How the West Was Won
The amazing thing about all that effort is that How the West Was Won focuses on the human element, never losing the story or interest in all the activity. The film follows four generations of one family through the development of the West, starting in 1839 with a journey through the Erie Canal and then towards the frontier. Other segments show the family as they try to establish a home, get caught in the Civil War, witness the westward expansion of the railroad and encounter outlaws. The film is both a tribute and a reminder of those vanished times and its populated by mountain men, the US Cavalry, gamblers, sheriffs, farmers, soldiers, Native Americans and buffalo herds.
Naturally How the West Was Won was a major undertaking for MGM who turned much of their resources to its production. The studio spent the huge sum of $15 million during a shoot that lasted about a year. The mammoth production was entrusted to three directors. John Ford, fresh from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1958), did the Civil War episode while George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) did the railroad segment. The other major sections (concerning the river, the plains and the outlaws) were done by Henry Hathaway (Kiss of Death (1947) and later True Grit, 1969). A fourth director, Richard Thorpe, did the brief connecting segments without credit.
One thing you might notice about the film is that sometimes there are barely visible lines dividing the image into thirds. That's because How the West Was Won was the first feature film shot in the Cinerama process. This was a massive widescreen process that required three separate cameras side by side to record the action. In a theatre three projectors were used to show the images on a special curved screen, resulting in a vast widescreen experience wider than the usual Cinemascope. Those lines result from the three separate images matching up though they're rarely distracting and the clever cinematographers often hid them in the image of a tree or pole. You can see the commercial problems with this process, though, and it's not surprising that Cinerama never really caught on.
Clearly plenty of actors were needed for such a story, resulting in major stars appearing in brief cameos. John Wayne appears as General Sherman, a character he previously impersonated on an episode of TV's Wagon Train. Jimmy Stewart plays a man twenty years younger than he actually was. Henry Fonda's character was originally much more prominent but revisions trimmed it down. He was lucky since Hope Lange, who played his character's daughter and George Peppard's girlfriend, had her entire part cut. Spencer Tracy does the voice-over narration. The actor-spotters will be delighted to catch early roles by Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Russ Tamblyn, Jay C. Flippen and veteran stuntman Gil Perkins (who'd worked on King Kong (1933) and Captains Courageous, 1937). And for a dab of authenticity, one of the Indian actors had actually participated in the battle at Little Big Horn.
Alex North's score was also nominated for an Oscar. He based some of his themes on authentic folk material and had originally planned on using the Kingston Trio for the film's songs. However, after seeing a new group featuring former Trio member Dave Guard and cult musician Judy Henske, he decided to go with them instead. It took over 18 months to get all the music recorded, using the folk group as well as a 75-piece orchestra. A soundtrack CD with much of the music and some previously unheard cues is available.
(By the way, there's an urban legend that a stuntman was killed while making this film. It's not true though stuntman Bob Morgan, Yvonne De Carlo's husband, did lose a leg in a serious accident with fiberglass logs on the train; however it was not during actual filming.)
Producer: Bernard Smith
Director: John Ford; Henry Hathaway; George Marshall; Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: James R. Webb
Set Design: Henry W. Grace; Don Greenwood, Jr.; Jack Mills
Cinematography: William H. Daniels; Milton Krasner; Charles B. Lang; Joseph LaShelle; Harold E. Wellamn
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Film Editing: Harold Kress
Original Music: Ken Darby; Alfred Newman
Principal Cast: James Stewart (Linus Rawlings), Carroll Baker (Eve Prescott), Henry Fonda (Jethro Stuart), Lee J. Cobb (Marshal Lou Ramsey), Gregory Peck (Cleve Van Valen), Debbie Reynolds (Lilith Prescott), Carolyn Jones (Julie Rawlings), George Peppard (Zeb Rawlings), Karl Malden (Zebulon Prescott).
C-165m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Lang Thompson