How the West Was Won (1963)


Starring: George Peppard, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Robert Preston, Richard Widmark, Lee J. Cobb, John Wayne, Carolyn Jones, Eli Wallach, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter, Russ Tamblyn, Spencer Tracy (Narrator)

Directors: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall

Summary: Three generations of pioneers take part in the forging of the American West

Other Nominations: Original Screenplay*, Original Score, Sound Mixing*, Color Art Direction, Color Cinematography, Color Costume Design, Film Editing*


-The film looks stunning, with some of the best landscape cinematography ever put to film, the color is gorgeous, as by this time Technicolor had hit its peak, and the restored version of the movie on Blu-ray I watched looks better than it did originally in theaters-they managed to remove most of the seams inherent in the Cinerama process (except for the Railroad segment, which is still noticeable). This movie shows off everything great (70mm vs. 35MM regular widescreen, near infinite depth of field) and not so great (fisheye effect, no close ups) about Cinerama.

-The score is a classic of the epic Western style and does a good job of connecting the whole movie tonally.

-The cast list displayed above is one of the most impressive in movie history, and much better than something like The Longest Day, as almost all the people mentioned have substantial parts. As far as performances, they are good on the whole, with Reynolds and Peck being the best.


-This is a movie made up of 5 segments (Rivers, Plains, Civil War, Railroad, Outlaws) spanning 50 years from 1839-1889, all involving members of the Prescott/Rawlings family, with a number of cast members showing up in multiple segments. The segments are a mixed bag in terms of quality, with the Outlaws and Plains segments being the best (both by Hathaway), and the Civil War (Ford) and Rivers (Hathaway) being the weakest. I tend to like movies that are focused on a tight story and/or have good character development, and this is not that, so even though the ambition is there, sprawling dramas that look at tons of different characters with equal measure aren’t my favorites.

-The movie tries to be a kind of all-encompassing tale about Westward expansion, which is why it’s a negative that it’s pretty much only the story of white settlers, when there are other very significant perspectives such as those of the Native Americans and the Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroads. The Railroad segment does at least paint a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans, but for the most part, their story is ignored; there’s nothing whatsoever about the immigrants.

Other Stuff

-For those who don’t know, Cinerama was basically the 1960s version of IMAX: a superwide, curved screen that showed a movie using three simultaneously-running projectors that displayed three parts of a single image. Despite its obvious advantages (a huge picture with incredible detail), it had some obvious major problems: the cameras were extremely heavy, the process was expensive, the picture was so big it was difficult to place microphones or keep crew out of the image, it was difficult to have good acting between multiple people because of how the blocking needed to be done with a 3-camera system with a curved screen, that all the projectors had to be perfectly synchronized in the theater and the ever-present seam between the 3 images. For all these reasons, most Cinerama movies were travelogues and there were only two narrative features made using the process: this one, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). There are actually still three theaters that can and do show prints of these films in three-camera Cinerama: the Seattle Cinerama, the Cinerama Dome in LA and the Pictureville Cinerama in Bradford, England.


The main attractions are watching a movie in Cinerama with its incredible landscape cinematography, along with a great score and a phenomenal cast. Beyond that, there’s some substance beyond the spectacle, but the story is episodic and not a real strength.

Rating: B-


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