“About 150 years ago, an idea took shape in the mind of a man named DeWitt Clinton. And in the way Americans have of acting out their dreams, it came to be.”
One of the biggest problems in big budget movies, is the tendency for studios to pile on more. More big name stars, mores special effects and action, more romantic interests, more, more, more. The theory being, if they put enough crap in there, everyone will find a reason to hand over their hard earned at the cinema. 99.9% of the time, this only makes movies worse. The more surface level glitter they throw on there, the more substance has to be taken out to make room. But sometimes, more really is more, and it actually pays off. And it pays off big in How the West Was Won.
Five short stories, following several generations of one family across half a century and an entire continent, the movie opens with Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden), leading his family from the East Coast, to the new frontier in Illinois. Along the way, they meet and befriend a mountain man, James Stewart as Linus Rawlings. Soon, a Prescott daughter’s in love with him and they’re saving each other from ruthless bandits.
A few years later, the second Prescott daughter, Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) has found herself in St Louis, performing in a dance hall. Not to be outdone by her sister snagging Jimmy Stewart, Lilith catches the eye of professional gambler, Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). From here, How the West Was Won covers the Civil War, the building of the transcontinental railroad, western outlaws and clashes with Native Americans. As each story progresses through time, the Prescott clan progresses on their way across America, all the way to San Francisco.
How the West Was Won is epic movie making in every sense of the word. Just look at some of the names already noted above. Stewart, Reynolds, Malden, Peck. Not to mention Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Preston, and narration by Spencer Tracey. It’s more than an all-star cast. In 1962, it was the all-star cast.
When the opening shot faded in, I was immediately blown away by the wide screen. I thought it was bigger than anything I’d ever seen before. And it turns out, I was right. One of only two movies ever shot in Cinerama, it’s so wide because it was actually shot by three cameras all sitting in a row. Every frame of this movie is three shots, lined up side by side. And nothing fills triple the standard screen width quite like the American West.
The only dud note in How the West Was Won is its attitude towards Native Americans. You can see it’s trying to be sensitive and was probably pretty progressive in 1963, but it’s more than just a little tin eared in its attitudes by 2014 standards.
But apart from that, it’s a legitimately amazing movie. The massive cast of massive stars, the scope of five films made by three A-list directors, the commitment to the expensive and complicated Cinerama filming process. The studio had to throw a lot at How the West Was Won to make sure it paid off. And it’s the rare occasion where it worked. More really is more.