Warner Bros. // 1962 // 164 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // September 15th, 2008
Twenty-four great stars in the mightiest adventure ever filmed!
How the West Was Won is an event film like any other, filled with a gigantic cast, an epic runtime, and a ridiculously widescreen aspect ratio. Since its release back in 1962 as part of the Cinerama theater exhibit, the film has had a rough transition from ensconcing movie experience to home video. With this latest "ultimate" release, Warner Bros. hopes to change all that.
This epic 164-minute film, which features both an overture and an intermission, follows four generations of the Prescott family as they experience all the major events in the history of the American West.
The film is broken up into five segments (The Rivers, The Plains, The Civil War, The Railroad, and The Outlaws) and was directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall.
The story begins as the Prescott family, led by their patriarch Zebulon (Karl Malden, Patton), set out along the Erie Canal to start a farm in the fertile West. From there, Zebulon's youngest daughter, Lilith, travels to California to collect on the gold rush. Meanwhile, her sister Eve must send her oldest son Zeb off to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Later, Zeb, who was once thrilled to go fight, quickly becomes disenchanted with the idea of war and deserts to go work as a lieutenant for the cavalry. His job is to keep peace between the ever-growing railroad and the local Indians. When things go awry there (Zeb doesn't have the best luck) he leaves, and we catch up with him years later as a small-town marshal. When his Aunt Lilith comes to visit, Zeb bumps into an old enemy at the train station and is forced to uphold justice, even if that means destroying an entire locomotive. It's a winding change, alright, that leads to an endless stream of cameos and narration by Spencer Tracy.
How the West Was Won was one of the first major motion pictures filmed for the Cinerama format, which used a three-camera/three-projector panorama to fill the peripheral vision of the audience. Similar to IMAX, Cinerama was a revolutionary, high-fidelity film experience born in the 1950s. Its success gave way plenty of competing widescreen formats, like Cinescope and VistaVision. For this DVD release, Warner Bros. merged the three strips of film that made up How the West Was Won into one seamless image.
Cinerama must have been an incredible experience when it first debuted back in the '50s. Today we have IMAX, and the rare instance of OMNIMAX, but it's safe to say that without the pioneers of Cinerama, we'd be stuck with traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratios and bland full-screen DVD releases. Upon its debut, Cinerama featured mainly touristy films, showing off the grandeur of America and the novelty of the projection system. After years of independent popularity, Cinerama finally got the Hollywood treatment with some big-budget feature films. One of the first was How the West Was Won, a star-studded tribute to the history of the West.
Everything about this film is epic, from the cast to the sets to the runtime, and it really must have been a sight to behold at the theaters. The cast, which boasts over 25 stars, includes Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne. This is the kind of undertaking that you'd expect to see as a television mini-series, given its episodic nature. And for as grandiose as it all seems, watching it today, I can only conclude that much of the film's greatness lies with its novelty and production values, rather than any judgment of story or direction.
On the small screen, the limitations of Cinerama become painfully apparent. Because the original system was shot with three cameras at once, to be shown on a curved screen, the framing of each scene had to rely on the center panel. This means that the bulk of the dialogue and action resides smack dab in the middle of the screen, with awkward two-shots and reverse angle cuts to create the illusion that characters are actually looking at each other (and not just blatantly into the camera). When compared to how films are normally shot, this method makes everything feel extra "stagey" and fake, the opposite of Cinerama's intentions. These issues only really occur, however, during the dialogue-heavy scenes. When there's action to be had (the film has at least one enormous action set-piece per segment), the ultra-widescreen format is a fantastic tool. And because most people who buy this standard definition release will be watching the film on a standard television set, they're going to really have to sit close to appreciate any detail in the awkwardly wide 2.89:1 aspect ratio.
Framing and visual anomalies aside, the actual storyline of How the West Was Won is more "Disney frontier history lesson" than classic Western. Each segment tries to work in its own dramatic climax and denouement before ending, and it all usually feels forced and too coincidental (Oh no, here comes the bandits! Oh no, here comes the Confederacy! Oh no, here comes the Indians! Oh no, here comes the outlaws!). When the script tries to evoke some true emotion, like in the scenes at the Battle of Shiloh, it feels like a high school social studies pageant. The film won an Academy Award for its screenplay, and perhaps it deserved it for the amount of research and history poured into this thing, but that doesn't keep the dialogue from feeling very dated and insignificant today.
This isn't to say that the actual performances of this spectacular cast are bad. Everyone in this movie is playing the sort of role they're known for: Jimmy Stewart is a rugged yet socially awkward mountain man; Gregory Peck is a slick, well-spoken gambler; John Wayne is a gruff Civil War general. The breadth and range of the cast is superb, and probably the primary reason this film is still loved today.
As I mentioned, How the West Was Won has had a rocky life in the home video market, mainly because the technology to really clean it up and present it properly wasn't available. But for this "ultimate" release, Warner Bros. has digitally blended the three-paneled film together, creating a virtually seamless picture (although there are still some blotching and coloration issues most obvious when the screen is filled with flat blue sky). The only option I would have liked to have was to be able to watch the film in a curved perspective -- just to see what it may have been like (at home, in standard def) to watch it in Cinerama. The included documentary shows the film in the curved format, and it's actually easier to watch in the documentary than it is to watch in full with the flattened format.
The sound in the film is even more impressive. Although Alfred Newman's score is a little heavy-handed, it comes in beautifully with the Dolby Digital Surround. At the time the movie was released, the Cinerama version used true hi-fi sound, utilizing something like seven speakers; this remastered edition is probably the closest home viewers will get to that experience.
Because of its length, the film has been split across two discs. This would normally be a bad thing (like with the original Goodfellas DVD that made you flip it halfway through), but since the movie naturally breaks into two halves with an intermission, it's hardly obtrusive. The only special feature on these two discs, aside from a trailer, is a feature length commentary track by a whole panel of experts on the film. The panel includes documentary filmmaker David Strohmaier (who made Cinerama Adventure on the third disc); director of Cinerama Inc., John Sittig; film historian, Rudy Behlmer; music historian John Birlingame; and stuntman Loren James. This broad group provides an incredibly detailed and thorough commentary track that sheds light on everything from the Cinerama film process to behind-the-scenes stories from the set. It's definitely worth a listen if you want to learn all you can about the film.
The third disc in the set includes the feature-length documentary Cinerama Adventure, which chronicles the entire life cycle of the format. Directed and narrated by Strohmaier, the film is an engrossing look back at how the process was invented, and the many adventures filmmakers went through to get the beautiful travel log shots of the original features. This is a great addition to the set that stresses why How the West Was Won was so important, and shows exactly how the format eventually went the way of the dodo bird.
Also included in this massive box set are two sets of glossy photos and two reproductions of promotional booklets for the film. All together, it's a very impressive package.
While I had fun watching the film, I can't help but feel that it would have been a stronger presentation if the viewer would have been given the option to watch the movie in its intended curved format. The brief glimpses of the film (contained in the documentary) in the Cinerama setting were much easier on the eyes; the visuals actually make sense, and the lens distortions and weird framing become logical. But sadly, Warner Bros. has forced this into the extremely awkward widescreen presentation, which is super thin on a standard definition television set.
How the West Was Won was a box office smash when it was first released back in 1962, and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won three. That said, I think the film is more interesting when considered for its breakthroughs in the Cinerama filming process and its overall scope. The story and dialogue, on the other hand, haven't held up, even though the performances presenting it are excellent.
Warner Bros.'s "Ultimate Collector's Edition" is another fantastic release for the studio, alongside other great box sets like Blade Runner and Dirty Harry. If you were at all a fan of this film, or interested in the Cinerama legacy, this is the box set for you.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Unknown:1 Anamorphic (2.89:1 Cinerama)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 164 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Commentary by David Strohmaier, John Sittig, Rudy Behlmer, John Burlingame, and Loren James
* Cinerama Adventure Documentary
* Cinerama Souvenir Book
* Original General Release Pressbook
* 10 color photos
* 10 black & white behind-the-scenes photos