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How the West Was Won

Warner Bros. // G // September 9, 2008
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted September 11, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
Those of you of a certain age (say, younger than 30) may be wondering why those of us of a certain age (say, older than---well, say, older) are resolutely nonplussed when the latest "blockbuster" is announced and the media PR flurry begins. It may because we realize that the purported "blockbuster" will arrive, do amazing boxoffice for a week or two, then disappear until its various home video releases a few weeks to a few months hence. Maybe it's also because we remember when movie going itself was an event, something the whole family treated as something special, even something that they (gasps allowed) dressed up for. Probably nothing was more special back in the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s than a Cinerama event, and the apex of that process was no doubt the only two dramatic narrative films actually produced in the three-camera format, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won ("fake" Cinerama 70mm single lens films were projected on the curved screen for several years afterward but were not actually filmed in the complicated three-camera process).

If Grimm, despite its many charms, disappeared from public consciousness shortly after its release (and scuttlebutt has it the source elements are in such disarray that a home video release may never occur), How the West Was Won quickly achieved at least minor classic status, a status the intervening years has only burnished. Previous broadcast and home video releases of the film were marred by a number of flaws--could there be anything more ridiculous than a pan and scan release of a process this extremely widescreen? And even when letterboxed releases finally came down the pike, they were marred by abysmal vertical lines where the three panels of the Cinerama process joined together, making the film unwatchable at times. Through the magic of digital image editing, this beautiful new release of How the West Was Won minimizes, if not completely eradicates, the annoying seams in the image, while also freshening up the source elements to a pristine condition that probably not even families dressed in their Sunday best experienced during the 1963-65 heyday of the film (yes, "event" films actually used to run for a year or two back then, as hard as it is to imagine in this wonder-a-week age).

How the West Was Won began its journey to the screen as a heralded Life Magazine series which encapsulated the many feats of heroism that helped settle the territory west of the eastern seaboard. This sprawling series was adapted into a film that could have been a patchwork quilt of unrelated episodes, and indeed the film is split into sections like "The Rivers" and "The Plains." However, scenarist James R. Webb wisely anchors the film around the fictional Prescott family, following their multi-generational epic story from their first foray out yonder through the Civil War, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the era of outlaws. Unlike other mid-60s cameo-laden fare like The Greatest Story Ever Told (one of those "flat" 70mm epics projected on the curved Cinerama screen, as a matter of fact), How the West Was Won, despite its parade of stars, manages to imbue the events with a personal side that is frequently touching, if at times tangentially as we await the next big action set piece.

The film starts with the Prescott family (dad Karl Malden, mom Agnes Moorhead, and daughters Debbie Reynolds and Carroll Baker) setting off west, where they quickly meet up with a trapper (James Stewart) and then, later, rascals (headed by a kind of scary Walter Brennan) out to relieve them of their worldly goods. When a series of unfortunate events leaves the family stranded by the riverside, Baker and Stewart hook up and decide to make their new home there, while Reynolds heads back east to become a saloon singer. That then introduces Gregory Peck, as a gambler, and Robert Preston, as a wagon train honcho who leads Reynolds back west when she inherits a gold mine, as her competing love interests as intermission looms. After the break we jump into the Civil War era, with Baker's son George Peppard finding out that the romance of battle isn't exactly what it's cracked up to be. Peppard becomes the focus of the second act of the film as he moves on to help misguided Richard Widmark forge the Transcontinental Railroad, and then later as a lawman, defeat evil bad guy Eli Wallach. Along the way you get various other short cameos, including John Wayne as General Sherman, Harry Morgan as General Grant, Henry Fonda as a Plainsman (originally intended as Peppard's father-in-law in a jettisoned subplot featuring Hope Lange as Fonda's daughter), and Carolyn Jones as Peppard's wife. While the array of stars is at times daunting, at least we're never subject to such patently ridiculous moments as Wayne's famously inept "Truly this man was the Son of God" in Story--each little moment in West is expertly handled, even if it's the sort of silly Act II opener of Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln moving from a window to a desk. While there are occasional discrepancies--sisters Baker and Reynolds don't exactly have the same accent--overall the performances are pitch perfect within the limitations decreed by such a multifaceted production. It's notable that the film also presents a nicely balanced, and actually very sympathetic, portrayal of the Indians, something that Hollywood was slowly becoming more in tune with in that era.

While the Prescott plot may just be a through-line to give the epochal events some focus, it's surprisingly well-handled, quite possibly the best use of fictional characters in a historic setting of an early to mid 1960s film. That said, the Cinerama process was made for spectacle, and How the West Was Won has one impressive moment after another--from ravishing vistas of mountains, lakes, and prairies, to exciting action sequences including a disastrous raft trip down rapids, an unbelievable buffalo stampede and an exciting train crash. The film is notable in that it kept three pretty legendary directors busy working on its separate segments, and despite the technical limitations of the Cinerama process, John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall (with a little help from utility director Richard Thorpe on bridging and second unit segments) do a fantastic job of keeping the viewer "inside" the image, something that Cinerama advertised as its stock in trade. There's surprisingly little stylistic difference between the segments, perhaps because of those very technical limitations. The Cinerama camera was notoriously big and heavy and its wide angle perspective meant that shots had to be very carefully framed. With several Oscar winning cinematographers handling the DP chores, the film has a lot of knockout moments, from pastoral (Stewart canoeing down a placid river surrounded by gorgeous mountains) to gut-wrenching (a band of marauding horse riding Indians seemingly leaping right out of the screen into the viewers' laps).

How the West Was Won also features one of the greatest scores in motion picture history, courtesy of longtime collaborators Alfred Newman and Ken Darby (with a little help from Robert Emmett Dolan). Newman's commanding main theme and brilliant underscore, augmented by Darby's incredible adaptations of folksongs and choral genius, make this film as much a delight to listen to as it is to watch. While spunky Debbie Reynolds' many musical interludes may be a bit much for some viewers, she does get a lovely adaptation of "Greensleeves," here entitled "A Home in the Meadow" (with a masterful lyric by Sammy Cahn that pretty much sums up the hopes and dreams of the westward bound masses in one neat little song). One of my few complaints about this new release is that we don't get an isolated music score as an audio option. This is certainly one of the most impressive scores of all time and deserves as much attention as it can get.

How the West Was Won is, as they say, the kind they don't make anymore, literally this time since Cinerama, despite being occasionally utilized in a few far flung theaters, is a thing of the past. This enveloping process probably found no greater outlet than this film, and we finally have it in an admirable release which does it full justice.

The Blu-Ray

This cleaned up and de-seamed Blu-Ray is simply a marvel to behold. Yes, the joints are occasionally visible (sometimes distressingly so), and there are also occasional optical "wobbles" when a character or background moves from one panel to the next, as well as recurrent density issues between the panels and very occasional dirt that seems to be on the camera lens itself (sadly quite noticeable in the opening flyby sequence). But this release is simply so much better than any previous home video version of the film that it seems churlish to complain about anything. The Blu-Ray, as the SD release (yep, I popped for both to get all of the extras), sports amazing color and crystalline detail. The depth of field of the Cinerama lens is literally awesome and the Blu-Ray release optimizes that, with vistas that at times seem to stretch for miles in perfect focus. While the SD release does show occasional compression artifacts (watch, for example, when Reynolds opens a squeeze-box to play early in the film and you'll think she's found a wormhole to some subatomic vortex), the Blu-Ray thankfully minimizes them in a sterling VC-1 1080p 2.89:1 (!) transfer.

I was a little concerned when I first listened to the SD release--the soundtrack seemed awfully reverb heavy and not mastered to appropriate volume levels. I'm happy to report that the Blu-Ray does not seem to evidence these issues. The True HD and 5.1 mixes are remarkably present sounding, with a nice spread, if somewhat front-heavy, among the channels. Newman's marvelous score tends to be mixed to the rear channels, which is fine, allowing dialogue, well separated and directionally placed, to fill the front channels. Lower ranges are used extremely effectively in the buffalo stampede sequence, with some floor rattling rumbling going on. The film also offers 5.1 mixes in French, Castilian, German and Italian, as well as a DD Mono mix in "Latin" Spanish. The subtitle options are once again pretty overwhelming: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish.

I'm just a tad bit disappointed that the Blu-Ray package did not include the pressbook, souvenir book and photos and postcards that the SD Ultimate Collector's Edition did. That said, the Blu-Ray still offers the completely magnificent documentary "Cinerama Adventure," a loving and heartfelt history of the process (did you know that Cinerama's inventor Fred Waller also invented waterskis?). The piece is exceptional not just for its history lesson, but also for its many excerpts (in the "Smilebox" ratio, discussed below) from various Cinerama features. It made me hope for future Cinerama releases, in fact. The Blu-Ray also offers an exclusive Smilebox version of the film, a "bent" aspect ratio made to mimic the curved screen of the original Cinerama process. While it's probably going to look pretty silly on anything less than, say, a 37-40" screen, if you have anything that size or larger and sit fairly close to your television, you get an exciting and visceral demonstration of what the process must have been like. It's certainly nothing akin to the gigantic proportions of the real Cinerama experience, and I doubt seriously if anyone is going to want to default to this viewing experience regularly, but it's kind of a cool way to experience the Cinerama feel, if only second-hand.

There's also a mostly excellent audio commentary featuring Cinerama's John Sittig, music historian Jon Burlingame, West stuntman Loren James, filmmaker David Strohmaier and film expert Rudy Behlmer, who talk about the film's genesis, its many production issues due to Cinerama's unique demands, as well as, briefly, the Hope Lange subplot. They also point out some of the "borrowed" footage in the film from This is Cinerama and Raintree County. If Behlmer uncharacteristically occasionally comes off as your doddering uncle who isn't quite sure what's going on, the rest of the group, especially James, who was there every step of the way, more than make up for it. The Blu-Ray also offers a nice little built-in book, with several color panels, offering background and biographies.

Final Thoughts:
How the West Was Won was a singular achievement in the annals of the Hollywood epic--vast yet intimate, and filmed in a process that would sadly soon bite the dust like an Indian after a buffalo stampede. Warner has done itself proud with this release, finally righting decades of inferior home video releases of an enduring classic. This is another easy entry into the DVD Talk Collectors Series pantheon.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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