Epic of epics...all is epic. I begin with this play on the classic Bible verse because I am rather certain that How The West Was Won may well define the greatest of filmic endeavors. Sure a ton of people love Gone With The Wind, but it also has a tone of social problems and suffers from historical detachment, where as this sprawling western, even in its set of troublesome imagery, is so grand and epic in proportion that it required an entirely new filming style all its own to be undertaken. Shot in Cinerama, a film and projection style that required three cameras of film to be recorded and, subsequently, projected separately, to view this film is to see something break the very wide boundaries of the cinematic western landscape. I have a nice television and one of decent size and even I found myself hoping that it would extend beyond the edges just a bit more, as though my widescreen television was somehow preventing this film from reaching its full potential. If this new style were not enough, How The West Was Won is also set up in an episodic format showing a somewhat connected history of information answering the statement in the title. With directors like John Ford offering segments, as well as sections including a veritable who's who of Classic Hollywood stars, How The West Was Won is easily one of the greatest achievements in the dwindling days of the old style system that would be turned on its head only years later. Borrowing heavily from the cinematic experimentation of Abel Gance and the desire for the grand of D.W. Griffith, How The West Was Won is definitively and undoubtedly a masterpiece. I really wish I had saved this as the last film of the marathon, because it is easily the culmination of all that is glorious and adored about the western as genre, is a what one should think of when considering a film to be "sweeping" in its narrative. It has a two and a half hour runtime, but with the intermissions, fully realized storyline, even if segmented and some of the most awe inspiring cinematography I have seen in a film in quite some time, the winding down of this film and its brilliant burst into the future came all to quickly and left me hoping for another set of stories.
How The West Was Won, as noted, is a series of stories, all focused on creating narrative as to how the west, or more specifically, the expansion westward influenced the persona and history that would be America. The film begins with a story entitled The Rivers focus on Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) and his family as they make their way west via a large raft, making said journey along with another family. Along the way they meet a fur trapper named Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart) who one of Prescott's younger girls takes a liking to, despite Rawlings's suggestion that he is not the marrying type. Although when their paths repeatedly intersect it becomes clear that marriage is a necessity. The next story The Plains centers on another member of the Prescott family Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) living as a showgirl in St. Louis, only to discover that she has obtained through the donation of a wealthy admirer a stake for gold in California, which leads to her being followed by gambler and pseudo-admirer Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) whose debonair manners woo many women, but he proves to need real feelings to eventually win over the suspicious Lilith. The next section focuses on The Civil War and the experiences of young soldier Zeb (George Peppard) whose parents are Linus and Eve (Carroll Baker) of the earlier river story. He, despite Eve's reluctance joins the war effort and becomes a hero after taking down a rebel deserter who infiltrated the ranks of the Union in order to assassinate high ranking officers, one of which is played brilliantly by John Wayne. Next the section called The Railroads focuses on the invasion of the "iron horse" into the plains and its particular affect on the native populations, a group which wild man Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda) attempts to protect, only to realize that he can only promise natives safety and trust for himself and not the entirety of the colonizing white man. Finally, the film ends in a section titled The Outlaws in which Zeb who is now a marshall in a western town takes on an infamous enemy and outlaw named Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) resulting in an intense and high-paced shootout on a moving train. After Zeb slays Gant the film focuses on Lilith and the rest of the Rawlings family returning home, before the film takes to a visual flight from the desolate landscapes of the old west to the modernized and skyscraper heavy modern world of Los Angeles suggesting an evolution over a length of time, but one that is always tied to the endeavors of the early settlers.
I cannot get How The West Was Won out of my mind and it is almost entirely due to its unusual cinematic style. The triptych style of Cinerama filmmaking allows for the narrative to unfold as something very much out of a story book, each character moving throughout the space from being minor almost incomprehensible characters in the background of shots to larger than life figures occupying the space at the center of the screen. The sort of wide-angle/fisheye visual style that results form this particular filmmaking style also intensifies the emotions of characters within the narrative, Jimmy Stewarts fumbling suaveness heightened to a point of inescapable charm, or Debbie Reynolds's ethereal beauty consuming the entire space of a shot, making each scene melt behind her. Similarly, it allows for an understanding of how truly consuming the landscapes of the west would have appeared to the initial settlers, with plateaus and valleys seeming to stretch on into some eternal distance, again a result of the way the juxtaposed images create a new degree of depth. What is also magical about this particular style is that it captures action and movement in a degree that arguably has the same effect as 3D or IMAX in that the images pop-out of their space when coming into the screen, although Cinerama has an extra layer, because it will also as easily pull a viewer into the centrifuge of a piece of action, the oncoming train scenes and the barrel rolling wagon scene serve as two opposing examples of the possibilities that this new depth allowed. It was a brilliant choice to cast huge names in these roles, even in uncredited parts, such as Lee Van Cleef and Harry Dean Stanton, because their larger-than-life personas match the intensity and grandiose nature of the filmmaking. Think here of John Wayne's presence, even if incredibly brief, he steps into the room occupies the space and seems so at ease that one forgets that he is only occupying one of three possible frames. However, what proves to be the most rewarding element of this style is the moments when the films flicker differently if ever so briefly. My favorite one being a moment when Lilith is dancing and she appears to leap through a frame without touching the ground, these accidents, could be chastised as problematic, but in this context they add a layer of mythology and adoration to something that is decidedly larger than life. Cinerama aimed at blowing the lid of of filmic possibilities, and in the same vein How The West Was Won aimed to do the same for the genre.
Key Scene: While every moment is excellent, I would say to get a full feel for what is made better by the choice to use Cinerama then The Railroad section is perhaps the best example of all the elements working simultaneously.
While I watched this on the DVD version, I cannot begin to imagine how much better it would look on bluray, particularly since it offers the option to watch it is "smile box" format which aims to recreate the feeling of attending an original Cinerama screening of this work. I mean look how much I had to minimize these pictures just to fit them into the blog format.