As big as all creation and twice as inspiring in its original curved Cinerama presentation, at 164 minutes, How The West Was Won (1962) remains a fascinating anomaly; one of only two plot-driven films expressly designed to encompass the vast expanses of Cinerama’s cumbersome – and unintentionally obvious – three camera setup. At the time, it seemed only MGM, a studio that, in its heyday went for broke on nearly every new challenge, had the audacity to take one of the most speculative and unwieldy technologies and endeavor to tell no less an ambitious saga with it than the vast American migration westward-ho; hiring four high-profile directors (at least in their day) to helm a staggering array of 24 stars. Perhaps, only in hindsight does the endeavor creak a little too ominously like the rickety horse-drawn buggies and covered wagons crossing these great plains, directed at intervals in How The West Was Won by the legendary John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe; all solid, stalwarts, alas, unaccustomed to the demands of this new medium. How The West Was Won is really two-parts, star-studded faux history to one-part picturesque travelogue; only the latter pursuit ideally suited to Cinerama’s strengths.
In hindsight, it is the awkwardness of the process that remains at the forefront of this monumental and often breathtaking excursion – Cinerama’s inability to satisfy the audience’s need for an occasional close-up of its glittering roster of talent, the warping of vertical objects to the extreme left and right of center, and, the incalculable vastness of these wide-open spaces, dramatically put on display ‘measure for measure’ to satisfy the human periphery of natural sight, cause for a handful of less than dramatically satisfying moments. Mercifully, James R. Webb’s screenplay – based on his own series of LIFE magazine articles – interpolates the hysterical dramatics and multiple romantic threads intertwined throughout, with more than a fair share of exhilarating action sequences, for which Cinerama is chiefly adept; a superbly staged battle between George Peppard’s Zeb Rawlings and a gaggle of desperadoes aboard a runaway train, and better still, an earth – and ear-shattering buffalo stampede, lensed via a series of heart-pounding long shots, all show off the Cinerama process to its best advantage while keeping the sporadically stagnant plot moving in a forward direction.
How The West Was Won is never a bad movie. On occasion, it aspires to become rather a good one. But on the whole it remains episodic and utterly devoted to extolling the virtues of Cinerama; the stars cleverly arranged in center frame, or artificially fitted across a static tableau as animated waxworks trapped inside a copy of an original by Frederick Remington; halcyon sunsets, Gatlin guns, ten gallons, and garters all appropriately glistening in the early morning dew or lightly battered in a dusky, if respectable layer of well-traveled dust. As How The West Was Won is a byproduct of Hollywood’s then expiring studio system, its’ visions about the ‘civilizing’ of the American west are highly sanitized and remarkably pristine. The good guys all sport a sort of unfettered Roy Rogers’ cleanliness, despite enduring wild animal and Indian attacks, a harrowing trek down some truly vicious white-water rapids, an assault by some lusty river pirates, and, the staggeringly bleak nomadic journey from outpost to outpost in search of their own piece of the manifest destiny.
The first half of How The West Was Won follows the ill-witted migration of the Prescott family; God-fearing Quaker, Zebulon (Karl Malden), his pert wife, Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) and their three children; eldest, book-read daughter, Eve (Carol Baker), feisty, Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and their youngest, nondescript son, Sam (Kim Charney). Along the road they befriend an unusually cultured fur trapper, Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart – just a wee too long in the tooth to play the amiable love interest). Fate deals a brutal hand to the Prescott clan; Zeb and Rebecca lost after the family’s raft is hellishly destroyed in some wicked white water rapids. While Eve vows to plant her roots in this cold, but fertile land where her parents’ remains have only just been buried, later establishing a semi-prosperous homestead; Lilith strikes out on an ambitious trek across the wilderness to discover and test the depth, strength and merits of her own mettle. On this journey she befriends an aged spinster, Agetha Clegg (the irrepressible, but woefully underused Thelma Ritter) and garners more than passing interests from two men; Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), a no-account riverboat dandy and notorious gambler; the other, wagon-train master, Roger Morgan (Robert Preston), who perhaps has Lilith’s better intentions at heart. It really doesn’t matter because Peck is the bigger star herein, and since the second act of this sprawling epic is already shaping up to belong to Debbie Reynolds, Peck’s card shark – newly reformed, no less – inevitably gets the girl.
It all might have turned out rather swell, except the producers of this grandiloquent odyssey cannot resist the urge to depart from these established characters, interceding with bits of unnecessary ‘history’ that is neither true to history itself, but has the audacity to pretend in its place, merely to offer a few more familiar faces their momentary glimpse in this passing parade. In Acts II and III, How The West Was Won begins to take on the vagrant flavoring of Michael Todd’s Around The World In Eighty Days (1956), though minus Todd’s showmanship to pull it off. Hence, Raymond Massey peaks his head into the camera for the obligatory non-verbal debut of Abraham Lincoln; John Wayne too, as the marginally better served Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; the affairs of a burgeoning union in these United States intermittently narrated by an off-camera Spencer Tracy, who sounds more as though he has only just opened to Chapter One of any number of high school history text books rewritten with the pontificating prose of a James Hilton. For added star cache, though given precious little to do, we also discover Henry Fonda astride a steed as Jethro Stuart, a careworn negotiator between the white man and the Cheyenne natives, and, Richard Widmark, doing his best to be the baddie as the caustic railroad overseer, Mike King. While the first half of How The West Was Won plays very much like an intimate familial drama headed somewhere, the picture’s second act stumbles through a very episodic patchwork of clumsily stitched together history, picking up mere remnants of the Prescott family saga with varying degrees of success.
It is, as example, more than a little disheartening to lose two of the pictures’ biggest stars, James Stewart and Gregory Peck in this second half – and off camera, no less. We learn from Eve, now appropriately aged and withered with time, how Linus went off to partake in the Civil War and fell in battle. Life on the ole homestead has been rough and lonely ever since. But only a few scenes later, Carol Baker’s Eve is given the same short shrift when, after a period of some months her eldest son, Zeb (George Peppard) returns from war, only to learn from his younger sibling, Jerimiah (Claude Johnson) their mother has since died, presumably, of a broken heart. The narrative shifts now to Zeb and his family, and the threat of annihilation from a lusty desperado, Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). I suspect the genuine motivation in these latter-day episodes is to illustrate how the west really wasn’t ‘won’, but rather, belabored over through a varied and devastating series of generational heartaches and unforgivable losses that can wear any man down; smoothing off the rougher edges as sure as pebbles caught in a stream. Surviving a perilous confrontation with Gant, Zeb takes his wife, Julie (Carolyn Jones) and their two young sons, Zeke (Bryan Russell) and Prescott (Stanley Livingston), to meet their dowager Aunt Lilith, who has agreed to come live with them after Cleve’s death and the auctioning off of their San Franciscan estate and holdings. It seems, in the interim, Cleve managed to make Lilith a very rich woman.
Unable to resist showing off the advantages of Cinerama one last time, How The West Was Won concludes not with the dramatic pullback, as the carriage with Zeb, his family and Aunt Lilith drives off into Monument Valley toward an uncertain future - the family bound by the imperishable generational bond of genuine love - but a series of dramatic overhead shots depicting then modern-day California; the promises made in the ‘go west, young man’ mantra presumably fulfilled in this dizzying array of omnipotent flybys over the Los Angeles freeway, sailing over rooftops in a congested San Franciscan skyline, zipping past irrigated orange groves, or effortlessly looming over the precipice of the Hoover Dam. It all makes for a lovely travelogue, set to composer, Alfred Newman’s penetrating reprise of the Main Title, now, complete with choral accompaniment, and, recorded in Cinerama’s staggeringly life-like 7-track Westrex stereo; its’ aural fidelity – at least, to my mind – never topped in the movies, even by today’s Dolby DTS.
If anything, How The West Was Won unintentionally illustrates the reasons why Cinerama never had much of a future as a viable widescreen process for telling narrative stories; its forte – the globe-trotting travelogue – doomed to a short shelf life; ditto for the specially built, ‘state-of-the-art’ theaters to accommodate its unique presentation requirements: the louvered and curved movie screens. How The West Was Won is a lot of fun to watch, but mostly as an anomaly and homage to this bygone format, rather than a compelling, plot-driven drama/actioner. The roster of talent assembled for this spectacle is uniformly solid, expertly cast and generally giving it their all. The best moments arguably belong to Debbie Reynolds and Carol Baker; the Prescott sisters, carrying most of the weight of the plot until late in the second act when each is inexplicably tossed aside to favor young Zeb and his burgeoning familial woes. The production values afforded art directors George W. Davis, William Ferrari, and, Addison Hehr are decidedly first-rate; cast and crew crossing the wide Missouri several times - and then some - as production migrated from California, to Arizona, Kentucky, South Dakota, Oregon, Colorado and Utah; all of it lensed in Technicolor resplendence, and, with miraculous continuity by cinematographers, William H. Daniels, Milton R. Krasner, Charles Lang, and, Joseph LaShelle.
World-renown newsman/adventurer, Lowell Thomas – who had not only served as MC on the very first Cinerama feature: This is Cinerama (1952) (the headily anticipated experimental foray into this ‘new’ form of exhibition that would briefly spawn a movie-going renaissance) and also held controlling stock in the brain trust behind it, even in 1952, correctly pegged Cinerama as a ‘gimmick’; like 3D, just another ploy to counterbalance and/or stave off the insidious panic-stricken animosity inculcated inside the front offices of Hollywood’s movie-making empires by TV – that new-fangled gadget effectively cutting theater attendance by nearly half in just three short years; from 90 million paid admissions in 1949 to barely 56 million in 1952. Placed in its proper context, Cinerama can rightly be judged as the forerunner in the widescreen war that would overtake the industry the following year with Darryl F. Zanuck’s inauguration of Cinemascope; an infinitely more manageable single-lens anamorphic process. But by 1962, Cinerama’s initial impact had inevitably cooled, enough to suggest it had no lasting future. So, why did MGM, already foundering badly by the early sixties, think Cinerama as their best salvation?
Lest we forget neither Cinerama nor Cinemascope were ‘new’ to the 1950’s. No, that honor goes to French director, Abel Gance, who beat producer, Merian C. Cooper and Fred Waller’s invention by nearly twenty years with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its penultimate battle sequence, breathtakingly expanded the conventional 1.33:1 movie image into a three camera projection for the epically staged deluge at Waterloo. For those unwilling to concede as much, we can neither dismiss nor ignore American impresario, William Fox’s even more ambitious Grandeur widescreen process, first launched with 1930’s The Big Trail - a 70mm precursor some thirty years ahead of its time that equally failed to catch on. So Cinerama did not embark on a quantum evolutionary step into the unknown. Nor was it to attain the longevity of newer/arguably, better widescreen wonders already looming large on the horizon: Cinemascope, Todd A-O, VistaVision, Technirama, Dimension-150 and, Super Panavision-70; all better suited than Cinerama to tell a compelling drama like How The West Was Won.
Besides, the Cinerama system had serious drawbacks, not the least of which was its frequent inability to properly align all three projected panels, thereby making the seams between the center and side panels more obvious. Also, if one of the reels should suffer a break, corresponding frames needed to be cut from the other two reels to preserve synchronization. Cinerama also tested the patience of both How The West Was Won’s stars and directors; co-star, Stanley Livingston recalling “…to get anything that even resembled a close-up meant you were no more than two feet away from the camera, which is bizarre. It needed to be right in your face to get a close-up.” In close-up another anomaly emerged; a noticeable bending-in of any horizontal information too close to the seams, resulting in some oddly twisted tree branches in more than a handful of outdoor scene, and, curtains on a window that appear to meet in the middle directly behind Debbie Reynolds as she performs one of her songs. Reynolds would later recall, “Any conversation I had with my co-stars was purely coincidental; the camera was always between you and the other person. Half the time you had to stare at this mark they placed just out of camera range and pretend it was the other person. You had to act like the camera wasn’t there, but it was sometimes the only thing you saw.” Also, zoom lenses were impossible. But perhaps the greatest limitation was something later referenced as Cinerama’s ‘sweet spot’, a sort of midrange-long shot from which all action viewed through the three bug-eyed lenses appeared as accurately represented. Deviating even slightly from this optimal setup or placing foreground action caused portions of the image to suddenly appear distorted; perhaps nowhere more egregiously on display in How The West Was Won, than during the stampede, where buffalo appear to be running into one another as they slip past the seams that link the side panels to the center image.
The impact a theatrical exhibition of Cinerama had on audiences in its heyday cannot be overstated, and, viewed in its proper mode of projection inside an equipped movie palace, I have no doubt as to why reviews of the day hailed How The West Was Won as a landmark achievement, not the least for its ability to overcome a good deal of the aforementioned shortcomings while simultaneously managing – against great technological disadvantages – to offer audiences conventional storytelling utilizing a highly unconventional format. Alas, there is no way to replicate this Cinerama experience in all its 360 degree enveloping splendor in the privacy of one’s living room. Flattening the image into three perfectly aligned panels creates a very thin ‘letterboxed’ image best viewed on TV screens 85 inches or greater. But it also severely distorts the geometry of the original presentation; actors walking from left to right, now appearing to unnecessarily approach the camera at a discombobulating or even equilibrium-altering angle, only to move away at the same angle as the process is repeated on the other side of the screen.
To be fair, Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly made it unique among its rivals; Cinerama’s louvered screen, as example, comprised of horizontal chords meticulously angled and greatly improving the overall luminosity and clarity of the image being projected onto them. So too did Cinerama give audiences their first real taste of eight-track directionalized stereophonic sound. Walt Disney had toyed with the concept of true stereo, all the way back to 1940’s Fantasia. But it was Cinerama that fulfilled the prophecy of true stereo with an uncanny and superior richness in overall fidelity, unheard in movies before its inauguration and arguably, never again with such razor-sharp vibrancy. Even so, How The West Was Won emerges as an even more perplexed anomaly to the footnote of Cinerama – coming, as it did, an entire decade after the initial hype of This is Cinerama had ostensibly cooled. Billed as an ‘epic western’ by MGM’s marketing department, How The West Was Won would go on to become the highest grossing movie of 1963; no small feat as it inevitably played in fewer venues equipped to handle Cinerama, and, more proof positive Cinerama’s novelty had not entirely faded away with the ticket-paying public.
For years, all home video versions of How The West Was Won were little more than a glaring reminder of Cinerama’s more prominent shortcomings: mis-registration of the three-camera negatives and obvious fading between the various film stocks, grotesquely exaggerated by the separation seams between left, middle and right panels. However, in 1997, the Library of Congress declared How The West Was Won a culturally, historically and aesthetically significant film worthy of preservation. And now, after decades of neglect, and two thoroughly lackluster incarnations on DVD, Warner Home Video seems to have concurred with this assessment, resurrecting How The West Was Won in a definitive – and very expensive reboot/nee, approximation of how the movie must have appeared to audiences in 1962. This Blu-ray release is decidedly cause for celebration on a number of levels. First, it offers two viewing options: either in a standard reassembly of the three panels, projected flat across the screen, with all the dirt, debris, scratches, and yes – even the seams between each panel – digitally removed, thus creating a superior visual presentation for the very first time – or, in the rechristened ‘Smilebox’ format; the image artificially bent from left to right to recreate the curvature of the Cinerama screen within the conventional framing of a flat TV screen. I confess, seated more closely to my TV screen and in a completely darkened room, the ‘Smilebox’ rendering of How The West Was Won gave me a fairly accurate approximation of the Cinerama experience. Now, having seen How The West Was Won back in the mid-1990’s in a real Cinerama venue, I should point out, for anyone else who has had this good fortune, prepare to be both disappointed, and yet very pleasantly surprised by how good this faux recreation looks.
The pluses on this Blu-ray are worth noting: exceptional color reproduction and a level of clarity unseen since How The West Was Won had its world premiere. The image is robust, with eye-popping hues and copious amounts of fine detail burgeoning from all corners of the newly expanded and restore frame. Warner Home Video has done a thoroughly outstanding job on resurrecting the Cinerama experience for home theater viewing. Again, it is still an approximation with no real counterpart to an actual Cinerama screening; but with the added bonuses of having the wobble and jitter of real Cinerama completely removed and the seams between the center and side panels ostensibly expunged. Contrast is superb. Film grain is accurately represented. The image is crisp without appearing to have sustained any undue artificial sharpening. Better still; the newly remastered 5.1 DTS audio recreates much of the exhilaration of the original 7-track stereo. If you have never experienced Cinerama audio before, this disc will thoroughly satisfy and surprise you. Extras include a superb audio commentary stitched together from new and vintage interviews with surviving cast and crew. We also get the comprehensive documentary, Cinerama Adventure; a fond look at those early heady days of this widescreen wonderment, and easily worth the price of admission by itself. A point to consider: the commentary is only available on the standard version. The ‘Smilebox’ version is barebones – only chapter stops. Bottom line: How The West Was Won may not be superior in its storytelling, but in its present-day reincarnation on home video, it remains an elegant, overblown and infectiously alluring ‘gimmick’ not to be missed. This one belongs on everyone’s top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)