Multiple-Language Version Film Collectors Guide: The Big Trail (1930)

by Brent Reid
  • John Wayne’s first starring role gave him a leg up to superstardom
  • Jaw-dropping recreation of a pioneer wagon train’s journey west
  • The Big Movie: Two aspect ratios, five languages and six versions
  • One of only four films shot in short-lived 70mm widescreen process
  • But the widescreen version was little-seen and almost lost for good
  • However, it’s now available with two of the others for home viewing
  • French, Spanish and Italian standard versions remain unobtainable
The Big Trail (1930) US poster

US poster



Clip/alt, #2 , more, | TCM | Maltin | Nolan

When renowned director Raoul Walsh cast a studio prop boy [, stunt man and bit-part player] as the star of this sweeping pioneer adventure, he had no idea he was discovering one of the great cinema legends of all time – John Wayne. The Big Trail chronicles the journey of hundreds of settlers in covered wagons from the Mississippi river to their destiny out west.

Breck Coleman (Wayne), a courageous young trapper and scout, leads them across treacherous cliffs, through raging torrents and brutal snowstorms, Indian attacks, buffalo stampedes and seemingly endless desert until they reach the valley of their dreams. Along the way, he loses his heart to a beautiful pioneer woman (Marguerite Churchill) and never stops trying to win her love. Tyrone Power Sr. co-stars in this visually spectacular classic, a big-screen Western epic that’s one of the first to use sound and wide 70 millimetre film, and remains one of the greatest movies of its genre. – Australian Fox VHS (1993)

Magnificent… stirring… a monumental work… consummate artistry” – Mordaunt Hall, New York Times

John Wayne in The Big Trail (1930)

Unfeasibly young: before the Duke, when he was just a little Dukeling. A decade later, Wayne and Raoul Walsh, who also gave Marion Morrison his professional name for this film, would team up once more on another Western, Dark Command.

Wide Film Cinematography on The Big Trail – Arthur Edeson, ASC

Although he’d had at least 20 mostly uncredited bit parts between 1926–1930, this was then 22-year-old John Wayne’s first starring feature. It’s a truly magnificent, sprawling epic dripping with authenticity that, though a hit at the box office, failed to recoup its huge production costs. It was actually shot in six different permutations, the most of any in this guide, with each foreign version incorporating a completely different cast and crew. Five 35mm standard aspect ratio versions were produced in each language but the most prestigious yet least-seen was the 70mm, 2:10:1 widescreen English version:

  • English: standard (ESV) and widescreen (WSV) versions
  • French: La piste des géants (FSV)
  • German: Die grosse Fährte (GSV)
  • Italian: Il grande sentiero (ISV)
  • Spanish: La gran jornada (SSV) originally released in Spain as Horizontes nuevos

All bar the French were also released in the US. There was even a seventh, silent, version prepared from the ESV that is known to have also played in Spain. It would have shipped with ‘flash’ intertitles, consisting of just a few frames, substituting for the most important dialogue, intended for local translation and replacement in foreign territories.

The accelerated shooting times for the MLVs were possible because in the main, only close-ups and some medium shots were redone with different casts; long shots and general action scenes were all taken from the English SV. The widescreen version was the fourth and last feature shot in 70mm Fox Grandeur, a precursor of the Todd-AO system of the 1950s. It’s one of only two early widescreen features available in two aspect ratios; the other is pre-Code mystery The Bat Whispers (1930). That was shot using the 65mm Magnifilm process in English-language standard and 2.00:1 widescreen versions. Both have been issued on a great quality region 0 Image DVD and VCI BD, and any number of substandard public domain efforts.

English and Spanish heralds/inside | Illustrierter Film-Kurier, Nr. 221 | Getty

Behind the scenes footage | Raoul Walsh: Cineastes of Our Time, Men Who Made the Movies/book | USA Film Festival 1973

Unfortunately, the huge cost of producing The Big Trail’s Grandeur version and a lack of suitably equipped venues to screen it in – just one each in New York and Los Angeles – contributed to its overall commercial disappointment. Ultimately, widescreen wouldn’t become commonplace for more than two decades and after this experimental foray, Fox quietly abandoned the format.

“Fast Shooting: Only 13 days were required by Louis R. Loeffler, director, in shooting the Italian version of “The Big Trail.” Although he is of German descent, Loeffler speaks Italian fluently. The Spanish version of the same picture was finished in 16 days, the French in 18 days and the German in 22 days.” – The Film Daily, December 28, 1930

Wayne would star in only two more A-budget films for Fox: after an argument he fell afoul of studio head Harry Cohn, who saw him demoted back to supporting actor status. It would take another nine years of labouring in mostly B-Westerns and bit parts before he got the lead in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) as The Ringo Kid. Released in what’s commonly held to be Hollywood’s greatest ever year, it shot Wayne almost instantly to superstardom and he never looked back.

A Grandeur Production: The Big Trail – Mordaunt Hall, New York Times

Original transfer

The Big Trail (1930) UK Fox DVD

This UK Fox 2012 reissue DVD sleeve (rear) is a colorized version of the remastered US and German discs’ artwork.

From the initial 1988 US VHS (info) and Betamax releases onward, only the ESV was available, more latterly on DVD.

“Fox Grandeur, in addition to an image double the usual width, also featured the superior reproduction of a soundtrack more than triple the usual width (7mm wide, in contrast to the 2mm width of conventional 35mm film).” – Miles Kreuger, Song o’ My Heart: A Hollywood Venture

The Big Trail’s WSV may have boasted superior audio but it was still too early for stereo. However, that didn’t stop Fox commissioning an anachronistic, phasey 2.0 stereo remix by Chace Productions (video) for the ESV DVD release. It’s on all bar the Spanish but at least the US has the original mono audio as an option, whereas the other four identical R2/4 discs and the Japanese are missing it altogether.

Two other UK reissues that may be of interest are by Italy-based publishers De Agostini, whose repackages were part of two weekly series with a now rare 16-page magazine and 8-page DVD booklet. It was number 58 (2008, alt) in 90-strong The Classic John Wayne Collection (later issued in Germany but with the WSV; see below) and number 44 (2010, alt) in the 77+ Westerns: The Classic Collection. Another notable entry in the latter series is The Big Country, also a genre epic shot in a short-lived widescreen process and with a mono soundtrack.

Action, Action, Action: The Early Cinema of Raoul Walsh (2022) – Tom Conley

Remastered transfers

US region 0/1 BD/DVD (rear)

These are all of The Big Trail’s remastered releases to date and the ones to get. Apart from region coding, the US and German BDs are essentially the same with an audio commentary by Richard Schickel on the WSV and four featurettes totalling 52 minutes. An invaluable non-disc extra is the 84 minutes of behind the scenes footage uploaded to YouTube. The GSV (74:31 w/4% PAL speedup) and German trailer (3:02) are exclusive to the German set’s DVD but have keine Untertitel. Lastly, the French BD has three French-language featurettes totalling 83 minutes but only has the WSV and that’s encoded at 1080i, so runs at 25fps. Another demerit is for the less consequential but strange decision to have a much older, post-stardom Duke adorn the French artwork.

The film’s copyright was renewed in 1957 and doesn’t expire until the end of 1925, so be sure to avoid any low-bitrate, barebones pirate discs like those from Italy (A&R Productions), Spain (Suevia/Feel BD-R/set) and Australia (Amsell).

Marguerite Churchill and John Wayne in The Big Trail (1930)

Spoiler alert. Aww…

The Big Trail – Marilyn Ann Moss | The Big Trail – Nick Pinkerton

Marilyn Ann Moss, author of several books including The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh (2013), produced and directed an accompanying documentary (2014, 95:13), exclusively available on Criterion’s 2-BD and 2-DVD of Walsh’s High Sierra (1941).

Autobiography: Each Man in His Time (1974) – Raoul Walsh | French, Spanish

TCM | Moss interview 2013

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