, John Wayne seemed doomed to act in mediocre Westerns for the rest of his life. However, in 1939, the actor landed his career-making role of Ringo Kid in the Oscar-winning film Stagecoach.

The rest is history. John Wayne would go on to act in more than 170 films, including Fort Apache, True Grit, Rio Grande, and many, many more. His name would become synonymous with the rugged, tough, Western cowboy and all-American manly-man. With a little help from The Big Trail, the name John Wayne will never be forgotten.