Director: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall
Writer: James R. Webb
Cinematographer: William Daniels, Milton Krasner, Charles Lang, and Joseph LaShelle
Producer: Bernard Smith
by Jon Cvack
Accompanying the BluRay of this film was a documentary produced by the American Society of Cinematographers exploring the history of Cinerama - a format that recorded via three 35mm film cameras, which when combined, spanned 146 degrees around the handful of theaters equipped to handle it, filling the peripheral vision of its viewers. Many of the subjects equated the format to an early rendition of Virtual Reality. Unfortunately, due to both the production and exhibition technology required, few theaters were able to properly screen the format, while studios were inhibited from producing the content due to the high costs. While most of Cinerama’s productions revolved around adventure and exploration documentaries, exploring everything from Native tribes to the Grand Canyon, there were two narrative films that got made during its brief lifespan - The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and How the West Was Won.
I had first experienced an HD version of a western after watching both El Dorado (1966) and The Sons of Katie Elder (1966) on Netflix. You can read about either for the details, but for the first time I understood what the filmmakers had achieved, as the remastering looked as though they were shot today. Since seeing those two films, my interest in westerns has grown exponentially, no longer seeing them as the antiquated films they were often broadcasted as, but rather gorgeous works of heart, containing some of cinema’s greatest photography. And with three 35mm cameras capturing three images simultaneously, How the West Was Won is arguably one of the most beautiful films ever created within the genre.
I’ve grown more fascinated with the Wild West period. Although it occupies such a tremendous space in our history, it’s actually only defined as existing from 1865-1895; serving as thirty years between the era of moving out west into a relatively lawless and displacing countless Native tribes, and the period when government would situate itself. California wasn’t even a state until 1850, which is only 80 years older than my grandmother; approximately one human lifetime.
The wild west embodies the manifest destiny spirit, where through hard work and perseverance, anyone can find success. Nowadays, in an age of rampant social and economic inequality, fewer believe the American Dream is attainable. While there has always been an American aristocracy, a hundred plus years ago there was more land to discover than we could ever imagine; to think Alaska and Hawaii were made into states during my father’s lifetime just goes to show how young the nation truly is.
How the West Was Won very much embodies the idea of tabula rasa. The story begins with what Cinerama had been known for - soaring above the earth, capturing epic vista, looking down upon some gorgeous snow-covered Rocky Mountains. Spencer Tracy’s voice over kicks in, explaining that what we’re about to see is a story of America and its expansion. The film opens up strong, with John Ford taking the first chapter, with the camera driving down some busy western street, up to the end of a valley where it looks down upon the river where two old steam ships are pulling into port.
We first meet the Prescott family in 1839 who’re making their way down the Ohio River on some makeshift rafts, eventually meeting Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) who’s a fur trader, heading east to Pittsburgh. Although an odd role for Stewart, the character was fascinating, making you wonder about all the mountain men throughout history who journeyed out west on their own, with nothing much beyond the Native Americans and other local cultures to discover.
Linus ends up sleeping with one of the Prescott daughters Eve (Carroll Baker) who wishes for him to settle down and marry her, but far from ready, he denies her, continuing on the journey. Soon Linus stops at a riverside trading post where he meets another attractive woman who lures him to the bar for a “show”, discovering the place taken over by a brigand who stabs Linus leaving him to narrowly escapes. He returns to warn the Prescott, when they eventually show up, forcing Linux to kill them. The Prescotts then take off on their rafts, turning down the wrong river and hitting rapids which go on to kill Eve’s parents. The rest of the family then decides to stick around to always be near their bodies and Linus agrees to stay with them.
From there the film progresses over fifty years, as industry and business begin making their marks and America descends into Civil War, providing everything you could ask for from a western. The images are so large, with essentially every frame packed with beauty. From the simplest close up to the grand vistas of battlefields and nascent towns and railroad lines, every single image packs in as much to look at as possible, often pulling my attention away from the narrative, in awe of each and every image that came on screen, where you just feel how much was poured in; you could see the primary note being to make each shot bigger and more intricate, allowing the eye to wander around unlike any film I’ve seen. Watching it on my 65” television was a decent introduction, but I can only imagine what it’d be like to see the film in an actual Cinerama theater; where you’re truly surrounded by the beauty.
There’s something bittersweet in it being only one of two narratives from the medium, soon replaced by 70mm and other large film formats. Though for how beautiful they often are, I’m left wondering what this experience would have been like. A Bridge Too Far (1977), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Ben-Hur (1959) are some of the epic films that first come to mind. There’s something innately physical about the definition. When you watch films like this you see how much people were willing to invest in a piece of visual art; hoping to outdo all other films by offering an immersion unlike anything yet experience. Dunkirk came pretty close to the experience, though even that film and its set pieces pale in comparison to the extravagant moments from this film. How the West Was Won has the strange position of being the type of film that they do not make anymore. I think VR is the only thing that could possibly outshine what this film achieved.
BELOW: An example where watching on a laptop prevents the viewer from grasping how massive these images were
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