‘The Big Trail’ Director Explained Why John Wayne Became the World’s ‘Greatest’ Movie Star

The Big Trail actor John Wayne ultimately became one of the world’s biggest movie stars. However, it took some time for his audiences to catch onto his style. Director Raoul Walsh gave Wayne his very first leading role in the Western epic because he saw something special in him. Here’s why the famous filmmaker believed the actor became the world’s “greatest” movie star.

John Wayne had his breakout role in 1930’s ‘The Big Trail’

'The Big Trail' actor John Wayne wearing a cowboy hat and Western costume. The photo is in sepia tone.
John Wayne | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Before The Big Trail, Wayne worked in the props department at Fox. He starred in uncredited roles since 1926, but he didn’t get the opportunity to have the spotlight until Walsh gave him that opportunity. Wayne plays Breck Coleman, who leads hundreds of settlers from the Mississippi River out West. He’s aware of the dangers along the path, including hazardous conditions and warriors, but he’s determined to complete the trip.

The Big Trail initially spelled out doom for Wayne, as it bombed at the box office. The studio was relying on the Western epic to bring in some much-needed cash, but its failure spread fear throughout the studio. Nevertheless, The Big Trail continues to earn praise from modern critics and audiences, specifically pointing out its stunning visuals.

John Wayne became the world’s ‘greatest’ movie star because he’s ‘instinctive’ and ‘natural’

According to Carolyn McGivern’s John Wayne: A Giant Shadow, much of the actor’s work in The Big Trail was a result of improvisation. Walsh told the actor to do his best, and he made the dialogue his own.

“I stood and watched him shouting orders and wondered where the youthful linebacker had gone,” Walsh said. “Instead of a football player, I had a star. His acting was instinctive, he was a natural. I take a lot of pride in the knowledge that I discovered a winner.”

Wayne knew that most people didn’t think he had the talent to act. Nevertheless, Walsh pointed out that they had no issue admitting to the fact that he was the “greatest” movie star out there. The filmmaker admitted that he saw something in him before anyone else did.

Walsh was ultimately right to cast Wayne in The Big Trail. He gave one of the biggest movie stars his start. However, filmmaker John Ford would later be the person to boost Wayne’s career to its peak heights.

Raoul Walsh described the actor’s demeanor on the set

McGivern wrote that Walsh knew that one of Wayne’s “biggest strengths” in The Big Trail was the way he looked on film. He didn’t have a “cowboy’s face,” as he was only 23 years old at the time. He had a “soft, gentle handsomeness” with a pure and sensitive demeanor. Wayne would ultimately develop the cowboy look as he got older, which is exactly what Ford would come to desire in many of his feature films.

Walsh praised how Wayne conducted himself on The Big Trail set. He followed every piece of advice and direction provided but also worked hard to improve with every opportunity he got.

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