Untimely Movie Review: How the West Was Won

As part of my flagging recommitment to this blog, I’ve dusted off my Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, which I purchased back in early 2014.  I fairly regularly provided reviews of the films in that collection, which I’ve gradually watched in chronological order.  That ended in 2017, when my job duties increased and my time devoted to this blog declined even further.

That’s changing.  I finally published the review of Ben-Hur I began almost two years ago, and, now, I move on to the next film in the set: How the West Was Won, from 1962.

With an Infinity-War-esque breadth of cast, How the West Was Won sets out to tell the ambitious tale of, well, how the American west was “won” from approximately 1840 until about 1890.  The portrayal of this half-century includes a series of segments divided by significant time jumps.

The film includes portions on westward migration via river and its dangers (circa 1840), westward migration across the plains (circa 1850), the Civil War (1861–65, obviously), the creation of a transcontinental railroad (late 1860s), and, finally, the last days of the Wild West outlaws (circa 1890).  Although there are new, critical characters introduced in each segment, the story is tied together loosely by following members of a single family across four generations.

I wasn’t kidding when I referenced the massive cast.  Although some of these actors only have a few minutes of screentime, the all-star players include Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Debbie Reynolds, Lee Van Cleef, Agnes Moorehead, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, Lee J. Cobb, Harry Morgan, Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, and a young Harry Dean Stanton.  Spencer Tracy narrates.

Aside from the scope of the story and the massive cast, two things about How the West Was Won jump out: the score and the cinematography.  There’s not much to say about the score aside from–it’s excellent.

The cinematography is a little more complicated.

Watching it in 1080p on blu-ray on a modern, 4k, widescreen television, the colors and vibrancy of the shots are incredible.  But there’s something unmistakably odd about the way the film is shot.  Specifically, the wide shots, while downright panoramic, appear to be a composite of multiple shots.

And that’s because they are.

It was a process called “Cinerama.”  Specifically, “three-strip” Cinerama.  It was designed to make movies look more breathtaking than ever before.  Three-strip Cinerama movies were shot on three different cameras and then projected onto a special, tripartite screen.

By all accounts, people who actually saw Cinerama films in person in the 50s and 60s attest to its beauty.  Unfortunately, that beauty doesn’t translate perfectly to a smaller screen.  Even with the abilities of modern technology, the best that Warner Brothers could do was to create a print that has lines of separation among the three shots that are fairly obvious at times.

This by no means ruins the film, and the wilderness settings are so beautiful that it’s a minor defect at most.  But it is a noticeable one.

The story behind Cinerama is so complex and intertwined with movie history itself that one of the special features on the How the West Was Won blu-ray is a documentary about the history of Cinerama—a documentary that is itself feature-length, clocking in at over 90 minutes.

The curious-looking visuals aside, the substance of the film is as scattershot as one would imagine, given its ambitious nature.  Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to tell the story of how the west came to be settled, but also felt the need to have a strong through-line.   That decision, while understandable, makes the storytelling a little more labored.

In hindsight, the movie may have worked better as an anthology film that included truly distinct stories representing each distinct aspects of western settlement that wound up being included in the finished movie.  Untethered from the somewhat contrived story of a single family, the film may have fared better from a plot standpoint.

As it is, we get a lot of half-developed characters who represent archetypes, offering only brief commentary on several different topics that each could have been their own films (and have been, many times, throughout history).

That’s not to say this is a bad movie.  It isn’t.  As I said, the score, cast, and scenery all make this one worthwhile.  Yet, it turns out to be a sampler platter rather than a solid meal, with more attention paid to presentation and ingredients than recipe.

It’s a worthwhile experience that’s probably a not as much a snapshot of ninteenth-century America as it is a snapshot of the early 1960s film industry.

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