John Wayne Pushed Through Dysentery While Filming His First Leading Movie Role to Avoid Being Replaced

Actor John Wayne once had to endure dysentery over the course of filming The Big Trail. The movie was a box office bomb, but it went down in history for being the actor’s first leading movie role. Additionally, many other Western films would take inspiration from the 1930 feature. However, director Raoul Walsh almost gave another actor the role when Wayne came down with dysentery and had difficulty doing even the most mundane of tasks.

John Wayne had his first leading movie role in ‘The Big Trail’

'The Big Trail' John Wayne, who got dysentery, and Marguerite Churchill. They're wearing Western costumes. Wayne has his arm around Churchill and holding a gun upright.
L-R: John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Walsh gave Wayne his big break in The Big Trail. The plot follows a fur trapper named Breck Coleman (Wayne), who leads and protects a group of pioneers traveling across the Oregon Trail. However, they realize that many dangers loom across these lands, including the scorching desert sands, woods that are difficult to navigate, and Native American warriors.

Breck begins a romance with a frontier woman named Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), which remains on his mind. Meanwhile, he set his eyes on finding the men who killed his mentor who are also traveling in wagons heading the same direction. Wayne had a lot of stunts to complete, despite having dysentery.

John Wayne endured dysentery to stop Raoul Walsh from recasting him

According to Carolyn McGivern’s John Wayne: A Giant Shadow, the actor got “severe” dysentery while he was filming The Big Trail. As a result, he couldn’t get out of bed for the first few weeks of shooting. The actor was a bit thinner than his usual weight because of his sickness.

“I was dizzy, I sweated, i couldn’t get up,” Wayne said. “I was so sick, I lost 18 pounds.”

The actor was a prop man before Walsh decided to give him a shot in the lead role. The Big Trail was the studio’s attempt at saving it financially, bringing in some big stars, as well.

Walsh told Wayne that despite having dysentery, he had to keep working if he didn’t want another actor to replace him. Therefore, he decided it best to drag himself out of bed, despite the fact that he was shaking, pail, and “looking very thin and frail” to get the job done. However, he still had to perform stunts.

The first scene forced Wayne to carry his fellow co-star, Tully Marshall, across the entire set. However, production handed Wayne alcohol to get through it.

“They passed the jug to me first, and I dug back into it,” Wayne said. “It was straight rotgut bootleg whiskey. I’d been puking and crapping blood for a week, and now I poured that raw stuff down my throat. After the scene, I called him every kind of an old bastard.”

Raoul Walsh praised ‘the star on location’

Walsh praised the opportunity to work with Wayne, even though he had to work through dysentery on the set. Movie locations have plenty of possible distractions, but he didn’t allow any of them to get in his way. Wayne knew that he was a new actor and took it as a learning opportunity, which impressed the filmmaker.

“He was truly the star on location, following every order he was given, every direction, or suggestion,” Walsh said. “He was the star pupil, attentive, respectful, and willing to be coached. He alone didn’t drink, keep late hours, or make a pass at the leading lady. His full attention was given to his work and the part he was playing. If Lady Godiva had ridden across the set with her hair cut off it was a safe bet that he wouldn’t even have glanced at her.”

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