Actor John Wayne became a movie star of epic proportions. He had some initial difficulties making it big, but once he did, nothing could stop him. Wayne touched the lives of people across the country, and his legacy continues to do so. However, Wayne once said that there was one movie, in particular, that made him believe that he couldn’t keep playing the young hero he initially built his career on.
Wayne started working in the movie props department at Fox. It was there that he caught John Ford’s eye thanks to his visual aesthetic. However, he didn’t initially have the “tough cowboy” look that he later became famous for. Rather, he had boyish good looks that certainly attracted the attention of filmmakers. Raoul Walsh was the first filmmaker to give him a shot with 1930’s The Big Trail, but the film ultimately became a box office bomb.
The film star continued to earn work in Western flicks, although they were B-movie productions that he didn’t want to make. Stagecoach ultimately made Wayne a notable name that continued to gain power and fame later in his career.
Wayne became pigeonholed into Western movie roles, and he wanted to break away from that. However, he enjoyed the consistent work that he got. After all, any actor would kill to have the opportunity to get paid for steady work. According to Marc Eliot’s book, American Titan: Searching for John Wayne, he eventually realized that he couldn’t continue on playing the young hero role after making They Were Expendable.
Ford directed the 1945 release, which told the story of a Navy commander who had to demonstrate that the PT boat is up to snuff for battle at the beginning of World War II. Actor Robert Montgomery, who was uncredited as a director, starred alongside Wayne and Donna Reed. The movie star earned $75,000 for his role against Reed’s $300,000 paycheck.
They Were Expendable was marketed as the big Christmas movie release at New York’s Capitol Theater, which opened to positive reviews. However, it ultimately lost money at the box office. Wayne took the movie as a sign that he couldn’t keep carrying on performing the same roles. He was recently divorced and “became noticeably heavier, partly due to his excessive drinking, and his hair was rapidly thinning.”
Therefore, Wayne wanted to stop acting now that he couldn’t play the young hero anymore and desired to transition into directing. He confided in Ford with this information, but the legendary filmmaker didn’t appreciate the comments. Instead, he chose Montgomery to give a helping hand in directing when Ford got sick.
Wayne didn’t make his first movie in the director’s chair until his uncredited work on 1955’s Blood Alley. However, his big directorial debut would come in 1960’s The Alamo, which he earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Picture category for. The film earned a win for Best Sound and additional nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Editing, Original Song, and Score. The movie star directed another three features with The Comancheros, The Green Berets, and Big Jake.
Despite his initial desire to stop acting, Wayne didn’t stop with They Were Expendable. Rather, it gave him another path to pursue a more mature image that he became famous for. Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, and The Quiet Man remain some of his most prominent performances. Wayne finally won the Oscar gold for his work in True Grit as an actor.