In the wake of television cannibalizing theater attendance, maverick movie producer Merian C. Cooper pioneered a ‘revolutionary’, although not quite 'new' form of motion picture presentation he called Cinerama. This cumbersome experiment employed three synchronized 35mm projectors angled at 146 degrees on a perforated screen to create a one of a kind ‘you are there’ moving going experience for the audience.
So successful was the fledgling company’s first feature ‘This Is Cinerama’ (a plot-less travelogue released in 1952) that Cooper believed all major movie studios would be clamoring to license Cinerama for standard film making. It never happened. Within a year, 20th Century-Fox’s single strip anamorphic process – Cinemascope - became the norm. The age of Cinerama had ended even before it had officially begun.
Hence, 1962’s How The West Was Won emerges as an even greater anomaly to the footnote that was Cinerama – coming, as it did, a decade after the initial hype of Cinerama. Described as an ‘epic western’ by MGM’s marketing department, and employing no less than four of Hollywood’s alumni directorial talents (John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe), the resulting project is only one of two narrative films shot in Cinerama.
And although How The West Was Won became the highest grossing movie of its year, in retrospect it is hardly a landmark screen achievement.The story – part fact/mostly fiction – from screenwriter James R. Webb is trite, predictable and rather turgid in spots. The ensemble cast – featuring some of the finest actors of their generation – is under employed in an ever-changing cavalcade of brief cameos to tell a generational story of struggle and setback against the faux old west.Ironically, what made How The West Was Won so monumental (it’s Cinerama photography) is what dates the film today.
No conventional television monitors can reproduce the ‘you are there’ experience of Cinerama’s curved theater screen. Hence, as a home video viewer we are treated to some very skewed ‘fisheye’ perspectives, while the vertical lines that separate the three camera images create some rather interesting, unintentional effects – particularly during pans and zooms. As example: watch the buffalo stampede, where the animals appear to be running into one another on the left and right sides of the screen.
Perhaps most regrettable of all is Cinerama’s lack of close-ups on the actors. Everyone appears either in full or three quarter medium shot all the time; thus the distance between the characters on the screen and the audience is greater.
Our story begins in earnest with Zebulon (Karl Malden) and Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) Prescott and their two daughters; Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and Eve (Carroll Baker). Zeb is hell bent on settling as a farmer out west. Along the way, the clan is introduced to lone trapper, Linus Rawling (James Stewart), whose confrontation with a murderous band of cutthroats fronted by Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) almost leads to his death. Eve has her head stuck in a book of romantic fairytales. She daydreams of Linus as a rugged backwoodsman and is immediately smitten. Lilith, however, has other ideas about returning back east where culture and refinement are the order of the day.
Tragedy strikes without warning. Zeb and Rebecca perish in a white water rafting accident, leaving their daughters alone and divided. Eve marries Linus, has two sons by him and sets up house on the land where her parents are buried and Linus goes off to fight in the American Civil War.
Lilith becomes a saloon entertainer in St. Louis. She is told by her barrister (Clinton Sunburg) of a gold mine inheritance that beckons her to California. Along the route, Lilith meets Roger Morgan (Robert Preston); a wagon train foreman who falls madly in love with her. Unhappy chance for Roger that Lilith’s heart has already been swayed by no account gambler, Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). After some initial apprehensions, Cleve reforms and proposes marriage.
Following the film’s intermission, our story jumps forward by several decades. Eve’s eldest son, Zeb (George Peppard) enlisting in the Army to carry on the fight that his father began. Eve laments Zeb’s decision but allows him to go to war because his idealistic visions of a soldier’s glory cannot be swayed. However, Zeb soon learns how unglamorous war actually is. Linus is killed in action and, upon returning home at war’s end, Zeb learns that Eve has also died – presumably, of a broken heart.
With nothing left for him, Zeb leaves the farm and continues his commission, becoming the law in a lawless country. Railroad foreman, Mike King (Richard Widmark) exploits Zeb’s alliance with the Indians to assure that the Union Pacific railroad goes through. The Indians retaliate by creating a buffalo stampede through settler country and many lives are lost.
Finally, Zeb – now a married man – is united with his aged Aunt Lilith who represents the staunch, undying will and determination that, presumably, cultivated the west and made it great.What is particularly distressing about James R. Webb’s screenplay is how devil-may-care it is with each of these narrative threads; discarding character interaction by simply cutting from one plot point to the next.
For example; after Lilith and Cleve’s initially tempestuous relationship, Lilith’s free spirit is inexplicably tamed to accept his proposal of marriage just before the film's intermission. After the intermission Cleve’s character is discarded. We never see him again. We only learn that Cleve has died some forty years later as Lilith observes with bitter regret the auction of all her late husband’s assets to pay for their mounting debts.
Worse, a slew of genuinely gifted performers have been reduced to mere sound bytes in the film. John Wayne and Henry Morgan (as Generals Sherman and Ulysses Grant respectively) have four lines of dialogue in two very brief scenes. Raymond Massey is barely glimpsed in profile as President Abraham Lincoln without so much of one word to recite.
Finally, there is Spencer Tracy as our narrator; providing intrusive external bridges to the action when plot lags behind.There are many such artistic misfires in the film. But this reviewer suspects that most of these were probably overlooked by an anesthetized audience gaping in awe at the enveloping process of Cinerama. After all, who cares about narrative structure when the Rockies are towering in on all sides or the roar and hiss of locomotive steam seems to explode from all the stereo channels in the theater?
Hence, How The West Was Won is a Cinerama experience rather than a movie – its gimmicky ‘you are there’ feel compensating and/or overriding all other shortcomings. Removed from the ‘Cinerama experience’ on a flat television monitor these oversights become insurmountable and glaring - a bizarre and incongruent revisionist myth of the old west.
Predictable for the Cinerama experience, How The West Was Won concludes its lengthy overhead pan across the various landscapes of the U.S.; a dizzying array of overhead shots that challenge our equilibrium. We sail over skyscraper, dive through canyons and trace the contours of the Golden Gate Bridge. But the spectacle is diffused because our home viewing screens cannot - and do not - match the grandiose curved screens in a darkened theater properly calibrated for maximum effect.
For years, all home video versions of How The West Was Won were glaring example of Cinerama’s more prominent shortcomings. Mis-registration of the three camera negatives and obvious fading between the various film stocks exaggerated the separation between left, middle and right images. But 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 two previous lack luster incarnations on DVD, Warner Home Video seems to concur with that assessment. They have resurrected How The West Was Won in an approximation of how it must have appeared to audiences in 1962. Released simultaneously as a Blu-Ray and standard DVD, the Blu-Ray bests its standard counterpart considerably, providing a more refined visual palette with sharper colors, deeper contrast levels and a tighter image with incredible fine details.
Flesh tones appear more natural on the Blu-Ray than they do on the DVD by direct comparison. But best of all, the Blu-Ray has included a ‘smile box’ version of the film – essentially making the image concave on a flat screen to suggest what the actual Cinerama presentation must have felt like.
On smaller monitors, this ‘warping’ of the image may be distracting. On a larger monitor or projection screen the effect is rather startling, particularly during action sequences and aerial shots. With regards to the new alignment of the three panel image: apart from a few very brief moments, the vertical separation lines have been seamlessly laced together to give the illusion of a single strip of film.
The audio is DTS from the original 7-track stereo masters – delivering a startlingly aggressive spread across all channels. The biggest benefactor here is the film’s score. It soars. Dialogue continues to sound a tad strident and generally lacks in bass. Extras include a thorough audio commentary stitched together from new and vintage interviews and a comprehensive documentary on the Cinerama process – Cinerama Adventure; a fond look at those early heady days of this widescreen wonderment that is worth the price of the disc all by itself.
*Please note that How The West Was Won has also been repackaged as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ Oddly enough, no Blu-Ray SE has been released. Extras on the discs are virtually identical with only a collectible brochure and stills offered in the box set at double the price!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Blu-Ray - 5+
DVD - 4