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How the West Was Won was the hot ticket attraction of 1963. The exciting three-panel Cinerama feature played to reserved seat roadshow audiences for almost two years. It was practically MGM's last hurrah as a major studio, an enormous production filmed all across the country with thirteen top stars and dozens of name actors. For its new release in Blu-ray the gigantic epic (four directors, five major episodes, 2,000 head of buffalo) has been given two transfers. A clever new configuration dubbed Smilebox eliminates the "ribbon-vision" effect of ultra-wide movies on video while simulating the original "Curved Screen Cinerama Experience."
This reviewer saw How the West Was Won first-run at Warners' Cinerama Theater on Hollywood Blvd., and can still remember the excitement. Besides the wonder of a first trip to a real picture palace -- taking an elevator to the men's lavatory lounge, no less -- the picture surrounded and enveloped us like nothing I'd seen before. We were reading about the Erie Canal in school so the hundred-mile bus ride was justified as educational. But at eleven years of age I was more impressed by the crazed look of revenge on James Stewart's face and the can't-believe-your-eyes mayhem and destruction in the final train sequence. When I got home I talked not about Debbie Reynolds singing and dancing, but the buffalo stomping the railroaders and the axe thrown into a man's back.
How the West Was Won didn't charm the critics in 1963, nor do we look to it for deep insights into the pioneer experience. Spencer Tracy's narration says right off that we won the West by taking it away from primitive man -- in purely thematic terms the show could stop right there. The church-choir music ("The Promised Land!") praises the American Dream but the film invests its energy in exciting gunfights and train wrecks: forget history, bring on the circus! The film's idea of progress is also rather confused. Behind the joyous Ken Darby singers, the ending aerial montage celebrates crowded freeways and ugly strip mines in a spectacle of psychotic denial. The final fade-out sings of glorious destiny but shows a featureless ocean more suggestive of oblivion.
The show, however, is an entertaining epic packed with one of the biggest star casts ever assembled. Debbie Reynolds carries a good third of the movie with feeling and energy, and the scores of great actor personalities -- Agnes Moorehead, Richard Widmark, Andy Devine -- suffer only when the parts are too small or play against type. Russ Tamblyn's sneaky Reb deserter comes off a winner. Gregory Peck seems ill cast as a self-centered heel of a gambler: we keep expecting him to reform. The usually beguiling Carolyn Jones barely gets to smile, while John Wayne and Harry Morgan do a bad one-act as grumpy Union generals with negative public image issues. It's good that so many characters are lively and funny -- Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach -- because most every episode ends in sadness, if not downright tragedy. The great Walter Brennan is perhaps the only actor in movie history who gets a big laugh when his teeth are bashed in.
How the West Was Won alternates between action and sentiment well enough, covering two generations of pioneers, idealists and exploiteers. The most affecting subplot by far is the urgent frontier romance between Carroll Baker's farmer's daughter and James Stewart's mountain man, the one who can't resist going to see varmints or fighting wars. After an acquaintance of barely a few hours Baker sets her cap for Stewart and a love nest for their evening together, and it all seems exactly right. That contrasts with wagon master Robert Preston's hopelessly pragmatic attempts to entice Debbie Reynolds with trifles like a ranch and a secure future. Reynolds doesn't relish hearing Preston praise her as fine childbearing stock, like one of his cows. She sees more promising possibilities in dreams of riches and glamour. How the West Was Won is about the time when the Frontier was still open, and the future seemed unlimited.
The moviemakers don't neglect Cinerama's roller coaster origin. The River throws a raft down the rapids, The Railroad has an awesome buffalo stampede, and The Outlaws an elaborate train robbery sequence that runs a violent variation on Buster Keaton's The General. We've become accustomed to multiple-jeopardy thrillers that concoct riveting action climaxes; How the West Was Won sees George Peppard clinging to a stack of loose logs on a runaway train, while bandit Eli Wallach takes pot shots at him.1
The power of the first dramatic Cinerama feature hasn't diminished. Alfred Newman's riveting title theme blasts in over the roaring MGM lion, priming us for the excitement to come. The epic that follows is grandiose in the good sense. How the West Was Won may never be considered a great movie, but in Cinerama, it's an unforgettable experience.
The film's three credited directors address Cinerama's unique blocking and framing problems with a variety of approaches. In his Civil War episode, John Ford stages everything more or less in static angles, like a silent movie or a three-paneled religious Ikon. Utility director Richard Thorpe did the brief Pony Express sequence, which suffers when the Cinerama warp makes the trail appear to recede into the background both behind and ahead of the rider. Although the Smilebox format minimizes the effect, it looks as if the dispatch rider arrives from the East, changes horses and then rides back East again!
Henry Hathaway's camera angles really loosen up as he goes along. Many shots in his early Ohio River sequence use fat trees to hide the panel joins between the separate screens. Prioritizing trees before dramatics doesn't seem the right way to make a good movie. By the time of the big shootout on the runaway train (largely directed by Richard Talmadge), the screen view is as flexible as any normal widescreen picture.2
The Cinerama process has the most trouble in simple conversation scenes. Eyelines often miss by a mile, whether directed across the curved screen or to someone behind the camera. The camera's unchanging 27mm wide-angle gaze approximates human vision but doesn't take into account our habit of fixating on individual people or objects. The foreshortening of perspective sometimes futzes the relative sizes of things, as when the giant steamboat returning George Peppard from the war looks like a toy. Actors walking away from the camera shrink into tiny figures after just a couple of steps. Working unusually close to the camera, the talent must hit their marks with extreme accuracy. A couple of feet too far from the camera's triple-fisheye stare, and they begin to turn into doll-people. Too close, and we wonder if they'll distort like faces in a funhouse mirror. How the West Was Won is a unique spectacle, filmed in a wondrous but somewhat inflexible film process.
Warners' Special Edition Blu-ray of How the West Was Won has been a work-in-progress for years; the technology required to get an acceptable video transfer from the three panel elements pretty much had to be invented. Earlier widescreen videos and DVDs worked with composite 35mm elements made for projection in 'normal' theaters and had a multitude of flaws built-in. Getting decent color and contrast from the 45 year-old film strips was only a start, because the three panels had to be matched one to another. Today's beautiful Cinerama film restoration (showing occasionally in theaters in Hollywood, Seattle and England) did a great job of minimizing color differences.
Warners' complicated three-panel transfer not only matches the color to perfection, it minimizes the 'joins' between the three screens. Digital stabilization (I assume) locks the panels together without the old wiggling and shifting. The vertical contrast bars at the screen-joins are eliminated in many scenes (an occasional blue sky still shows them up). Due to the non-standard film dimensions (35mm film two perforations taller than normal) the R&D required for all this must have been considerable, and Pacific Theaters, Turner and Warners are to be commended for taking the time to do it right.
The "Curved Screen Smilebox Simulation" is a complete success. The second disc in the Blu-ray set carries the Smilebox transfer, which distorts the image to 'bend' perspectives into an approximation of the original Cinerama experience. The gross distortion as objects pass through the join lines is eliminated almost completely. Trains, boats and bridges no longer crease like partially unfurled Playboy centerfolds. Smilebox was developed for the docu that appears on this disc; more info on the clever process can be found in Dave Strohmaier's online essay How Smilebox Curved Screen Came About.
Disc One contains a standard widescreen transfer and all the extras. The commentary gathers Rudy Behlmer, Cinerama exec John Sittig, music expert Jon Burlingame and stuntman Loren James, hosted by filmmaker and Cinerama historian David Strohmaier. Behlmer details the Hollywood connections, pointing out actors we hadn't noticed like Harry Dean Stanton. Loren James covers the film's stunts and Burlingame puts names behind the film's many music cues, some of which had to be finalized before Alfred Newman's score had been written.
Even more impressive is David Strohmaier's feature-length documentary Cinerama Adventure. Inventor Fred Waller's multi-screen experiments are covered, including his multi-projector automated gunnery trainer developed for the war effort. We even see samples of Abel Gance's 1927 Napoleon, partly filmed in a similar 3-screen process, accompanied by remarks from Kevin Brownlow. Well-chosen film clips show the early travelogue features in production in exotic locations. Debbie Reynolds discusses the problems of working with an on-set rig that made acting difficult -- the camera was so "in the way" that director John Ford had to sit up behind it on a ladder.
The show also discusses Cinerama's role as a Cold War culture weapon to draw attention away from Soviet exhibits at international trade fairs. Various kinds of traveling exhibitions are used, although we aren't shown Cinerama's showcase theater in Havana, seen in the Russian movie I Am Cuba. Cinerama history has its downside as well. Cast members discuss the terrible accident that befell George Peppard's stunt double Bob Morgan during the train sequence. The docu gives ample coverage to the contribution of pioneering Cinerama pilot Paul Mantz, and shows the flying accident that took his life three years later on the set of Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix. Strohmaier doesn't shy away from discussing Cinerama's drawbacks, including its staggeringly high production and exhibition costs. The process did revolutionize movies, albeit through its many widescreen and large format imitators.
Both Blu-ray versions of the movie come with Dolby TrueHD in English. 5.1 tracks can be chosen in English, French, German, Italian and Castillian Spanish. Latin American Spanish is offered in 1.0. Subtitles come in thirteen different languages. The handsome case has a full-color reproduction of the original souvenir handout book.
The Blu-ray Special Edition puts new life into How the West Was Won. The innovative Smilebox transfer really improves the experience; the other original Cinerama feature The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm might look great seen this way. I should think that the Smilebox idea could also be adapted to good effect for Blu-rays of certain other single-strip Cinerama releases also meant to be projected on curved screens, like Grand Prix and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
See also the Savant article on a revival screening of How the West Was Won,
1. Sam Peckinpah's celebrated train robbery in The Wild Bunch is clearly patterned after this impressive, complicated sequence. Peckinpah seems to have been impressed by the Civil War episode as well. He lost creative control of his Major Dundee partly because he insisted on filming a stream polluted with blood from a battle, a moment clearly inspired by Ford's river of pink gore at the Battle of Shiloh.
2. This may be because the train robbery scene is more like an ordinary widescreen movie -- many of its inserts and brief action shots were filmed in 70mm and re-formatted for Cinerama, as were some 70mm stock shots from The Alamo and Raintree County.
As for letting a complicated screen format or technique get in the way of narrative storytelling, Cinerama isn't all that insane. Don't forget Lars von Trier and the Dogme school of direction.
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