October 16th, 2008

HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1963) ** ½

Before there was IMAX there was Cinerama, a projection process that was basically just three movie screens slapped together to give you one ginormous picture.  Cinerama was normally used for travelogues and shit, but How the West Was Won was the first actual “movie“ movie shown in the process.  The film is comprised of five sequences telling a multi-generational tale that spans five decades and features a large ensemble cast.  It took three of the genre’s most renowned directors, John (The Searchers) Ford, Henry (The Sons of Katie Elder) Hathaway and George (Destry Rides Again) Marshall 165 minutes to tell the story of how a family of pioneers make their way across the plain, end up fighting in the Civil War and eventually follow their fortunes out West with the railroad. 

 

There are a lot of things to love about this movie, namely the lush cinematography.  I mean the rustic western landscapes seem to span off into the distance for what seems like forever.  You’d think that since the Cinerama screen was so big, Ford, Hathaway and Marshall would fill it to the brim with action.  Not so.  The pacing of the movie, like the scenery, is filled with lots of big empty spaces. 

 

How the West Was Won is not entirely devoid of action.  I liked the scenes of Jimmy Stewart battling some thieves, the awesome buffalo stampede, and the climatic railroad robbery; all of which are nicely staged and make full use of the Cinerama screen.  The problem is that due to the episodic nature of the film, the plot moves in fits and starts.  Just when things start revving up and Injuns start attacking stage coaches, things quickly shoot ahead to another time and place.  This happens a lot and the audience has to shift gears constantly with the hiccupping narrative. 

 

Speaking of shifting, you’ll be shifting a lot in your seat thanks to the ungodly length.  Luckily there’s an intermission, although it’s not quite long enough for you to get all the feeling of numbness out of your ass.  Oh yeah, and the less said about Debbie Reynolds’ constant musical numbers, the better.  Every time that damn broad opened her mouth it brought things to a dead stop. 

 

Of the three directors, it was Hathaway who helmed three of the five segments, so it’s he who’s got to shoulder most of the blame.  “The Rivers” and “The Plains” for the most part are lackluster and dull.  Hathaway makes up for it though with the film’s thrilling concluding segment “The Outlaws” in which a train hurtles off the tracks.  Ford’s “The Civil War” is the best of the segments and while he gives the sequence his own personal stamp, it’s far too brief and in the end is rather inconsequential.  “The Railroad”, directed by Marshall arguably makes the best use of the Cinerama screen as the buffalo stampede is eye-popping, even on a cheap Wal-Mart TV screen.

 

You will have fun spotting the unending cavalcade of stars who turn up in supporting roles though.  My favorite was (of course) John Wayne’s turn as General Sherman.  He only gets about a five minute cameo, but the man knocks it out of the park.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Richard Widmark’s sinister turn as a greedy railroad man and Eli Wallach’s brief but memorable role as a train robber.  Had the film had more despicable baddies like these guys, it could’ve been awesome.  Like most of the people in the flick, their screen time is far too short.

 

Of the people who star in more than one segment, it’s George Peppard who fares the best.  I always loved him on The A-Team and he’s just as good here.  Most of the featured players get swallowed up in the vastness of the production.  Only Peppard has the screen presence necessary to carry the film (he better since he takes up three screens).  While other characters aren’t too believable when they start aging, Peppard convincingly pulls it off and you’ll wish that he was around for all five chapters.  

 

I’m sure if you saw How the West Was Won in the theater it would’ve really wowed you, but at home on the small screen it’s a bit underwhelming.  Too many dull patches ultimately cut the narrative’s effectiveness.  However, if you saw it in the theater in the intended Cinerama process, you wouldn’t give a shit when the buffalo started stampeding. 

 

It breaks down like this: 

 

THE RIVERS  **

 

THE PLAINS  **

 

THE CIVIL WAR  ***

 

THE RAILROAD  ***

 

THE OUTLAWS  ***

 

It works out to be about a ** ½ average, although if you DO get a chance to see it on the big screen(s), add an extra star.

BREATHLESS (1983) *** ½

You know every film snob out there always goes on and on about the French New Wave and how great Jean-Luc Godard is and all that.  Frankly, I just don’t get it, man.  I mean the original Breathless is just a dull piece of poop.  This remake on the other hand is pretty fucking awesome.  I know you aren’t supposed to like the remake more than the original, but this movie, like A Fistful of Dollars and John Carpenter’s The Thing before it, outdoes it’s predecessor in every way. 

 

Honestly, this is the only movie I can think of in which Richard Gere is just flat out amazing.  Sure, he’s been in tons of stuff, but usually as Richard Gere.  This is Richard Gere, raw.  This was long before he started being all buddy-buddy with the Dali Llama.  This is Richard Gere, acting like a goddamn lunatic.  Seriously, he’s always twitching, moving around, talking to himself, singing, dancing, whipping his dick out, and talking like a Mexican for no good reason.  It’s as if Richard said, “Hey look I know my career is going to suck big time so I might as well just cram everything into this one performance.”

 

The plot is the inverse of the original.  Instead of a French hoodlum romancing an American girl, it’s an American thief romancing a French chick.  Basically Gere plays a guy who’s obsessed with Jerry Lee Lewis and Silver Surfer comics who accidentally kills a cop and goes on the lam in LA.  He really should go to Mexico to hide out, but he refuses to go unless his Frenchy broad Valerie Kaprisky goes with him.  Even though she’s about as dumb as a box of crackers, Gere still wants her to come with him because of her habitual nakedness.  

 

The thing I love about Breathless is that Gere’s character is so out there that you never know what he’ll do next.  He’s just one crazy motherfucker.  Plus, he likes all the stuff I do, namely rock n’ roll, comic books and naked chicks, so he’s good people.  You get a feeling that he didn’t want to get typecast as the “romantic lead” so he just when fucking crazy.  I admire that.  He said, “You know what, they’re already paying me a truck load of cash for this movie, I might as well act like a goddamn maniac, talk like a Mexican every chance I get, and scream Jerry Lee Lewis lyrics at the top of my lungs.  Besides, I get to see Valerie Kaprisky naked a lot, so why not?”

 

Admittedly, Kaprisky is the weak link in the movie.  Her grating accent and look of perpetual boredom does not take away from the fact that she is one fucking hot French chick who likes to get naked a lot.  Respect.

 

Director Jim McBride bathes the movie in a seedy LA scumbag glow that’s genuinely winning.  The funky nightclubs, dingy back alleys and half empty movie theaters are a perfect milieu for Gere’s antics.  I also liked the way that he paralleled Gere’s predicament with that of the Silver Surfer.  Remember, this movie came out long before the mega-hit superhero movies of today, so seeing the Surfer featured so prominently in the film is a real treat for a fan of the comic like me.  

 

The flick is superb in almost everyway; it’s just a shame I have to knock a half a star off for featuring the most gratuitous cock shot of any movie ever made.  Seriously, if you are a man and you are taking a shower, do you just turn to the camera and shake your schlong uncontrollably for no good reason?  Didn’t think so.  I didn’t need to see Richard’s dick, so it’s only getting *** ½; otherwise it might have been Top Ten of ’83 material.  Don’t let Gere’s pee-pee stop you from checking the flick out though as the man is clearly at the top of his game, acting wise. 

 

He also gets some fucking great lines like, “Don’t take a shower.  I want us to smell like we’ve been fucking!” and “The moolah is in the coolah!”  My favorite line though came from cop John P. (Death Wish 4) Ryan who says, “Don’t F-U-C-K with the LAPD!”