John Wayne’s ‘The Big Trail’: How He Landed His First Leading Role

by Matthew Wilson

Most people think John Wayne got his start with 1939’s “Stagecoach.” But his first leading role actually came years earlier with “The Big Trail.”

It’s an inaccurate Hollywood tall tale that director John Ford discovered John Wayne and gave him his big break in the 1939 film. Ford himself was responsible for spreading the story in interviews, all the way up until he died. It’s true that Ford took a liking to the prop hand working on set. And he agreed to take Duke Morrison under his wing. But the actor actually headlined movies before Ford’s classic, starting with “The Big Trail”

Directed by Raoul Walsh, the film was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Walsh wanted to celebrate the hardworking men and women who made the first leap in western expansion. In that regard, Fox wanted the film to be massive with 20,000 extras and numerous cattle stock.

John Wayne Becomes a Star

Initially, Walsh wanted either actor Tom Mix or Gary Cooper for the lead role. But both actors were busy with other productions at the time. Sometimes desperation and success make strange bedfellows. On the advice of Ford, Walsh decided to take a chance on a young Duke Morrison. He had noticed him hauling furniture on a Ford production. Wayne had been working on film sets after a bodysurfing injury cost him a football scholarship.

“[Wayne] had a western hang to his shoulders and a way of holding himself and moving which is typical of a westerner,” Walsh later said. “I noticed the fine physique of the boy, his careless strength, the grace of his movements.”

Walsh agreed to allow the prop hand to audition for the role, and he quickly passed every test the director threw his way. The only issue was that neither Walsh nor the Fox studio head liked Duke Morrison’s name. They didn’t believe it had the star quality that could sell the picture.

Reportedly, Wash offered the name Wayne after Revolutionary War general “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Additionally, “John” came from director John Ford as a homage. Thus, John Wayne, the cowboy was born. The actor was cast as Breck Coleman, a trapper in the film. He would reach even more mass appeal a few years later when he starred in “Stagecoach.”

Wayne went on to become one of the most popular actors of his generation, all thanks to this early western film.