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Three cheers are much in order for Warner Home Video with their release
of this superb issue on Blue Ray disc of MGM's 1962 blockbuster epic
HOW THE WEST WAS WON! Firstly the nine star rating adjudged the disc is
NOT for the movie - which I think is generally agreed to be something
of a much flawed western extravaganza - but for the quite awesome two
disc presentation this time around on Blue Ray.
Virtually gone are the once irritating panel lines that were left by the filming with three cameras. Now we have the definitive version of the movie that is nothing short of stunning! With extremely well defined sharp as a button imagery, pluperfect colour resolution and outstanding audio sound (Alfred Newman's brilliant score comes across with dynamic clarity!) the entire visual experience is certainly something to behold!
The first disc presents the film in a terrific 2.35 widescreen version with some excellent extras that includes a documentary giving us the history of Cinerama and how the public responded to its introduction in the early fifties. There are also some great clips from the first Cinerama picture "This Is Cinerama" (1953) presented by explorer and Cinerama pioneer Lowell Thomas.
But it is disc two that really takes the biscuit! Here we get a "smile box" version of the complete HOW THE WEST WAS WON. This is the "wrap around" totally curved format of the film which simulates the cinema Cinerama viewing experience. And by simply moving your seat closer to your TV (the greater your TV screen the greater the effect) you can well imagine watching the movie in your bygone Cinerama theatre. It is all quite astonishing really and makes a great fun demo. to show off to your friends!
Amazingly this unique presentation - with all its technical brilliance - actually makes the movie better than it really is!
Ford's most distinctive work has dealt with the white American's
conquest of the wilderness... He has made films about most of the
significant episodes in American historyearly colonization of the
West, the Civil War, the extermination of the Indiansand in so doing
he has recounted the American saga in human terms and made it come
Ford directed one of the episodes of "How the West Was Won," the Civil War... His brief but redeeming contribution effectively recounted the bloody Battle of Shiloh and its aftermath...
Hathaway's strong points were atmosphere, character and authentic locations... He directed, in the film, the episodes of 'The Rivers,' 'The Plains,' and 'The Outlaws.'
George Marshalthe most prolific and most versatile of all major Hollywood filmmakersdirected the episode of 'The Railroad.'
As seen through the eyes of four generations of a pioneer family of New England farmers as they made their way west in the l840s, the scope of "How the West Was Won" is enormous, with essays on the physiology of the West (pioneers, settlers, Indians, outlaws, and adventurers).
The film describes the hard life and times of the Prescott's family across the continent and their fortune to the western shore after years of hardship, loss, love, war, danger and romance...
Stewart appears in the first half hour as a trapper named Linus Rawlings, who marries the daughter (Carroll Baker) of a family migrating West
The story touched all the bases: runaway wagon trains; Indians stampeding Buffalos; confused and erratic river rapids; the grandeur of Monument Valley, Utah; the rocky mountains; the Black Hills of South Dakota; the clamor of gold in St.Louis; the Cheyenne attack; the Pony Express; the overland telegraph; the coming of the steel roadway of the iron horse; the bloody battle between cattlemen and homesteaders; and some thrilling hand-to-hand fighting
The result is a stupendous epic Western with 8 Academy Award Nominations including Best Picture and three Academy Awards including Best Original Story and Screenplay; Best Soundand Best Film Editing...
Narrated by Spencer Tracy, "How the West Was Won" enlists the services of such top stars as: Carroll Baker, the strong-minded woman; Gregory Peck, the luckiest gambler; Debbie Reynolds, the perplexing talented singer and dancer; Henry Fonda, the buffalo hunter with gray flowing hair and mustaches; George Peppard, the man with a star; Robert Preston, the decent character with moral flaws; Thelma Ritter, the character woman; Karl Malden, the patriarch; Agnes Moorehead, the unfortunate wife and mother; John Wayne, the major architect of modern warfare; Richard Widmark, the 'king' of the railroad; Russ Tamblyn the Confederate deserter; Andy Levine, the Corporal Ohio volunteer; Lee J. Cobb, the lawman; Carolyn Jones, the worried wife; Eli Wallach, the dangerous outlaw; Rodolfo Acosta, the train robber; Raymond Massey, the great Abraham Lincoln; Walter Brennan and Lee Van Cleef, the thieves to fear
Alfred Newman and Ken Darby's majestic music takes the pioneers through every conceivable encounter in the West, achieving with conviction a whole constellation of magnificent spectacle...
As a seven year old boy who adored history, I was brought by my mother
to see this in Cinemascope on a huge screen. Anyone who has seen this
can just imagine the impact.
There has always been a healthy dispute about what historical developments most influenced the outlook and behavior of Americans. Among the candidates are: i) the development of an entirely new world on distant shores - a world where the rules were there to be made as the Pilgrims/Puritans/Quakers and others determined, ii) the colonists' growing self-identity as Americans, the evolution of that separate identity, and these peoples' coordination and cooperation from 1607 to the Albany Union conference in 1759, the Stamp Act Congress in 1763 and the Second Continental Congress' decision to declare independence in 1776, iii) the workings of a multi-racial society due to the presence of aboriginal people and the importation of slaves, iv) the role of the frontier and settlement of a continually receding West, v) the enormity of immigration and their inter-action with the native-born from about the 1840s to the present, vi) the sheer size and diverse conditions of topography and climate, vii) the evolution of democracy over four centuries on a large scale, viii) the experience of modernization over the past century on a scale unknown to, and before, the rest of the world.
This movie in effect tells the fourth story - and tells it in a thrilling, colorful way -- from the 1840s when the frontier was still the Ohio Valley to about 1885 - not so long a time. (Contrast this with the 169 year colonial period).
The movie is stunning - beautifully cast - music you'll always remember - and many powerful and moving scenes. So many scenes live forever in my mind
- the return of the George Peppard character from the Civil War to his family's farmstead in Ohio,
-- the astonishing speech by the Richard Widmark character after the buffalo stampede has killed so many,
-- the wonderfully written emotional scenes whenever Debbie Reynolds was dealing with either Robert Preston's clumsy attempt at courtship ("why with hips like yours, having children would be as easy as rolling off a log") or her own love for the roguish Gregory Peck,
-- the George Peppard family (with the wonderful Carolyn Jones and Debbie Reynolds) singing Greensleaves as the movie nears its end,
-- and the astonishing scene of the West transformed into cloverleaf highways and overpasses after we've been watching a deserted West for several hours.
The pride in those who won the West is so evident throughout the movie - yet it's shown along with losses (the deep sadness of Henry Fonda's mountaineer at the continuing encroachment of civilization, the breach of the boundary set in an Indian treaty due to the railroad's need to set a straight course - and the resulting catastrophe).
Not too many years would pass before movie makers would be telling audiences that the settlement of the West was a triumph of vicious villains, charlatans, cynics and fast-buck artists in movies like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, The Wild Bunch.
But I'm deeply grateful that I was old enough to see how the West was won in a movie like this.
It was a good payoff; the print was as perfect as could be expected and the
Pacific Cinerama theater is in top form. Seating was fine (it's reserved,
so you know ahead where you'll be. Because you're looking at three separate
35mm projections, the sum total of the three result in a very large, clear
and bright picture, just as good as a 70mm film, and perhaps better in some
respects. The prints were vivid and sharp.
At the Dome, a theater executive came out to discuss the film and the theater history with the audience just prior to the start of the picture; he spoke for 10-15 minutes discussing the pros and cons of the process, why it wasn't practical to continue making films this way etc. One of the plus aspects is that with the small lenses they used, the focus was fixed and any object from 2 ft to infinity was always in focus (therefore, all the scenery was sharp except for certain single-camera and process shots). One of the downside aspects is that extreme closeups are not possible in Cinerama, and he said that the directors hated that. Then he tells inside trivia about the film, how it includes about a minute of footage from two other films (one was The Alamo) because the scenes fit perfectly in the storyline. He also mentioned that back in the 1960's it took 5 people to run the show: three projectors, the 35mm sound projector and one master projectionist - total of 5. The gentleman said that today, with all the modern technological improvements, they were now able to produce the identical result -- with just 5 projectionists! In other words, nothing had changed. Another reason the process could not survive. Got a big laugh. He then introduced each projectionist to the audience.
Anyway, the whole thing came off without a hitch and I had forgotten much of the film's vivid details and incredible scenery, so it was very much like seeing it for the first time. I had not seen it in Cinerama ever, and when I did see a blended 35mm print in a local Edwards theater back in '64, it was somewhat of a disappointment. The magnetic 6-track sound was on still another 35mm film strip, so 4 separate strips are actually required to comprise the presentation). The sound was fine - clear and sharp - with lots of separation in the six channels, but it was not as boomy as the sound we hear in today's pics. For anyone interested in what it might have been like to see a state-of-the-art presentation in the early 1960's, this presents a magnificent opportunity, and the film is a trip. --- DFR
Watching a letterboxed version of "How the West Was Won," I noticed the
dividing lines on the screen, and it was clear that much of the picture was
still missing even in this format. But neither hindered my enjoyment of
this sprawling epic, even if James R. Webb's Oscar winning screenplay left
something to be desired. Alfred Newman's music score is terrific, and so is
that all-star cast. Unlike those disaster flicks of the 70s like "The
Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno" that claimed to be stuffed
with stars but actually boasted "names" (usually familiar performers,
primarily from TV, who rarely headlined a first class feature), "How the
West Was Won" has the genuine article. John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory
Peck, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Carroll
Baker, and Debbie Reynolds may mean little at the ticket windows of the 90s
(and many of them are dead, anyway), but all were above the title stars who
carried their own films at the box-office in the early 60s.
Three directors helmed this project but I'd be hard pressed to distinguish whether John Ford, George Marshall or Henry Hathaway were behind the camera during any particular episode if the opening credits didn't identify each segment and its director. I suppose "How the West Was Won" is more quantity than quality, but it's entertaining overall.
I still remember seeing How the West Was Won in Cinerama when it made
it into general release back in 1962. A motion picture theater equipped
for Cinerama is the only way this one should be seen. The formatted VHS
copy I watched tonight can't come close to doing it justice.
James R. Webb's original screenplay for the screen won an Oscar in 1962 and it involves an episodic account of the Presscott family and their contribution to settling the American west in the 19th century. We first meet the Presscotts, Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead going west on the Erie Canal and later by flatboat on the Ohio River. They have two daughters, dreamy romantic Carroll Baker and feisty Debbie Reynolds. The girls meet and marry mountain man James Stewart and gambler Gregory Peck eventually and their adventures and those of their children are what make up the plot of How the West Was Won.
Three of Hollywood's top directors did parts of this film although the lion's share by all accounts was done by Henry Hathaway. John Ford did the Civil War sequence and George Marshall the sequence about the railroad.
The Civil War piece featured John Wayne and Harry Morgan in a moment of reflection at the battlefield of Shiloh. Morgan did a first rate job as Grant in his brief cameo and Wayne was playing Sherman for the second time in his career. He'd previously played Sherman in an unbilled cameo on his friend Ward Bond's Wagon Train series. I'm surprised Wayne never did Sherman in a biographical film, he would have been good casting.
If any of the stars could be said to be THE star of the film it would have to be Debbie Reynolds. She's in the film almost through out and in the last sequence where as a widow she goes to live with her nephew George Peppard and his family she's made up as a gray haired old woman and does very well with the aging. Debbie also gets to do a couple of musical numbers, A Home in the Meadow and Raise A Ruckus both blend in well in the story. Debbie's performance in How the West Was Won must have been the reason she was cast in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
Cinerama was rarely as effectively employed as in How the West Was Won. I well remember feeling like you were right on the flatboat that the Presscott family was on as they got caught in the Ohio River rapids. The Indian attack and the buffalo stampede were also well done. But the climax involving that running gun battle between peace officers George Peppard and Lee J. Cobb with outlaw Eli Wallach and his gang on a moving train even on a formatted VHS is beyond thrilling.
There is a sequence that was removed and it had to do with Peppard going to live with buffalo hunter Henry Fonda and marrying Hope Lange who was Fonda's daughter. She dies and Peppard leaves the mountains and then marries Carolyn Jones. Lange's part was completely left on the cutting room floor. Hopefully there will be a restored version of How the West Was Won, we'll see Hope Lange and more of Henry Fonda.
And it should be restored. All those Hollywood legends in one exciting film. They really don't make them like this any more.
One of the last great epic movies to come out of MGM that was a roaring
success, How the West Was Won still has enough quality about it to
warrant high praise. The story that drives the film on was suggested by
the series of the same name that featured in "Life" magazine 1959.
Narrative is formed around one family, the Prescott's, who set out on a
journey West in 1839. They and their offspring fill out five segments
of film that are directed by three different men, "The Rivers", "The
Plains" & "The Outlaws" is under the guidance of Henry Hathaway, and
"The Civil War" by John Ford and "The Railroad" by George Marshall.
Filmed in the unique Cinerama format, which in a nutshell is three cameras filming at once to project a fully formed experience for the human eye, the production has an all star cast and four supreme cinematographers aiding the story. To name all the cast would take forever, but in the main all of the major parts were filled by stars who had already headlined a movie previously. The cinematographers are naturally key since such a sprawling story inevitably has sprawling vistas, they come up trumps with some truly special work: William H. Daniels, Milton Krasner, Charles Lang Jr. & Joseph LaShelle, four great names who help to make the film a poetic beauty.
As a whole it's undeniably far from flawless, complaints such as it running out of steam towards the end (the irony of it since a steam train features prominently), and the plot contrivances, are fair enough. However, when the film is good, it's real good: raft in the rapids, Cheyene attack, buffalo stampede and train robbery, each of them are good enough to be a highlight in separate movies. Even the songs are pleasant, particularly when they revolve around the effervescent Debbie Reynolds, while home format transfers are now finally up to a standard worthy of investment, time and cash wise.
Hard to dislike for a Western fan, and carrying enough about it to lure in the casual viewer, How the West Was Won really is a case of they don't make them like they used to. 8/10
I have not been fortunate to view this film in its original Cinerama format,
but I have seen various prints of it over the years, and have recently
watched the newly released DVD version.
Even in DVD's digital format, I can see how the color in some sections of the film has faded -- a pity, for there are vistas of incredible beauty in this film.
There are several reasons why this film works. The photography is simply breathtaking. The story is epic in proportions, yet as simple as the pioneers. Alfred Newman's score is lovely; This is the best film music that he had written since The Song of Bernadette. Ken Darby's vocal arrangements add just the right feel of authenticity to the sonic scheme. And, the actors are truly actors, not just "personalities". I absolutely fell in love with Thelma Ritter, Agnes Moorehead, Karl Malden, and Walter Brennan. These were just the "supporting" members of the cast. Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck made a great duo, James Stewart was independent, strong, yet vulnerable, and Carol Baker was sweet, if just a little conniving.
I was surprised how many times while watching the film I was moved to tears -- and not always during the sad scenes. (The scene at her father's grave when Carol Baker sends her son off to war, long after her husband has also gone, is very moving.) What was it that made me so misty-eyed? I found myself getting caught up in the lives of these pioneers, with their hopes, dreams, and disappointments, and all too human frailties.
Now for the flip side -- I must admit that I cringed when I heard Spencer Tracey's narration stating that "the west had to be won...from primitive man." It made me think about how one-sided this presentation was with regards to our treatment of Native Americans. George Peppard's character is an ally of the Native Americans, but this plot development occurs far too late to provide any kind of real balance to the story.
In the final analysis, we have a film that is not very politically correct, but is a tale told well, filmed beautifully, about people who sacrificed everything they had to pursue their dream.
I'm not a fan of westerns in particular, but this magnificent epic is an exception for me because it has all the wonderful elements of a sprawling historical epic that only Hollywood could do so wonderfully in the 50s and 60s. And yes, I embrace it for holding to a perspective that today's PC revisionists who see evil in everything associated with the rise of America as a great nation are always so quick to condemn. While this is by no means a flawless look at history, it is only those who dare to liken the American pioneers with "Nazis" as one reviewer did who end up "creating history" more than a film like this does.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was never a big fan of the West. I always figured it was some sort of ancestral thing. I mean, seriously, how interesting can Westerns be? Think of some of the key elements of the Western setting: desolate deserts; near poor living environments, unless you were rich; railroads and trains. That doesn't sound very interesting, does it? However, the West usually offers very grim and destructive characters, whose lives and actions are very captivating for audiences. The West itself is stark as an environment. The West is infamous.
How The West Was Won is a 1962 epic film about the Westward expansion that occurred in the United States in the 19th Century. It follows the Prescott family, from their humble roots in the Erie Canal, all the way to their eventual settlement in the West. The film covers many different aspects of the West. It includes historical events such as the Gold Rush in California, the Civil War, and the laying of the railroads in that part of the land. It also includes trademark icons of Western life, such as struggle with Native Americans, travelling in wagons and outlawed gangs. It is very much the quintessential experience of the West in film format.
How The West Was Won uses an interesting technique for filming called Cinerama. It is basically style of shooting a film using three cameras at the same time. It creates a very wide aspect ratio, where your peripheral vision is intended to be engulfed by on-screen content. It is sort of like a "surround vision." I unfortunately can not tell you what it is like to see the film in its intended manner. There are only supposed to be a handful of theaters that are capable of presenting it this way, and I was only able to see the Blu-Ray version of the film. On this version, you can watch it with a wrap-around effect, or the regular 2.89:1 letterbox version.
What results is a very fascinating experience. I, personally, am a huge fan of wide aspect ratio shots. Rarely do films employ such a technique. I was very, very impressed and excited by what I found in How The West Was Won. There are many shots that show an entire landscape, and most of the time there is a character or object in the center, so as to keep the focus on it. It is interesting that in real life, our vision is not as wide, but giving it such a look can paint a very pretty picture. Along with the breathtaking landscape shots, there are many shots where you see a group of people conversing in the middle, but you never lose sight of the environment around them. Giving the fact that it was originally presented with the wrap-around screen, this must have contributed greatly to ambiance. How The West Was Won is a very well shot film.
Unfortunately, it does not use these techniques all of the time. There are many scenes in the film that solely rely on the use of dialogue and story. Not only is there very little to see, but the Cinerama technology is pretty much wasted here. These scenes are usually near the middle and towards the very end of the movie. Granted, maybe there wasn't enough open air around them, but I still think that more could have been done with the three cameras in these scenes.
How The West Was Won is a very good film. Going into this, I was thinking, "oh great, another Western film, and this one is very long, this is not going to be that enjoyable." I was wrong. It is a very entertaining film. Although it is really not that long at all, it definitely feels very long. I guess that this is a compliment, so as to say that they achieved the "epic" feel that they were going for. However, by the end of it, I was feeling a little tired. But I won't count that against the film, especially since it does offer an intermission. The use of the Cinerama technology, even though it is wasted at times, is very impressive. I wish that more films used this technology. One scene that I loved, was the outro, or ending sequence. Spending what seemed like 50 years in the West, seeing the developments of people out there, only to finish it off with a modern day fly-by of San Francisco was amazing. Very good way to finish off this film and send audiences off into the world again. How The West Was Won definitely won over my attention.
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