How the West Was Won (1962) – full review!

How the West Was Won (1962) – full review!

This epic Cinerama film begins with a flyover over shot of cloud-shrouded Rocky Mountains; narration is provided by Spencer Tracy throughout to connect its disparate storyline. Debbie Reynolds is the only character that survives from beginning to end. She’s part of the Prescott family headed by Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead who ventures west after having a tough time of it farming ‘rocks’ in the east. On their journey – they make it as far as Ohio – the family encounters a rugged individualist fur trapper (James Stewart) who’s headed back to Pittsburgh to trade his wares and live it up. Oldest daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) falls for him especially after they’re both (separately) accosted by but (together) survive a band of pirates (led by Walter Brennan; Lee Van Cleef appears uncredited). When her parents die while unsuccessfully navigating the rapids of the river he realizes that he loves her enough to give up his wild-side for farming. Reynolds plays the other Prescott daughter Lily; she sings and dances all the way to San Francisco eventually. Along the way she encounters a clumsily romantic wagon-master (Robert Preston) teams up with a would-be pioneer woman (played by Thelma Ritter!) and finally falls for and marries a gambler-opportunist (Gregory Peck). The narrative includes a Civil War segment that features Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln (naturally) Henry ‘Harry’ Morgan as General Ulysses S. Grant and John Wayne as General William Tecumseh Sherman. This segment begins with George Peppard playing Eve’s oldest boy leaving home to join his father in the fight and becoming disillusioned about the ‘glory’ of war. After saving Grant from assassination by a Confederate deserter (Russ Tamblyn) Peppard’s character continues west where he encounters a mountain man-buffalo hunter that had been one of his father’s friends (Henry Fonda). Reluctantly the two become involved in helping a hard-driving Union Pacific boss (Richard Widmark) negotiate a ceasefire with the Arapaho Indians in order to allow the transcontinental railway to continue its march westward. Later after Peppard’s character has married (Carolyn Jones) and begun a family while serving as a lawman he finally meets his aunt Lily who’d travelled after her husband’s death and bankruptcy from Nob Hill to Arizona. But before settling down on their ranch he has one last score to settle with a train robber (Eli Wallach); Lee J. Cobb and Mickey Shaughnessy play a Marshal and Deputy respectively.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture it won three: Editing Sound and Writing Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen (James R. Webb his only Oscar recognition) and was added to the National Film Registry in 1997. Its Score which was also nominated appears at #25 on AFI’s Top 25 Film Scores list. It was directed by John Ford Henry Hathaway and George Marshall.

Watching it again for this updated review it’s hard to ignore the ‘strangeness’ of Cinerama’s widescreen experience. Even though the film has been significantly improved since I first saw it (the vertical lines of its three screen projection have all but disappeared completely with its remastering) on TCM years ago the ‘hokey’ camera setups that the process necessitated – which also made close-ups impossible – were very distracting to this viewer. Still many of these visually contrived sequences are stunning AND the new Dolby surround-soundtrack is quite excellent too. Plus I do highly recommend Cinerama Adventure (2002) the very informative documentary included with this movie’s Three-Disc Special & Ultimate Collector’s Editions.

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