Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: How the West Was Won (1962)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at Enuffa.com!

It's been a little while, as I took a break after this year's awards ceremony, but the warmer weather put me in the mood for a good ol' Western, in this case the Cinerama extravaganza How the West Was Won!  

One of only two dramatic features shot in the immersive three-camera format, HTWWW is an anthology piece inspired by a series of articles in Life Magazine, and boasting a who's-who of Hollywood stars from the 40s and 50s.  James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, Walter Brennan, Gregory Peck, Robert Preston, George Peppard, Harry Morgan, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Eli Wallach, and narration by Spencer Tracy.  The film covers the early pioneer days through the Old West, depicting the American Expansion period through the eyes of a family of characters, each of the five segments taking place during a particular era.  Each chapter also takes great advantage of the Cinerama format by including an action-oriented set piece that plunges the viewer into the story.
"The Rivers" introduces us to the Prescotts, a family of settlers making their way down the Ohio river hoping to set up a farm in the midwest.  They meet a fur trapper named Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) who reluctantly falls in love with one of the daughters Eve Prescott, and saves the family from being robbed by a gang of pirates - a pretty shockingly violent shootout for the time.

"The Plains" centers around the other Prescott daughter Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) who seeks her fortune as a music hall girl.  Lilith is informed she's inherited a gold mine in California, which attracts the attention of a gambler (Gregory Peck) who offers to accompany her out west.  Their wagon train is attacked by Cheyennes (another elaborate action scene) and when they finally arrive at Lilith's new mine they find it's already been stripped of its gold.  The couple decides instead to settle in the new city of San Francisco.

"The Civil War" catches us up with Eve and her son Zeb (George Peppard), who follows in his father's footsteps and joins the war effort, hoping to rise above his station as a farmer.  But he quickly learns the harsh reality of the war and of taking another man's life when he saves Ulysses Grant and William Sherman from a Confederate spy attack.

"The Railroad" follows Zeb who is now part of the US Cavalry, assigned to negotiate with the Arapahos tribe as the railroad is being built through their territory.  

Finally "The Outlaws" skips ahead several years and Zeb is now a family man and a US Marshal whose aunt Lilith has asked him to oversee her Arizona ranch.  In his travels Zeb runs afoul of an old enemy, an outlaw named Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach), and vows to bring him to justice.  This section features the film's most spectacular sequence, a shootout on a moving train.

The storytelling in this film is pretty simple, each episode is very small in scope and conveys an era as experienced by members of this one extended family.  But the cinematography is truly stunning, featuring dozens of breathtaking landscape shots that evoke a kind of longing for the great outdoors, not to mention the desire to travel back in time and visit this bygone age, punishing though it must have been.  The performances are professional but archetypal; Stewart is rugged as Linus, Reynolds is feisty as Lility, Peppard is idealist and honorable as Zeb.  

One interesting aspect is the film's rather frank depiction of settler-Native American relations.  While not belaboring the point, "The Railroad" segment in particular makes it clear how ruthless the railroad barons were in taking advantage of and often outright betraying the treaties they'd struck with the tribes.  At a time when many Westerns tended to whitewash history, this film is refreshingly honest about it.

I didn't find myself terribly invested in these stories emotionally, but taken as a whole and drawn in by the gorgeous film restoration (including aspect ratio corrections to make the film look right on a flat screen), it's quite an accomplishment to behold.  As with all well-made Westerns HTWWW certainly immersed me in the time and place of it all; I'm not an outdoorsy type but somehow Westerns make me want to ride a horse and sleep under the stars.  I also found it absorbing seeing the larger historical events play out as a backdrop for these intimate character studies; we get to see how these events shaped the lives of everyday folk.  

It was easy to see the influence this film must have had on later classics like Dances With Wolves and The Wild Bunch (also two of the three stars of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly are in this movie).  There's a remarkable sequence involving a buffalo stampede that Kevin Costner clearly used as a template.  This must have been quite a spectacle in its intended format. 

On the whole I give How the West Was Won ***1/2 out of ****.

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