You want big? Really big? I mean the biggest possible screen and cast and production imaginable? That's "How the West Was Won," not just the biggest film of 1962 but one of the biggest films of all time. No, it's not one of the greatest films of all time, but it is one of the most spectacular, and while no home screen can hope to compete with a full-sized Cinerama theater screen, the ultrawide Blu-ray presentation is an enjoyable, small-scale substitute.
By the early 1950s, television was making an impact on the way people were getting their entertainment. The picture tube in the living room fascinated people, and they didn't see the necessity of going out to the movies as often as they had. The movies fought back with more color, more splash, and bigger screens. Hollywood wanted to give audiences something they couldn't get at home. So they got Cinerama and CinemaScope. But it was Cinerama that was really big, so big it often required three separate projectors and three wraparound screens to encompass it. That's the effect we get in MGM's "How the West Was Won," presented here in an aspect ratio that Warner Bros. claim on their packaging is 2.89:1. Now, that's big.
And not only is the screen big, the cast is big. The movie is 162 minutes long and stars Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. Spencer Tracy narrates, and Brigid Bazlen, Walter Brennan, David Brian, Andy Devine, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Thelma Ritter, Mickey Shaughnessy, Russ Tamblyn, and others co-star.
How big again? So big it needed three directors to handle its various sections: John Ford ("Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers"), Henry Hathaway ("Rawhide," "From Hell to Texas," "True Grit"), and George Marshall ("Destry Rides Again," "Riding High," "Fancy Pants"). This is because the film covers about fifty years in America's history, from 1839-1889, and the filmmakers divvy up the duties of telling multiple stories within this context.
There are actually five major sequences in the movie: Hathaway covers the first two sections, "The Rivers" and "The Plains"; Ford handles "The Civil War"; Marshal handles "The Railroad"; and Hathaway comes back to finish up with "The Outlaws." It's sort of a like a series of mini-Westerns in one picture. Let me go over them briefly.
The movie begins with a four-and-and-half minute overture, sounding nice in its remixed Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. It contains snippets of music from composer Alfred Newman, and later in the movie we hear songs from Sammy Cahn and Johnny Mercer, with folksinging by Dave Guard (at the time newly departed from the Kingston Trio) and the Whiskey Hill Singers. The first half of the film, especially, contains a good deal of music and song. It's one of the best things about it.
The 1840s set the stage for the first segment of the story, which shows us the earliest pioneer families moving West along the Erie Canal to Ohio, Illinois, and beyond. In the film we will follow several generations of one such family, the Prescotts, headed up by papa Zebulon (Karl Malden) and his marriageable daughters Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lillith (Debbie Reynolds). Moseying into their company comes mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart), who takes a reluctant shine to daughter Eve.
The scenery, shot on location all over the U.S. from Kentucky to Monument Valley, from South Dakota to California, with spectacular vistas of hills, mountains, valleys, and prairies, is another particularly engaging quality of the film. But you would expect a film with so wide a scope to employ the biggest scale and the most gorgeous panoramas possible.
Yes, the scenery is terrific, the adventures are episodic but fun, and the romance is inevitable. Clearly, too, the film means for much of the adventure to take advantage of the wide screen--things like the shooting of the rapids, the charge of cavalry soldiers, and the truly awesome stampede of buffalo.
Next, we move into the 1850s, and folks have discovered gold in California, bringing even more people West. Daughter Lillith Prescott by this time has left the family and become an entertainer. While moving westward, a wagonmaster (Robert Preston) and a tinhorn gambler (Gregory Peck) both take a shine to her. Also by this time we can see that the movie is far too big, too sprawling, and often too slow-moving for its own good, yet the multitude of stars and the absolute beauty of the settings are enough to keep our attention.
The intermission (of course, there's an intermission, complete with entr'acte music) comes at the eighty-four-minute mark, and for a theater audience it probably couldn't have come too soon. At home, at least we have the "Pause" button.
We take up next with Ford's contribution, the Civil War of the 1860s. Linus has gone off to fight in the War, and his and Eve's son, Zeb (George Peppard), soon follows after him. Oddly, even with the brief presence of John Wayne as General William Tecumseh Sherman and Harry Morgan as General Ulysses S. Grant, this is probably the least-effective segment in the film. It moves with an uneasy, uncomfortable gait and seems to go by almost unnoticed.
Next, we get the 1870s, the pony express, the telegraph, and the opening of the West to the railroads, the Central Pacific from one end and the Union Pacific from the other. In this section we find Henry Fonda as a buffalo hunter and old mountain-man friend of Linus, who meets up with Linus's son Zeb, now a cavalry officer assigned to protect the railroads from hostile American Natives. Richard Widmark plays a no-good railroad man. The highlight is the buffalo stampede.
The final segment of the film takes place in the 1880s, as cattlemen, sheep ranchers, and settlers have pretty much tamed the West, although they don't exactly live in harmony with one another. This brings up the need for lawmen, and our friend Zeb is now a middle-aged Arizona Marshal. Lee J. Cobb plays his fellow lawman, Marshal Lou Ramsey, and his nemesis is the villainous Charley Gant, played by Eli Wallach. (It would be a few more years before Wallach did the "Ugly" in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." More amazingly, Wallach, in his nineties as of this writing, is still acting in films.) So, the last section is an old-fashioned Western gunslinger affair in the manner of "High Noon."
Anyway, as I keep saying, this thing is big. It covers fifty years and has more familiar faces in it than practically any film before or since. "How the West Was Won" managed to win Oscars for Best Editing, Sound, and Writing, which, ironically, I thought were the weakest parts of the picture but lost out for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Music, most of which I thought were stronger than the categories in which it won. What do I know.
Warner Bros. went out of their way to present the movie as best as they could. The copy is pristine, with hardly a trace of age, excessive grain, noise, scratches, flecks, or specks. What's more, the studio engineers not only present it in a normal widescreen but in a special "SmileBox" transfer that attempts to duplicate the way the film might have looked in a Cinerama theater with its gigantic wraparound screen. I found this "SmileBox" presentation fairly awkward, however, the "SmileBox" title a description of the way the image curls up (and down) at the sides to simulate the edges of the screen being closer to the viewer. I also found some degree of distortion at the sides of the picture, so I watched the movie in its regular home-theater form.
The video engineers use a pair of dual-layer Blu-ray BD50s and a VC-1 encode to do up the two versions of the film properly. As I said earlier, the studio claims on the packaging that the home-theater screen ratio is 2.89:1, the same as I measured (given about 5% overscan in my current TV), the widest film I have ever watched in my home. More important, the picture quality is excellent. The Technicolor comes up looking very natural, the definition looks fine, and, given that the filmmakers shot much of the film on location, the screen looks free of much grain, except that which is undoubtedly inherent to the original print. There were a few moments where I noticed the three separate screen divisions, but it's a concern hardly worth mentioning.
The choices in English are regular Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The latter is slightly smoother and more spacious than the former, but it is still a bit hard and flat, with voices sometimes sounding a mite nasal and hollow. It's fine at the frequency extremes, though, with a strong dynamic impact, a wide front-channel stereo response, and a touch of surround. While the TrueHD does a good job with the movie's music, it does an even better job in the big battle scenes and the buffalo stampede.
Disc one of this two-disc Blu-ray set contains the regular widescreen, high-def version of the film and three major bonus items in standard definition. The first item is an exceptionally instructive audio commentary by filmmaker David Strohmaier, director of Cinerama, Inc. John Sittig, film historian Rudy Behlmer, music historian Jon Burlingame, and stuntman Loren James. The second item is a 2008 documentary, "Cinerama Adventure," a comprehensive, ninety-seven-minute history of the super-widescreen process, in which I counted about eighteen chapter stops. The third item is a non-anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer, truncated in width.
The extras on disc one wrap up with forty-one scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the SmileBox transfer, which replicates the Cinerama wraparound theatrical experience I mentioned above. There are again forty-one scene selections but no other extras.
The two discs come housed in the front and back of a Digibook package, which includes forty-four glossy pages of information, pictures, illustrations, posters, maps, and memorabilia. First class.
There is no denying the spectacle, the adventure, and the romance in "How the West Was Won," with Spencer Tracy's narration lending the enterprise a proper and lasting dignity. Nevertheless, I found the movie far too long, and I admit I occasionally lost interest in its piecemeal construction. I'm not sure it's the kind of film a person is going to want to watch too often, at least not in its entirety, yet it's a film whose various parts might well stick in memory for quite some time.