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
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.