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Hollywood is all about gimmicks. Whether its 3D, sound or computer graphics, if Hollywood can put a great slogan together, producers can sell it. During the 1950s, the gimmicks were out in force to keep the audience going to the theaters. This was the time of Cinemascope, Todd-AO, Panavision and something really wild called Cinerama. It was a process that involved three projectors showing three different films that, when put together, would envelop an audience in 146 degrees of wowing scenery. Although invented in the 1950s, it wasn't until the early 1960s that it was decided that it would be used for conventional films.
The process was used to make the Western How The West Was Won in 1963. A three-time Oscar-winner, the film was directed by three veterans of the genre and starred the ultimate cast of Western icons from John Wayne to James Stewart.
How The West Was Won chronicles the journey of the Prescotts from the East to the still developing West during the 19th century. The family starts with Zebulon (Karl Malden), his wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorhead) and their children Eve (Caroll Baker) and Lilith (Debbie Reynolds). Early on in the journey, their parents die and Eve marries Linus Rawlings (Stewart) and settles down. Lilith continues her journey, using her singing talents to get a job and winds up meeting gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), who she winds up with.
But the journey doesn't end there (if it did, we could go home before the intermission). Eve's son, Zeb (George Peppard) fights in the Civil War and later becomes a major figure in the fight to tame the West. During his journeys, he meets Jethro Stewart (Henry Fonda), a friend of his father.
How The West Was Won took three directors to complete. John Ford worked on the painfully short Civil War sequence, while George Marshall helmed the Railroad sequence. The remaining sequences were all directed by Henry Hathaway. Like Ford, Hathaway was a workhorse and had been in films since the silent days. Hathaway had a really eclectic career, probably even more so than Ford. While he did make Westerns, my personal favorite of his is the revolutionary noir Call Northside 777.
With this film though, Hathaway really can't do much. Hathaway, Ford and Marshall had to learn how to use this Cinerama camera – something they all knew they'd only use once – as they were making the movie, so whatever they'd done in the past four decades gets thrown out the window. Close-ups are literally nonexistent and shots with actors talking to each other often have large spaces of nothing in the middle. That's why this film is at its best during the action scenes, particularly the buffalo stampede.
The Cinerama camera not only hinders the directors from doing their best, but it hurts the actors as well. While there is no single lead actor in a traditional sense, each sequence is dominated by one actor and the only one that really seems to love the Cinerama camera is Debbie Reynolds. She proves that this tool would have been great for a musical. Everyone else just seems to go through the motions and filling out roles. The idea that John Wayne – the ultimate Western icon – only gets a few moments on screen as Gen. Sherman feels like an insult. And I'll never believe in Beakfast at Tiffany's star George Peppard as a Western hero who can shoot down Eli Wallach.
If there is one other aspect that rise above the fray is Alfred Newman's lush, beautiful score. Even though this film doesn't count among the nine that won him Oscars, this is one of best.
In the end, How The West Was Won never seems to rise above an experiment with a technology that would rarely be used again. Vera Cruz writer James R. Webb's story of the Prescott family is too thin to be stretched to 160 minutes and the scenery does overwhelm the story because of that. It's not the Western classic that it could have been, despite all the talent involved.
The film earned Oscars for Best Original Screenplay (not sure how that happened...), Best Sound and Best Film Editing. It was nominated for five more awards, including Best Picture, Color Cinematography and Score.
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