How the West Was Won (1962)

SCORE: 3.5/5

How the West Was Won (1962) was a big budget, ‘5-part’ Western was co-directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, & George Marshall. Its all-star cast includes James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark.

The film is an unapologetic celebration of Western expansionism and, as such, would never get made today. Spencer Tracey provides voiceover narration which connects the 5 separate vignettes, each of which do have continuity overlap with each other. Overall, none of the stories is very gripping. The vignette directed by Ford is hokey and disappointing. The best vignettes are the last two, especially “The Railroad” (directed by Marshall), with Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark, followed by “The Outlaws” (directed by Hathaway), with Lee J. Cobb as the representative voice of newly established law struggling for replacement of the previous, anarchic frontier justice. In this last vignette, Eli Wallach is particularly good, in a performance that anticipates, and likely led to his being cast as, ‘Tuco’ in Leone’s immortal The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966).

The stunning Metrocolor print is hampered by the gimmicky, 146° arc, Cinerama technology, which distorts close-ups, and forced directors to use center-focused, medium- & long-shots only (looking for the Cinerama ‘sweet spot’). Cinerama was a short-lived technique which involved filming with 3 synchronized cameras (correlated to 3 vertical planes of the picture’s content). The finished film was then projected onto special, curved, theater screens, to minimize bleeding between the 3 separate, synchronized projectors to simultaneously projected the film. Despite the no-doubt careful job transferring this to a clean, 2.89:1 aspect ratio for Blu Ray release, the annoying aspects of Cinerama (which do occasionally account for a stunning shot) are distracting.

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