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How the West Was Won

How the West Was Won(1963)

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As its title indicates, How the West Was Won takes on a big subject, and the production was big enough to match it. Running a generous 162 minutes plus intermission, the movie had four directors: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall directed the dramatic segments, and Richard Thorpe did the transitional sequences, uncredited. It also has the kind of luminous cast that only MGM could have assembled in the early 1960s, when the old studio system and its iron-clad contracts were vanishing into the sunset. Most important of all, the movie was in Cinerama, the most prestigious wide-screen process of its time, and the ideal format for sprawling Old West vistas.

How the West Was Won tells five separate stories involving various members of a pioneer family, starting in the 1830s and ending fifty years later. The first episode shows the Prescott clan rafting west on a river, encountering tragedy when two members of the family drown, and finding hope when a friendly mountain man (James Stewart) falls in love with one of the pretty daughters (Carroll Baker) and later marries her. In the second part, the other daughter (Debbie Reynolds) is a riverboat singer being courted by two men (Gregory Peck, Robert Preston) with very different personalities. The third episode centers on a shaky young Civil War soldier (George Peppard) who crosses the paths of two famous generals (John Wayne, Henry [Harry] Morgan) and foils an assassination. In the fourth chapter, two railroad companies have a war that sets a buffalo hunter (Henry Fonda) against a greedy capitalist (Richard Widmark) who causes bloodshed by cheating the Arapahos who live where he wants to build, and in the last segment a marshal (Lee J. Cobb) helps to ambush a crazy outlaw (Eli Wallach) who's setting up a great train robbery. Suggested by an eponymous series of Life magazine articles, the picture earned James R. Webb an Academy Award for best original screenplay. Out of seven other nominations, Oscars also went to the film editing and sound.

Until the premiere of How the West Was Won in early 1962, documentaries had filled Cinerama's release slate ever since its 1952 debut attraction, This Is Cinerama, wowed movie fans with a Spanish bullfight, water-splashed views of Niagara Falls, and other imposing sights, including a roller-coaster ride that had patrons reeling in their seats. After four more nonfiction films, Cinerama broadened its horizons by striking a deal with MGM for two narrative movies that would exploit the special properties of the curved 146-degree screen and seven-speaker stereophonic sound; the other MGM coproduction was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, shot simultaneously but released six months after the western epic. These were the last two pictures (and the only narrative films) shot in the classical three-strip Cinerama process, which was replaced by 65-mm and 70mm formats for subsequent Cinerama films ranging from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963 to 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968.

How the West Was Won comes across today as a distinctly old-fashioned western – low in bloodshed, moderate in action, high in eye-catching scenery. Knowing that many Cinerama patrons brought their children along, the producers kept gunplay to a minimum and eliminated a subplot about a pregnant woman who leaves home to be a single mom, even though this last-minute change meant that part of the railroad episode, filmed by Marshall on location, had to be reshot by Hathaway on a soundstage. The picture's best action sequences are still pretty exciting, though, and they're extra impressive when you remember the massive size and weight of the Cinerama camera, which was really a set of three synchronized cameras side by side, each shooting its own strip of film. Among its other disadvantages, this apparatus gives enormous depth of field, with everything in focus no matter how near or far away it is; so if an intimate outdoor scene takes place without a visual barrier behind it, acres of background have to be groomed as carefully as the actors in the foreground.

Speaking of intimate scenes, Cinerama places particular demands on dramatic acting. Due to the camera's unique optical properties, a Cinerama close-up can't be very close – a waist-up view is the best the format can manage – and the device's fixed lenses mean the whole gizmo has to be moved every time a new vantage point is needed. On top of all this, the lenses point in slightly different directions, so unless the players are occupying the same segment of the screen, they have to gaze not at each other but past each other to look like they're interacting face to face. This is why Cinerama directors often group key characters in the center panel of the screen, leaving the side panels to scenery and extras. Another common trick is to set up the camera so that vertical objects (trees, pillars, etc.) are located on the left and right sides of the center panel; when the three film strips are projected from three different booths in the theater, these objects hide the vertical join-lines where the three pictures come together on the screen. It's little wonder that an old Hollywood hand like Ford quickly lost patience with the ungainly process. He'd been sitting right next to the camera for almost fifty years, but if he did it now he'd block part of a lens and end up in the shot! The somber Civil War episode of How the West Was Won marked his first and last Cinerama experience.

Warner Home Video's edition of How the West Was Won is packaged with first-rate DVD extras including the feature-length documentary Cinerama Adventure, about the history of the format, and a lively commentary track featuring film historian Rudy Behlmer and film-music expert John Burlingame along with Cinerama chief John Sittig, documentary director David Strohmaier, and stuntperson Loren James, who took a daunting number of falls, tumbles, and spills in the picture without meeting the fate of his colleague Bob Morgan, who was permanently maimed when a stunt went wrong during the train-robbery scene. (Morgan himself talks about this in Cinerama Adventure, but the commentary track is inexplicably silent about it.) In addition to the challenges it posed to filmmakers and performers, however, Cinerama presents interesting tests for DVD producers. The commentary track keeps claiming that high-tech video processing has erased the join-lines from the wide-screen image, but they're plain to see in many parts of the film. And there's no way a home-video system can reproduce the impact of the super-huge and ultra-curved Cinerama screen. The original aspect ratio (about 2.89:1, although accounts vary) comes out like a ribbon, and even the most sophisticated flat-screen TV is, well, flat.

This said, How the West Was Won is a very colorful ribbon, and while the adventure doesn't exactly jump from the screen, it offers a fair amount of traditional western excitement along with creaky ingredients that have old-Hollywood charms of their own. IMAX has won the war of the wide screens, but Cinerama still lingers on the sidelines, and even the DVD version provides a hint of what all the excitement was about.

For more information about How the West Was Won, visit Warner Video. To order How the West Was Won, go to TCM Shopping.

by David Sterritt