Combustible Celluloid
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With: Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Brigid Bazlen, Walter Brennan, David Brian, Andy Devine, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Thelma Ritter, Mickey Shaughnessy, Russ Tamblyn, Harry Dean Stanton, Spencer Tracy (narrator)
Written by: James R. Webb
Directed by: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 162
Date: 11/01/1962

How the West Was Won (1963)

3 Stars (out of 4)

O Pioneers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

People have always been, and always will be, impressed with big movies; this Western was one of the very biggest. It was one of the top hits of 1963, and earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It won three: Best Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Editing. It was one of the only narrative features filmed in the huge Cinerama process, which simultaneously projected one, wide image across three screens, via three projectors. This process was very expensive and cumbersome and difficult to edit, so MGM threw everything but the kitchen sink into their film. How the West Was Won consists of five episodes, following roughly two generations of settlers through many years of migration, Civil War, railroads and all the drama surrounding them. It starts as sisters Eve (the amazingly sensuous Carroll Baker) and Lily (Debbie Reynolds) accompany their family in a cross-country trek to set up a farm. Eve marries a trapper (Jimmy Stewart) and stays put while Lily continues on to California and marries a gambler (Gregory Peck). Their children continue with more adventures.

The technical process is still stunning, even on TV; Warner Home Video's new, letterboxed DVD does a fantastic job synching all the elements into a nearly seamless, widescreen, letterboxed picture. We've all seen widescreen before, but not with this immense depth of field. It's almost surreal; when a character walks from the foreground to the background, they appear to shrink in size, since they're covering a huge amount of ground in a compressed bit of screen space. It's a strange and not altogether unpleasant ride, even if it has its drawbacks. It doesn't allow for many close-ups, so very often you can't see who the big-name stars are unless you can recognize their voices. And it makes editing, especially during action sequences, exceedingly difficult. The giant images smashed one on top of the other can be disorienting, and it's difficult to match angles in the same space.

The best reason to see the film is John Ford's segment, "The Civil War," which comes directly in the middle. Ford is the only one who seems able to transcend the cheesy, preachy quality of the all-important screenplay; he also understands how to edit around the gargantuan frames, making his action sequences quite a bit more exciting. In it, Eve's son Zeb (George Peppard, quite good) joins his father fighting in the Civil War. After the Battle of Shiloh, he decides that war isn't as glorious as he thought. On a whim, he decides to desert with a Confederate "Reb" (Russ Tamblyn), but stops when he overhears two generals talking: Grant (Harry Morgan) and Sherman (John Wayne). Ford gets more power out of this simple idea than the other directors with their grandiose scenes. He transforms the novelty film into something better than it ever should have been.

DVD Details: For their 2008, three-disc set, Warner Home Video has split the film up across two discs and includes an excellent, feature-film documentary on the history of Cinerama. The box also comes with various reprints of lobby cards, press book, etc.

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