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How the West Was Won Movie Review

film prescott story “the

1963 – Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford –

This is the episodic story of the panoramic exploits of three generations of the pioneering Prescot family. Beginning on their trek west during the 1830's and continuing through the taming of the West, the storyline is simple but impressive in its grandeur of landscape and exciting action sequences. The film's efforts to incorporate a background of historical events (such as the California Gold Rush and the Civil War) into the adventures, exploits, and tragedies of this pioneer family, however, prove somewhat ponderous. It is the appearance of the numerous stars and character actors and the familiar voice of Spencer Tracy providing the linking narration that hold the attention of the audience.

Audiences at some theaters for the original release of the film also had the attraction of the ambitious Cinerama filming process. This method used three interlocked cameras to photograph the film and then projected the prints in specially built theaters on a wrap-around tryptic screen with three synchronized projectors. (The French filmmaker Abel Gance had pioneered pretty much the same thing in the late 1920s, calling it Polyvision, with his epic Napoleon, and the Cinerama process had been in existence for ten years showcased in various nonfiction works like This is Cinerama attempting to compete with the threat of television.) Though it lasted longer than 3-D, Cinerama was in danger of being dismissed as something of a novelty when the epic story materials of How the West Was Won (and later The Greatest Story Ever Told) permitted it briefly to come into its own. The epic materials of the western allowed the audience to participate in overwhelming battle scenes, a raft ride in treacherous waters, train wrecks, and horse chases. Unfortunately, much of this spectacle is now diminished with its transition to the small screen. Since the film was never shot in a single-lens version, one can easily detect the dividing lines of the three joined images in a pan-and-scan format. In a letterbox format, the film requires such severe masking of the television screen that this alternative is also problematic.

In addition, the use of three different directors makes for somewhat sporadic quality in How the West Was Won. Henry Hathaway provides a naive but enthralling saga of the lives of the Prescott family in three episodes titled “The Rivers,” “The Plains,” and “The Outlaws.” George Marshall directs one episode called “The Railroad,” and John Ford handles the Civil War episode. All three men have done better work on other projects, and Ford, the best known of the three directors, has sometimes been singled out for turning in the weakest of the five episodes. Perhaps all three chafed under the constraint of not being in charge of the whole production.

Cast: Gergory Peck (Cleve Van Valen), Henry Fonda (Jethro Stuart), James Stewart (Linus Rawlings), Debbie Reynolds (Lilith Prescott), Carroll Baker (Eve Prescott), Lee J. Cobb (Marshal Lou Ramsey), Walter Brennan (Col. Hawkins), Karl Malden (Zebulon Prescott), Richard Widmark (Mike King), Robert Preston (Roger Morgan), George Peppard (Zeb Rawlings), Carolyn Jones (Julie Rawlings), Thelma Ritter (Agathe Clegg), Eli Wallach (Charlie Gant), Agnes Moorehead (Rebecca Prescott), Russ Tamblyn (Confederate soldier), Raymond Massey (Abraham Lincoln), Thelma Ritter (Agatha Clegg), Walter Brennan (Colonel Hawkins), Andy Devine (Corporal Peterson), John Wayne (Gen. Sherman), Harry Morgan (General Ulysses S. Grant), Spencer Tracy (narrator) Screenwriter: James R. Webb Cinematographer: Harold E. Wellman, William H. Daniels, Charles B. Lang, Jr., Milton Krasner, Joseph La Shelle Composer: Alfred Newman, Ken Darby Producer: Bernard Smith for MGM Running Time: 155 minutes Format: VHS, LV, DVD Awards: Academy Awards, 1962: Editing, Sound, Story and Screenplay; Nominations: Art Direction/Set Direction (color), Color Cinematography, Costume Design (color), Picture, Original Score; National Board of Review Awards, 1962: 10 Best Films of the Year Box Office: $12.2M.

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