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Back to the Feature: How the West Was Won (1962)

When I see a movie like How the West Was Won, a part of me laments that they don’t make movies like this anymore. But they can and they should. This is actually one of those films I’d love to see a remake of because as great as the original is, I think it could be done even better today. The story of four generations of a family settling in the American west over a period of half a century is a really interesting one, and with the resources in visual effects, cinematography, and writing we have today, I’d love to see a new collection of filmmakers and actors take it on.
How the West Was Won has one of the best ensembles in film history. Where else will you see Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Debbie Reynolds in one film? Not to mention Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, George Peppard, Caroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Widmark, Robert Preston, Carolyn Jones, Harry Morgan, Thelma Ritter, Agnes Moorehead, Walter Brennan, Raymond Massey, and a cameo by John Wayne. Oh yeah, and it’s narrated by Spencer Tracy. And practically all of them perform exceptionally. In addition to that, the film was co-directed by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, and the great John Ford.
The story begins with the Prescott family in New York in 1839. Patriarch Zebulon (Malden) wants to move his family, consisting of his wife Rebecca (Moorehead) and daughters Eve (Baker) and Lilith (Reynolds) to better prospects in Illinois. But circumstances throw the family apart and Eve winds up settling down in Illinois, while Lilith  moves further west. And from there we see the growth of their families alongside that of the frontier, moving through the exploration and settlement period, the Civil War, the beginnings of the railroad and lawlessness.
This film was promoted on its star power but there is more to it than that. The film addresses a number of different facets of the Old West and the evolution of the land and people. And this evolution feels natural and more than that, it’s a journey your being taken on. The grand scale of this epic underlines this effect, as do the characters. With each new cast of this family and their associates, you become more invested in them. Where they’re going, what will become of them, will they ever reunite? And the fact that there were many families like these who were witness to and helped make history makes it very fascinating. And there are nice little touches like how the song “A Home in the Meadow” (sung to the tune of “What Child Is This?”) is passed down through the generations. It creates a connectivity between the Prescotts of 1839 and their descendants by 1889.
How the West Was Won is divided into five segments following the branches of the Prescotts and there’s a discrepancy between the tone from segment to segment. The first section is a true frontier story, man vs. the harsh wilderness, and it’s followed by something of a road trip rom-com with the occasional peril. There’s also a dramatic coming-of-age war story, a big business corruption story, and a more traditional gunslinger vs. bandits show -complete with goons and a train robbery. Though at times this makes the film feel disjointed or even unfocussed, I like the diversity of it, and how it shows the variance of characters and situations peppered throughout the west. It also shows the talents of each director. Hathaway who directed three of the five demonstrates his range, while Marshall gets to play with intensity both in the quarrels between Zeb (Peppard) and rail magnate Tom King (Widmark), and in an intense buffalo stampede scene. And Ford of course adds a grandeur to a segment that demands the least of it.
The outstanding performances enhance the stories’ respective tones and the film’s feel overall. Jimmy Stewart is terrific as the mountain man love interest of Eve, and so is Henry Fonda as his friend, a mentor to Zeb who is played very well by George Peppard. Eli Wallach is completely at home as an outlaw, Karl Malden keeps your attention as the faithful forefather, Lee J. Cobb is great as the stern marshal, and Richard Widmark as that railway man is suitably despicable. Even minor performances stand out, like Thelma Ritter as Lilith’s husband-seeking friend, Walter Brennan as a river pirate, and Harry Morgan (who I loved on M*A*S*H) as Ulysses Grant. But my favourite performance was Gregory Peck’s portrayal of a gold-digging gambler. Fitting very well with the comedic nature of that story, it was refreshing to see Peck play a dishonest guy who though attracted to Lilith and in competition for her with Robert Preston’s wagonmaster, is also after her rumoured inheritance, and is travelling west to escape his debts. Peck’s one of my favourite actors and its always a great surprise to see him doing something new. And it helps that he’s working off of Preston’s good acting and the always entertaining and energetic Debbie Reynolds giving it her all.
However, this isn’t to say that movie isn’t without its problems. Like a lot of westerns from this era, the story, morals, and characters are heavily romanticized. There’s something of an old fashioned patriotic flare to the whole film about how glorious the conquest of the west was without touching much on the hardships. That is with the exception of the Civil War. Few of the heroic characters (again with the exception of Peck) have less appealing dimensions to them and as is expected for this kind of film, the grittiness is sucked out of the west. And of course, this is a fairly whitewashed movie. Despite the Civil War taking place during its course, we don’t see any slaves; and there are no Native American characters who do anything but attack (but at least they’re actually played by Native Americans). But I think the film overcomes all that with the fact that history is merely a backdrop to the characters and the journey. Apart from the appearances of General Grant and William Tecumsah Sherman (Wayne), historical figures and specific events aren’t portrayed. There isn’t much reason for Native Americans to be seen in another context, if even the one they are seen in, and the railroad sequence at least shows them retaliating for good reason: namely a dick violating a treaty for financial gain. It’s mainly the general atmosphere that’s romanticized and while I prefer it’d be more realistic, I can overlook it, certainly more than some other westerns of this time period.
The biggest problem though may be with the film’s aspect ratio. How the West Was Won was shot and released on specialized Cinerama, a curved wide-screen format shot on three projectors, which made for a really immersive cinematic experience. However it’s a format that’s been near impossible to transition to smaller flat screens. The result is a letterbox in the middle of a screen, which is made more distracting by the fact that the format never allowed for much variance in shot composition. No one is capable of being on screen at anything closer than a medium shot, and often have to be directly centred. It makes some of the interactions between characters a little awkward and the small scale diminishes the opportunity to enjoy the scenery. Apparently there have been some restorations that have fixed this, made it more like the original theatrical experience, but I think even on a Cinerama screen, the staleness of this unchanging cinematography would hold the film back. And for a film that John Ford worked on, that’s unbelievable.
But even things like the distracting cinematography and romanticized tone aren’t enough to hurt the film’s quality drastically. The compelling stories and characters are still very enjoyable and worth following. The star power was not wasted and the entire cast as well as directors bring something good to this intriguing American odyssey. Hell, again knowing how easily it would be to correct those problems it had now, I’d be very excited to see this story remade. This journey of a family through four generations in the Old West presented by brilliant directors and an ensemble like no other, makes for one of the last great Western Epics. And I really found it enticing. Though it may not have captured every aspect of early settlement, it did a good enough job ensuring that no one who sees it is going to forget How the West Was Won

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