BluRay/DVD Reviews

HOW THE WEST WAS WON

By • Nov 9th, 2008 •

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Once upon a time–well, 1956, to be specific–in another century and an America which now seems to have more in common with the land of Oz, I was taken to see SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD, a documentary in a new process called Cinerama. The theatre, the Eckel, a fairly small art house of 590 seats in downtown Syracuse, had a kind of screen I had never seen before. It curved round the audience, with little projection booths on either side that looked like the tops of minarets. (I remember being taken on a tour of those booths, which were only accessible by a tunnel that went around the orchestra and behind the screen. Naturally, being a child, for me it had the air of something magical, reinforced by the sleek, silver projectors.)

The process, I later learned, was made from three separate strips of 35mm film, shot simultaneously and then projected together, creating an illusion of depth and you-are-thereness. The movie itself was a glorified travelogue, with Lowell Thomas’ booming voice getting in the way of the pleasure of the photography. Even at the age of six, I didn’t find things all that interesting. That is, until a scene where one took on the point of view of an airplane flying into an active volcano. I was swept into the action, feeling a sense of vertigo from the curved screen. As the smoking crater sparked and fumed, I was even fearful the plane would burst into flames. For the next week, that scene was the talk of my first grade class. (From the documentary CINERAMA ADVENTURE included in the HTWWW set, one learns that, due to the lack of oxygen in the smoking crater, the propellers stopped working, and the pilot, Paul Mantz, barely managed to guide the plane over the crater’s edge and away from a fiery demise.)

Now Warner Home Video has given us a new digital restoration of the second of two narrative features shot in three-strip Cinerama in the early 60’s, HOW THE WEST WAS WON. (The first, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, which I snuck out of synagogue on Yom Kippur to see, fearful of being condemned forever to a baleful existence, is apparently in such bad shape it will be a long time before a decent version is available.)

While not a personal work like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA that uses epic form to bring out the intimate aspects of personality and history, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, for most of its running time, is an action-packed super-western with serious aspirations, focusing on how that which we call America came to be made, as well as on our identity as a nation. Somehow the scale of the thing makes all the difference, especially the use of landscape, shot in national parks and remarkably composed, with sky and clouds in supreme harmony. As in the Hudson River School painters’ evocation of the American sublime, HOW THE WEST WAS WON is in many ways equally sublime and involving. While still a somewhat ungainly cross between a travelogue and a historical documentary, the film has terrific star performances, a generally literate script by James R. Webb, and some of the most graceful second unit and stunt work in Hollywood cinema, including a stunning train robbery that trumps, and may also have been the model for, the scene in Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH.

Although HOW THE WEST WAS WON has been on home video before, previous releases have had wavy yellow stripes at strategic sections of the frame, turning the movie into a piece of pop art. Warner’s electronic genies have erased the lines between the separate pieces of film, forming one very wide panoramic image (roughly 2:89:1) of extraordinary definition that will dazzle your eyes, especially if you have a widescreen tv. Although produced by MGM, HOW THE WEST WAS WON was filmed in Technicolor rather than Metrocolor, and the difference really shows. There’s very little grain and no strange and dissonant hues, as in the recent DVD re-issue of GIGI, for instance.

The set is available in both standard DVD and Blu-ray. Over the past few weeks, critics have been treating the standard DVD set as if it were an Edsel. (In case you’re younger than me, the Edsel was a car made by Ford in the 50’s that nobody bought.) A matte, which approximates the curved Cinerama screen, known as a smilebox, is available only on Blu-ray, which has generated most of the acclaim. (I’ll discuss my view on the smilebox later. You should know, however, that there are segments in smilebox on the accompanying documentary which is in both formats, including the major set pieces from HOW THE WEST WAS WON.)

I have the standard set, and I really like it. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful transfers of a widescreen epic I’ve seen on DVD, far superior, for instance, to BEN HUR, and only slightly less dazzling, because of minor problems in the original elements, than RYAN’S DAUGHTER. The colors pop, the resolution is superb, reaching almost three-dimensional aspects, and the sound is spectacular, issuing from the surrounds with such audacity it’s hard to believe the tracks were recorded 46 years ago.

In 1960, Life magazine published a series of five articles under the rubric “How the West was Won.” It blended eye-witness accounts with 20th Century-styled reportage (augmented by early photographs and prints) to create a visceral sense of individuals risking their lives to forge a new country. My parents subscribed to Life, and I remember reading these articles with a thrilling sense of identification and marvel. For the first time, I had a sense of the actual individuals involved in the taming of the West. Rough voices and determined faces rose out of the glossy pages against a seemingly infinite vista of forests, mountains and plains.

The film has kept the structure of the magazine series, breaking the story into five sections: “The Rivers”, “The Plains”, “The Civil War”, “The Railroad” and “The Outlaws.” Rather than a wide-ranging narrative of discordant, larger-than life frontiersmen (as in the magazine), the film follows the fortunes of one family, the Prescotts; Zebulon (Karl Malden), Rebecca (Agnes Moorhead) and their two daughters, Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and Eve (Carroll Baker), trading the familiarity of star personas for the specificity of actual people.

Even before the film begins, one is entranced by the overture, a collaboration between composer Alfred Newman and Ken Darby, a choral arranger who worked mostly at Fox in the fifties. They have taken a theme rich in romantic nuance, and incorporated it with a chorus singing American folk songs, imparting a feeling of space and lost time, not to mention a sense of individual struggle. As the overture progresses, the sounds of voices shifts from the right to left surround speaker, giving one the feeling of western expansion and exploration. In the sounds Alfred Newman has set forth, one can imagine the great plains, the Mississippi, and the majesty of the Rockies. The film itself opens with the camera moving across that very mountain range, the wide angle lens sweeping a viewer into the storyline.

“The Rivers” is mostly concerned with trapper Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart), a man who, as narrator Spencer Tracy tells it, “drifted free as the clouds…moccasined feet and unshod horse leaving no trace on the land.” Henry Hathaway directed most of the film, including “The Rivers”, and while this pales in comparison to John Ford’s contribution, there’s much beauty here, leavened with humor and subtle pacing. Linus, camping for the night along the Ohio river, meets the Prescotts and takes a shine to young Eve, setting in motion a plot that, by means of their son Zeb (George Peppard), will take us through the Civil War, the Indian wars and up to the edge of the 20th Century.

Jimmy Stewart is impossible not to like, but his affability and charm distorts the believability of “The Rivers”, turning what appears to be fairly serious story with unusual characters into a frontier screwball comedy. (“You’re a strong-minded woman Eve”, Linus says repeatedly.) When death and sacrifice do happen, this seems to come from left field. While Carroll Baker gives Eve complexity, Jimmy Stewart plays Jimmy Stewart, an ‘aw shucks’ kind of guy who clearly wouldn’t last more than a night in the wilderness, creating a clash of styles. Hathaway’s direction is really interesting and generally atypical here, using the untrammeled forests and river as a mirror of the emotions that are taking place within the characters. There’s a sense of people in these virgin forests as an alien presence, overwhelmed by the silence and scale. Unfortunately, the thrill-ride aspect of Cinerama takes over too often in this episode, savaging what is generally a fresh and engaging look at a fairly unexplored aspect of American history. (Rating; ***)

“The Plains”, though entertaining, is the weakest episode of the film, concerning Lilith’s wooing by a bankrupt gambler (a miscast Gregory Peck) during a wagon train beset by savage Indians. We know what’s going to happen long before the characters do. Here shots of arrows flying into the camera and wagons skittering down a mountainside are welcome diversions from a plot that was a staple of B Westerns long before this film was made. In addition to the spectacular action sequences, Thelma Ritter is on hand to keep one from dozing off, in a sagebrush version of the Gal Friday role she played in 1951’s ALL ABOUT EVE. Ms. Reynolds, cast as a lusty saloon singer, unfortunately seems to be doing an impersonation of Doris Day after, in Oscar Levant’s immortal words, “she became a virgin.” The film’s vision of typical saloon entertainment makes the Trapp Family Singers look risque. (Rating: **1/2)

After the intermission, the film jumps twenty years to follow the next generation of Prescotts as personified in Eve’s son, Zeb. In Zeb Rawlings the film’s makers have found a coming of age story that parallels the country’s own, moving from innocence to experience across a background of civil war and westward expansion. As Zeb, George Peppard brings a subtle presence as well as an inviting freshness, similar to his work in Vincente Minnelli’s HOME FROM THE HILL (1960).

“The Civil War” is a fifteen-minute episode directed by John Ford that’s probably the director’s last great moment on film. It’s set mostly during the battle of Shiloh in the evening of April 6, 1862, where thousands of young men were slaughtered in the elusive attempt to gain a foothold in an ever-shifting battleground. Zeb, unaware his father Linus is dying a few yards away, strikes up a friendship with a Confederate deserter played by Russ Tamblyn. This scene, strangely naturalistic considering the carnage both have just witnessed, evokes the intimacy and small-scale poetry found in Hart Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Ford, attempting to overcome the handicap of the curved screen, uses stationary set-ups of spare war-torn imagery that penetrate ever deeper into fog-laden, illusionistic space. Also featuring a surprisingly subtle and almost kabuki-like John Wayne as General Tecumseh Sherman, Ford encapsulates a lifetime of direction into shots of such depth and austerity, this segment is a must for all fans of the director.

“The Civil War” also has the gravity, the monumentality and the simplicity of a Grunewald late Gothic altarpiece. Hating the curved screen, Ford put all his actors in the central panel. This has the effect of making the American landscape the primary element of his narrative. Here Ford has returned to his youthful inspiration, F. W. Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927), and the pastoral, expressionist style and subject matter found in FOUR SONS (1928) and PILGRIMAGE (1933), films by Ford that explored the impact of a son’s death in battle on the family. The episode ends with the Union counterattack the next day. Rather than merely picturesque, this farmland, seemingly fragrant in the dawn light and potentially full of promise, comments on the action of battle and bloodshed. Thus, we have landscape as memory, as event, and as witness.(Rating: ****)

“The Railroad” finds Zeb as a calvary commander caught between his conscience, which is sympathetic towards the native American nations through whose hunting ground a track is being built, and his duty to follow the commands of the railroad. As Stark, the railroad agent, Richard Widmark is simply terrific, promising the moon and delivering parched earth instead, all the while snapping out dialogue in a tone somewhere between a seductive croon and a death rattle. In order to gain a government contract and win the race with a competitive company, the railroad will do anything-start a war with Native American nations, destroy the homes of farmers and small businessmen, bring in hunters and killers-all to buttress the bottom line. Even the action sequences, such as a mind-boggling buffalo stampede with the beasts rampaging above the camera, come from the conflicts inherent in the story and work on a number of levels, including that of a visual metaphor. The situations Zeb encounters, unlike the generic plot devices of the first half of the film, seethe with the struggle between family and community, as well as wilderness and settlement, that bedeviled this country in the latter part of the 19th Century. The fact that the characters’ points of view are carefully explained makes the ensuing battle all the more tragic and unnecessary. (According to the commentary, Henry Hathaway ended up reshooting most of George Marshall’s footage.) Politically, “The Railroad” is somewhere between DeMille’s UNION PACIFIC (1939), where the railroad is seen as everything that’s good about this country, and Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST(1969), where the railroad is a symbol of arrogance and greed. (Rating: ***1/2)

“The Outlaws” takes us into the 1880’s and HIGH NOON territory. Zeb is a retired small town sheriff whose family is threatened by Gant (Eli Wallach) and his gang of moody, black-suited gunslingers. Gant has been released from jail during a general amnesty and the current sheriff, played by Lee J. Cobb, refuses to help Zeb, saying this is a private matter. As Zeb’s nemesis, Eli Wallach speaks his lines with the tenderness of a coiled snake, perking things up whenever he’s on screen. There’s lots of familiar faces here, from Carolyn Jones, THE ADAMS FAMILY’S Morticia, to Harry Dean Stanton as one of Gant’s henchmen, bringing a Venice Beach coffeehouse ambiance to his outlaw stance. The film was shot in Monument Valley, and not only invokes the cinematic legacy of John Ford, but captures a sense of wonder from the natural formations that strongly contrasts with the hard-bitten human drama carried out in the foreground, a quality that Hathaway brought to psychological westerns from the early 50’s such as RAWHIDE and GARDEN OF EVIL. (Rating:***1/2)

Although CINERAMA ADVENTURE, the supplementary documentary, is 90 minutes long, not one second is repetitious or dull. It’s not only the history of a film process, but of a specifically American consciousness that is sorely missed today. Featuring larger than life figures, such as Waller, the inventor, Lowell Thomas, the explorer and broadcaster, and Mike Todd, the promoter, the documentary is in many ways even more involving and better made than the feature it accompanies. As noted above, the documentary contains a great deal of footage in the smilebox format, giving a sense of the sweep of Cinerama, as well as how certain scenes looked when originally shown in a theatre. David Strohmaier, the filmmaker and narrator, has managed to find almost everyone involved with the promotion, production and exhibition of Cinerama films. It must have been a truly memorable part of their lives, as they all have compelling stories to tell, rich in humor and excitement. More than anything, CINERAMA ADVENTURE evokes a time when everyone, from a doorman to a bank president, wore a hat, and had a sense of shared purpose, not to mention a common curiosity in their fellow Americans and the world around them. (Rating: ****)

As far as the “smilebox” is concerned, I’ve watched the sequences on the documentary, and although they’re interesting as a reference, I find the matting generally irritating. Not only does the smilebox take up part of the frame, it also gets in the way of the movie. HOW THE WEST WAS WON is a theatrical feature, that, in its focus on situations and characters, works better as a single panoramic image, especially now that those pesky stripes are missing and one can appreciate the film as a fairly immersing experience on its own. For this viewer, the flat image has much more three-dimensionality and sense of involvement in a home video format.

Visually and sonically, this disc is a marvel. Because of the three camera lensing, there are moments, especially during tracking shots, where the perspective is distorted on the extreme edges of the frame. I like this, however, as it draws one into the image and also incorporates the idea of the curved screen. As far as problems with the original elements are concerned, I noticed only two. First, there’s minor spotting during the opening shot across the Rockies. Also, there’s one instance for about half a second as George Peppard rides across the screen when the image jumps due to a sync problem between the three panels. Of course, if you sit right next to the screen and focus your attention on the left side, you can occasionally see a faint transparent splotch in the upper corner when the sky is particularly bright. (I understand these problems are also on the Blu-ray.) But then you’re not really paying much attention to the film, are you?

HOW THE WEST WAS WON, by turning an eye inward (to the lives of pioneers) and simultaneously outward (on the American landscape), reveals how the idea of a new country became a living reality. You also get four big-budget Hollywood Westerns for the price of one, along with John Ford’s mini-masterwork on the Civil War. It’s true there may be too much MGM gloss and not enough specificity, the characters may often be overwhelmed by the stars that play them, but it’s still a movie well worth watching again and again, both as a last vestige of Hollywood expertise as well as something undefinable that resonates to this day.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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5 Responses »

  1. I disagree that “The Plains” was the weakest segment of the film. The only thing I had against this segment was that it had horses driving wagons, instead of oxen or mules. And there was a major Indian attack on a well-armed wagon train.

    As for “The Civil War” . . . eh. It’s one of my favorite periods in American history, but I don’t think that Ford really did much with this segment.

  2. Nice review!!

    Did you mean to write Stephen Crane (instead of Hart Crane) as the author of the Red Badge of Courage?

    My favorite part is The Rivers. I really like the Spencer Tracy narrated transition from the mountain men (symbolized in Jimmy Stewart’s Linus Rawlings) to the restless settlers (embodied in the Prescott family) as they wait to board the boats that sail the Erie Canal (the first leg on the journey West). The Erie Canal song in the background is particularly appropriate as the Prescott family (and Mr. Harvey and three sons) begin their journey.

  3. Uhh…”Also featuring a surprisingly subtle and almost kabuki-like John Wayne as General Tecumseh Sherman.” What is this supposed to mean? When did “kabuki-like” become synonymous with “subtle”?

  4. In answer to Rob Lawson’s Comment:

    Art, along with life, is often contradictory. My impression of John Wayne’s performance was simultaneously subtle, in his line readings, and kabuki-like in the way he looked. In other words, he contained both the sense of a human being in a moment of crisis, and also the sense of being a historical figure. I’m sorry if I wasn’t more specific in my original review. Having recently watched Charlton Heston mug outrageously as General Jackson throughout THE BUCCANEERS, I must say that John Wayne’s performance in HTWWW is much subtler, the kabuki-like feeling having more to do with the way he was photographed than his actual performance.

  5. If only Hart Crane had done film reviews……. 🙂

    Didn’t Ken Darby write an extensive article on his career for Films in Review several years ago?

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