Fritz Lang in Contempt said that widescreen was "good for snakes and funerals." If he had seen How the West Was Won, I wonder if he would've added horses, bison, rivers and trains. This was one of those grand spectacular feats of Hollywood at a time when, frankly, they had to find ways to lure Americans from their TV sets. Though widescreen epics were nothing new, nor 70mm, this was CINERAMA, a special process where the filmmakers shot on a camera that had three lenses (!) back to back attached. This, too, wasn't necessarily a wholly original innovation; Abel Gance beat them to the punch in a way with his 1927 Napoleon film, though he had to just have three cameras put side by side for his panoramic battle scenes. With the Cinerama camera, it was all, at least meant to give the impression in one negative, though spliced in three parts, so there were two divider lines (or, in technical speak, an aspect ratio of 2:5:1, as opposed to 2:35:1, for most widescreen today).
These weren't all that noticeable for audiences at the specially outfitted 70MM Cinerama viewings, with the special projectors, but for people viewing the film in regular ol' 35mm - or, for that matter, for the past several years on VHS and DVD - the image was distorted. Now on blu-ray, it comes in two versions, one with a (I'd say) 97% corrected widescreen version and one that is a kind of special 'Curved' edition like in the Cinerama screens, which is meant for curved HD tvs. I watched the former, and I can see first and foremost how the filmmakers certainly went all out with the locations and scope of what they had. But in any version, it is still a movie, and I have to watch what the movie has to offer as a story.
What How the West Was One is, well, kind of a proto-Pulp-Fiction, you could say, or more apt as a comparison is Cloud Atlas: multiple stories, which are all one story loosely inter-connected. Here, led by Spencer Tracy's transitional narrations, we see how people came from the East to find their place out West - white people, of course, as the Native American tribesmen are depicted as, more or less, a threat if not outright villains. The segments are broken up into an anthology film with three directors: Henry Hathaway has the first two and the last segment, about "The Rivers" (James Stewart as a trapper coming across Karl Malden and his family, with one of his daughters I think taking an immediate fancy to him), "The Plains" (Debbie Reynolds going across country for gold, Gregory Peck trying to woo her, and then come the Indians), and "The Outlaws" (Lee J. Cobb and Eli Wallach, enough said); John Ford does The Civil War; George Marshall does a segment on the Railroad.
Why is this such a mixed bag? There are some truly spectacular, magnificently-stage set pieces here. When the family in The Rivers segment is on the river of the title, and on a rickety raft that may or may not last on the rapids, it's suspenseful and, despite the process-studio shots mixed obviously with stunt-people on the actual river, has some impact and build up. When the bison come roaring through in The Railroad segment, driven by the Natives to send a message (if not stomp out) the railroading-cheating-whites, it's staggering to see and wonder how the director got those shots without destroying the camera.
And Hathaway makes up for some competent but kind of standard direction with a climactic gunfight on a train. And the film is populated by so many, many stars, some of them quite good here: Henry Fonda, Stewart, Cobb, Wallach, even practical walk-ons like Walter Brennan, Thelma Ritter, Agnes Moorehead, Lee van Cleef, and a rather brief but approximately gruff John Wayne help make this memorable. If it had Clint Eastwood and Lee Marven it could be dipped in gold and put in a museum somewhere, and I mean that as a compliment.
But some of the writing here is so bad. In the Rivers segment, Stewart's fur-trapping (?) mountain man is just immediately seen as *the* guy for one of the women, and it seems to come out of nowhere, with the dialog between them just awful; I felt bad for Stewart having to also go through the motions in what is a plot twist that seems really ridiculous and non-sensical regarding an injury (how does he come back from that, what). Peck also has a fairly one-dimensional character, but he tries to do what he can with it. Not so lucky is Richard Widmark, who is all but missing his mustache - co-opted, no doubt, but Fonda - for a villainout railroad man who says one of those statements after the bison scene that made me almost want to turn off the movie. For every time an actor comes up that does bring something, another comes along and brings things down to a level that feels like it should, ironically, be meant for television.
|Henry Fonda - in 70MM, for a limited time only, folks.|
Hence why I mention that Hathaway is the epitome of the quality being in a wide range; in the opening segment he seems to be trying to find his footing, while by the end he is sure-footed, masking scenes between Cobb and George Peppard and others with Wallach feel grounded and simple in a good way, and that climax really powerful. Ford, meanwhile, makes his Civil War scenes really lovely and one (brief) battle perhaps the highlight of the picture. But it's not enough there, despite a very loose and (for me) unnecessary connection with the rest of the film - had it been its own movie, I could see it as one of the towering Ford Westerns, which is saying a lot.
Oh, and it's dated, in a lot of ways. Some of those are charming, some not. So with How the West is Won, it's a true product of its time circa 1962/1963, right when these epics were appealing (or trying to) for audiences just fine with Gunsmoke or The Virginian, and certainly giving eye-candy a run for its money. If it only had what all movies need uniformly in the script.