DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: How The West Was Won

Sunday, 13 June 2010

How The West Was Won

How The West Was Won (1962) dir. Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall
Starring: Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, Thelma Ritter, James Stewart, Russ Tamblyn, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark and narrated by Spencer Tracy


By Greg Klymkiw

Cinerama was one of the more insane technological advancements in motion pictures during the 50s to keep butts in theatre seats rather than said butts complacently sinking into comfy living room couches in front of the idiot box.

In its original form, though, Cinerama sounds pretty spectacular.

To make the picture, three 70mm cameras were strapped together with one shutter capturing the images. Eventually, the finished project would be screened in a specially built picture palace where the images were projected by three projectors onto a massive curved screen with a 146-degree viewing field. The screen itself was a series of intricately woven cloth strips while the seven track sound was apparently a spectacular precursor to the various permutations of Dolby Digital, etc.

Most of the movies made in Cinerama were of the travelogue variety (not unlike the majority of IMAX productions), but there were two dramatic feature films made in this fashion - the most spectacular and artistically successful being the rip-roaring epic western adventure entitled "How The West Was Won".

Sadly, I never had an opportunity to see a real Cinerama presentation of anything.

However, the Cinerama corporation created a "fake" form of the process, which frankly, seemed pretty spectacular to my young eyes - especially since the first movie I saw in the "fake" format was "2001: A Space Odyssey" which unspooled at the National General Cinema chain's mighty Grant Park Cinerama in the burbs of Winnipeg. This theatre was an odd duck since between long-run screenings of blockbusters it also featured strange pornographic filler titles like the X-rated "Alice in Wonderland", "The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio" or ribald British sex comedies like "Adventures of a Taxi Driver" with Barry Evans. Eventually, this fabulous cinema was acquired by the Cineplex Corporation and carved into a bland multiplex.

In any event, the "fake" Cinerama kicked butt, but in retrospect, I still think I would have given anything to see one of the original Cinerama productions in a venue specifically designed for the original Cinerama process.

As for "How the West Was Won", my first (and subsequent) big screen helpings were in a 3000-seat picture palace with a flat screen and an optically enhanced 70mm print projected on to it.

Given the rousing, non-stop western action the picture delivered, I was more than enamoured with the results as a youngster. Sadly, many venues featured anamorphic 35mm screenings that must have paled miserably in comparison to the real thing and/or the 70mm screenings. The image is so wide and sprawling that it would have been impossible to even make out the individual characters since in the 35mm format, everyone would have looked like dots against the big scenery.

This, of course, was a problem with subsequent home viewings. Over the years I saw the film on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc and DVD and they all paled in comparison to the big screen 70mm version I'd seen as a kid. That said, the movie was as rollicking as ever - not the most sophisticated western one would ever hope to see, but still rather interesting in terms of its story structure.

Based on a series of Life Magazine photo journals about the gradual migration to and domination of the American west, the movie follows the adventures of the same family through several segments entitled "The Rivers", "The Plains", "The Civil War", "The Railroad" and "The Outlaws". In fairly hefty roles were Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Debbie Reynolds, and George Peppard, whilst the tale was narrated rather portentiously by Spencer Tracy.

Stewart plays a mountain man who falls for Debbie Reynolds's little sister and after some spectacular action sequences including a log raft gone amuck on the rapids and a violent encounter with an evil band of thieves led by Walter Brennan (mustering up his nuttiness from "The Westerner" where he played the psychotic Judge Roy Bean), drawling Jimmy settles down to a life of domesticity on a ranch. Reynolds becomes a famed dance hall singer who falls for the shady, slippery, but charming Gregory Peck, an unrepentant conman and riverboat gambler. Stewart and wife eventually sire George Peppard. Civil War strikes. Stewart perishes in battle, whilst Peppard considers deserting until he is faced with a situation where he not only becomes a hero, but stays on with the army.

After the war, Peppard becomes responsible for protecting the railroads from the Indians. He is more sympathetic to the plight of the Indians and with the help of Stewart's old mountain man buddy Henry Fonda, attempts to broker a deal between the evil railroad builder Richard Widmark and the Indians.

Peppard eventually leaves the army and becomes a law man. He is renewed with his aunt, Debbie Reynolds, marries and eventually settles for a peaceful life on a ranch Reynolds owns. Peace doesn't come easy, however, and he must first settle a score with an evil outlaw played by Eli Wallach.

Once justice is dispensed, all settle down to enjoy the prosperity and splendour of the American West.


The picture is as cliche-ridden as they come, but in spite of this, the action scenes are truly stunning and it's a lot of fun watching the huge all-star cast wander ever-westward across America. Even using three credited directors and a few uncredited helmsmen, doesn't detract from the movie's overall entertainment value.

And luckily, at home, on a high definition television with the marvels of Blu-Ray, one is finally able to experience a reasonable facsimile of what the original Cinerama must have been like. An excellent restoration of the picture elements coupled with a bonus disc in the box set that has been manipulated anamorphically with a very cool curved image, makes this a must-see for technophiles and/or western fanatics. Called a "smilebox", instead of a letterbox, it will probably never truly convey the majesty of the original Cinerama, but it gives you a terrific taste of what it must have been like and I urge everyone to take a gander at the picture in this format first.

"How The West Was Won" is available in a magnificent special edition released by Warner Home Entertainment" packed with tons of extra features and two versions of the film - one flat letterboxed version and the aforementioned smilebox version.


Alan Bacchus said...

wow, this sounds cool. The extreme widescreen version used to show up on TV now and again. The picture was so small in the 4x3 TV screen, it was so difficult to watch, including having the edges of each camera frame slightly visible. Thus, I've never seen the whole thing. This 'smile curved' version sounds interesting though.

And hell yeah, watching the original cinerama version must have been spectacular!

Greg Klymkiw said...

I can borrow to you my version to watch if you want, but I got mine at Futureshop for $10 and it is well worth owning. It would be cool if they smile boxed 2001. I saw in in the "fake" cinerama on a curved screen and that was really neat, eh.