The TV Series:
Hate them or moderately tolerate them, franchises, reboots, and revivals of well-known properties are the going thing in Hollywood. As numbingly familiar as that way of thinking is now, it was still something of a novelty in the mid-1970s, however. That's when the MGM studio decided to revive its '60s widescreen blockbuster How the West Was Won for the small screen. This dusty Western saga has been available for a few years now on DVD in Europe (where it's apparently quite fondly remembered). Over here, Warner Home Video is finally getting around to releasing the first season of this family-friendly oater as a two-disc set - and (surprise!) it's being offered as a commercially released product, not an offering on their more boutique-oriented Warner Archive line.
This particular revival got under way with the 1976 made-for-television movie The Macahans, included on this set (warning: spoilers ahead). Loosely based on the 1962 feature, the story concerns the title family, a Virginia clan. Fearing the impact of the Civil War on their homestead, the family's patriarch, Timothy (Richard Kiley), decides to make the arduous cross-country journey for the promised land: Oregon. His wife, Kate (Eva Marie Saint), has serious reservations, but she reluctantly agrees to go along with their offspring - Seth (Bruce Boxleitner), Laura (Kathryn Holcomb), Jed (William Kirby Cullen), and Jessie (Vicki Schreck). The family enlists the help of Uncle Zeb (James Arness), a grizzled and resolutely independent wilderness scout, to guide them through the dangerous, Indian-filled Midwest territory. Midway through the journey, Timothy - believing the family would be better off continuing without him - enlists in the Union Army to fight. Setting up primitive quarters in the Nebraska territory, on land they don't own, the remaining Macahans run into trouble with both the Natives and other local settlers. This prompts Seth to journey back to Virginia for help from his grandparents. Arriving to find his former home ravaged by soldiers and the grandparents dead, Seth somehow winds up getting swept up in the carnage happening around him when the Union Army hastily recruits him to fight. On the battlefield, he kills a few Confederates over drinking water. Injured, he happens upon his father, who dies in his arms. The exhausted and fed-up Seth then walks away from it all, eventually joining his mother at the homestead, where the widowed Kate needs him more than ever. But how will Seth get along, now that he's a fugitive with a bloodthirsty military provost on his tail?
How The West Was Won, the series, continues the story laid down in The Macahans - with cast, crew, and William Conrad's grandiose narration intact (the characters of Seth and Jed have been mysteriously rechristened as Luke and Josh, however). The three 90-minute episodes included in this set originally aired in February 1977, thirteen months after The Macahans. Although the TV movie adequately conveys some sense of historic grandeur (it's very Bicentennial-ish), the series itself plays more like a business-as-usual family drama filled with stock characters and tidy morals (Little House on the Sagebrush?). The various plots involving the Macahans are inelegantly woven together, giving the impression of a standard-issue weekly drama with glacial pacing and predictable outcomes. There is some substance with the parts involving James Arness as the rugged wilderness scout Zeb, a man who is resolutely individual in his personal life but has the integrity to serve as interim head for his late brother's family. Other, less involving stories involve Eva Marie Saint's Kate attempting to get her pampered kids used to frontier life, hosting a charming drifter (played by Don Murray), and fending off the local Native population. Boxleitner's Luke gets the lion's share of the plot, when his character - constantly on the run from a murderous provost marshal - gets romantically involved with a devoutly religious woman whose honor he protected from a pair of filthy, trigger-happy brothers.
HTWWW is fondly remembered by fans who tuned into its original 1977-78 airing. I can see why - it's thoughtfully crafted, generally well-acted, but also sedate, episodic and more than a little bit dull. I kept wishing the family's stories were better integrated with each other (in all honesty, it feels like an attempt at a poky sagebrush drama series that MGM didn't want to commit to at a normal full season volume, hence the "miniseries" presentation). On the plus side, the series makes excellent use of ample outdoor scenery and accurate Old West-style structures, a move which adds a lot to the series' rustic flavor.
Warner Bros.' edition of How The West Was Won: The Complete First Season comes packaged in a standard-sized keep case with a hinge for the first disc. A single-page paper insert supplies original airdates, brief plot summaries and a cast list.
The HTWWW series has already been issued twice on DVD in Scandinavia (who would've known it's so beloved there?), including a "remastered" edition in 2012. How well this edition compares with the European issues is unknown, but the sub-standard picture here appears to have been taken from a shoddy, second-generation dupe (most likely film transferred onto videotape). The image is grainy, fuzzy around the edges, and sporting pale, weirdly calibrated color - episode two has a distinct magenta cast. With two 90-plus minute installments crammed onto each disc, the mastering is noticeably weak and pixelated (at least the European releases held one episode to a disc).
An acceptable mono mix is the sole audio provided here. The soundtrack has not been cleaned up in any meaningful way, but it's a decent listen with some slight distortions (especially noticeable during music passages). English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are also provided.
One bonus, but it's a biggie: The Macahans, the two-hour 1976 made-for-TV movie that inspired the miniseries. Described above, this was a well-produced effort that lays the foundation for the series (in other words, don't watch it last like I did). Picture quality is moderately better on the film, as well.
Sure, you might know How The West Was Won as a 1962 Cinerama extravaganza, but it also exists as a fondly remembered late '70s miniseries for the small screen. Warner's two-disc edition of the first season arrives on DVD as a product best appreciated by those who already enjoy leisurely Western fare (and don't mind terrible image quality on their DVDs). The individual elements (acting, scenery) hold up nicely, but it never adequately comes together in a satisfying whole. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.