A Movie A Week: HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962)
I still went to see the varmint with that pirate girl…
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
This week we follow the great character actress with the best porn name ever, Agnes Moorehead, over to the Cinerama epic HOW THE WEST WAS WON, the only studio feature film to be shot and shown in true Cinerama.
Today there are still Cinerama theaters, but they don’t display the technology as it was originally envisioned. They look great, no doubt. I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 70mm at the Cineramadome in LA and it was mindblowingly clear and massive on the curved screen.
But what’s fascinating about Cinerama is that it is essentially 3-D without the glasses. Projected onto a sharply curved screen that literally fills your peripherals and projected with three different film projectors you are in the action.
This film was also shot with three cameras in a monster rig that was certainly a nightmare to work with, but goddamn… even watching the awesome Blu-Ray Cinerama experience I felt a real difference in depth. For exhibition they would sync up the three different prints through three projectors angled just right and it would form one massive image.
Now the technology (originally developed to train air pilots how to line up enemy planes during WWII) wasn’t perfected. Even in this film you can see the connecting lines where the three film strips run (although there are some really sharp framing decisions made in the film that hide these connectors in vertical lines, like trees and building edges) and there’s some trouble with focus, but overall even on my 61” Toshiba the Cinerama experience is fascinating.
It’s a great technology and there’s a long documentary on the Blu-Ray that details it, where it came from, how they executed it and how the 70mm experience ended up overtaking it fairly quickly because of costs involved in distributing and projecting a Cinerama feature.
Technology is great, amazing and all that, but it doesn’t mean much if the film isn’t good. Luckily this was a great match of technology and material. If anything should have ever been shot in such a sensational way it is an IB Tech western with masters like John Ford, George Marshall and Henry Hathaway at the helm.
No question about it, HOW THE WEST WAS WON is a giant America Is The Fucking Best Country EVER movie, a sincere love letter to the days of our burgeoning country. There’s absolutely no way around that aspect of the movie, but it felt sincere to me, not preachy. I think that had a lot to do with the stories that are being told.
The film isn’t one long narrative, but rather a few distinct stories about our pioneering days, highlighting different aspects of the West, with a special focus on the call of opportunity as California’s gold rush kicks up.
Henry Hathaway directed the bulk of the flick, which features a few different stories, including a family headed downriver who meets up with a Mountain Man (James Stewart oddly cast, but it works) and some pirates and then there’s a conman (Gregory Peck) who tails a stage singer (Debbie Reynolds) as she heads west to claim an inherited gold mine. John Ford directed one segment focusing on The Civil War and George Marshall does another segment about the expansion of the railroad.
All of the stories are interconnected and span decades. For instance, Reynolds and Carroll Baker play the single daughters of Karl Malden’s Zeb Prescott whose itchy feet have propelled him West via river travel. Baker ends up falling in love with James Stewart, a Davy Crockett-ish trapper. Stewart is conflicted, though. He’s always been a free man and even though he loves Baker he runs away, afraid of settling down.
This segment has one of my favorite moments of the whole movie as Stewart stops at a riverside store advertising “Likker.” A man I was sure was Lee Van Cleef (turns out I was right) announces Stewart’s arrival and I knew this place was bad news. Yep, they are pirates and they try to kill Stewart, but he gets away injured, but alive.
However, the love of his life and her family are close behind him and stop at the same pirates’ store front. Now here’s where we get to see Stewart do some ass-kicking during the big rescue. Everybody gets a moment here. Malden breaks a chair over Walter Brennan’s kisser, Baker belts a hot pirate girl and Stewart blows a whole group of pirates to shit with a keg of gunpowder thrown on a fire.
This sequence ends with a disastrous trip down the rapids which claims many lives. Baker and Stewart settle down and then we follow Reynolds into the next segment, which takes place years later as she’s an entertainer who catches the eye of a conniving gambler (Gregory Peck).
I particularly liked this section of the film as Peck finds out this hot girl has inherited a gold mine and joins up in a Wagon Train West to go claim it and does everything he can, putting all the charm he has, into winning her over. At the same time the plain, but nice guy running the wagon train (Robert Preston) falls for Reynolds, too, but there’s no spark.
Peck is just cool as ice here, running from debts, but always feeling classy even at his scummiest. He sweet-talks Thelma Ritter (who is looking after Reynolds) and gets her to stake his claim and off they go. Peck shows real heroism on this trip and ultimately wins Reynolds’ heart, but what I liked the most about this (aside from the spectacular Indian attack scene) is that they don’t sugar-coat Peck or Reynolds. Their characters aren’t perfect and this isn’t a romantic comedy.
The Civil War segment (following George Peppard as Baker and Stewart’s son) is probably my least favorite, even though it’s directed by my favorite of the three directors on this project (John Ford) and features a two-or-three-scene cameo by John Wayne as Gen. Sherman. It’s well done and has a really strong moment as Peppard befriends a disillusioned confederate soldier and stops an assassination attempt on Gen. Grant, but ultimately it doesn’t really have its own story.
It serves as more of a set-up for The Railroad segment, which is pretty great mostly because it features Richard Widmark as a ruthless railroad man and Henry Fonda as a hunter with a heart. Peppard goes to work for the railroad and teams with Fonda (an old friend of his father) to deal with the Indians as the railroad makes its way through their land, breaking every promise to the indigenous people along the way.
But the most fun I had with the movie was in Henry Hathaway’s Outlaw segment and that’s because the great Eli Wallach plays a real scumbag gang-leader and trainrobber and the whole thing culminates in a hell of an intense robbery where Peppard (now a sheriff) and Lee J. Cobb hold off Wallach’s gang.
Final Thoughts: Alfred Newman provides a great, rousing score, the Technicolor photography is only made more beautiful by the Cinerama process and it’s just fun to watch all these great actors playing together. This film makes me wish we’d see something similar attempted using digital photography and projection set-ups. It might be limited to museums and theme parks, but it’s a gorgeous technology that really does put the viewer into the world of the film. With digital the edges could be cleaned up and the whole thing made perfectly seamless. Maybe some day…
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, July 27th: CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948)
Monday, August 3rd: ROPE (1948)
Monday, August 10th: THE SEVENTH CROSS (1944)
Monday, August 17th: TRACK OF THE CAT (1954)
I finish this write-up while on the flight back to Austin from my New York trip where I saw Paul McCartney play Citi Field, which was an awesome experience. Beatles, Wings and some of his recent and solo stuff. He was joined onstage by Billy Joel to sing I SAW HER STANDING THERE and that rocked the place.
There are a couple of things I want to mention, so bear with me a second… McCartney sang A DAY IN THE LIFE, which was a (predominantly) John Lennon song. I thought that was odd, but then he segued from that into a cover of GIVE PEACE A CHANCE and the entire stadium… must have been at least 75,000 people if not more… sang along. It was pretty transcendent.
McCartney and his band also did an instrumental cover of Foxy Lady and McCartney then told a story about Jimi Hendrix covering Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club band. He said that the album came out on a Friday and he went to go see Hendrix the following Saturday night and Hendrix had it down already.
McCartney then mentioned that when using a Whammy bar, as Hendrix was wont to do, the guitar goes extremely out of tune, so after the song Jimi called out into the audience for Eric to come up and re-tune the guitar. Eric being, of course, Eric Clapton. Sweet, right?
Thinking back on that time in music makes me both incredibly sad and incredibly proud. That’s weird, right? But I’m sad as shit that we don’t have that kind of thing permeating the mainstream today, but amazed at the confluence of events that conspired to produce people like McCartney, Lennon, Hendrix, Joplin, Daltrey, Page, Plant, etc. as the leaders in their field.
Anyway, next week we’ll follow both James Stewart and Lee J. Cobb as well as director Henry Hathaway and composer Alfred Newman back a couple of decades from HTWWW to an early work from them both, a noir called CALL NORTHSIDE 777. That’ll be smack dab at the end of Comic-Con, so I hope to have that watched and written, locked and loaded as they say in the war movies, before the Con so the article stands a chance of being even half-way legible.
See you folks then!
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April 27th: How To Marry a Millionaire
May 4th: Phone Call From A Stranger
May 11th: Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte
May 18th: Too Late The Hero
May 25th: The Best Man
June 1st: The Catered Affair
June 8th: The Quiet Man
June 15th: Rio Grande
June 22nd: The Getaway
June 29th: The Mackintosh Man
July 6th: The Long, Hot Summer
July 13th: Journey Into Fear
Click here for the full 215 movie run of A Movie A Day!
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July 20, 2009, 10:34 p.m. CST
What the fuck? The damn page is jumping all over the place.
July 20, 2009, 10:39 p.m. CST
I haven't seen this film yet (I mean it's fuckin' long) but I did recently acquire it for cheap. Now a long ass movie that I just watched and loved was The Towering Inferno, which is actually pretty scary. If you haven't seen that movie Quint I'd recommend you do so at some point.
July 20, 2009, 10:43 p.m. CST
Carrie Fisher's mom was pretty hot in it, though.
July 20, 2009, 10:50 p.m. CST
I would give my left and right nut to have seen him live. Can we clone him?
July 20, 2009, 10:57 p.m. CST
....years later, used tongue-in-cheek for the beginning of "Romancing The Stone". Some way-ahead-of-its-time violence in Jimmy's bloody revenge attack on the river pirates..first time I can remember the use of an exit-wound squib...and during the Peppard vs. Wallach train fight, I remember some stuntman falling off the train and smacking into a cactus...yoooowwwch!
July 20, 2009, 10:58 p.m. CST
by axel fff
Just couldn't get into it. May have been because I was watching it on a TV, and image was just so narrow, and the camera seemed like it was more stationary. May have to try it again sometime. I imagine seeing it in real Cinerama would be the way to go, if that was possible. Interesting you liked the Ford section the least, as that's the one I would be most interested in seeing.
July 20, 2009, 11:01 p.m. CST
Interesting as they used the reconstructed print and you can see the seams where the Cinerama width was chopped off and sewed back together. <p> More of a curiosity than a great Western IMHO.<p>
July 20, 2009, 11:02 p.m. CST
I ended up picking the Blu-ray version of this over the weekend. I had seen the 1st disc, the widescreen version, a few months ago when I rented it on Netflix, and on Saturday I watched the Smilebox (see the screen shot with Jimmy Stewart in Quint's writeup) version. Definitely an enjoyable film. Liked how the different directed addressed how to use the three-camera setup different. Henry Hathaway definitely seemed to do a better job at experimenting with the screen format, with some scenes placing characters all on one side, whereas John Ford seemed to shoot his Civil War scenes a bit more conventionally.<p>I agree with you Quint, the Civil War segment is definitely the poorest of them, being way too brief, and I felt cheated when it came to Linus's fate at Shiloh.
July 20, 2009, 11:03 p.m. CST
Indeed, that cactus scene made me cringe, too. On the Cinerama doc they mentioned one stuntman fell off the train during that sequence... well, more like fell UNDER the train and had more than 2 cars roll over him, crushing half his body. He lived, but wasn't as pretty as he was before...
July 20, 2009, 11:03 p.m. CST
by LT Weezie
This is one of my all-time faveorite films. Love the music, the story, and the spectacular scenery. My first viewings of the film were in a regular theatre and on TV. Having lived in the Dayton, Ohio area most of my life, I was fortunate enough to be able to see it many times at the NEW NEON MOVIES from around 2000 to 2002, in original CINERAMA, thanks to Cinerama historian and visionary, John Harvey. He showed his print with the TLC it deserved and it was in pristine condition! He also owned the entire system and set it up himself. He always gave an explanation about the Cinerama technology and answered questions before each showing. Seeing a film there was like you were enjoying a movie on a huge screen, with a super sound system, with your best friends! Hollywood the dog was always in attendance, and she would walk up and down the aisle and greet the patrons. Other wonderful events sponsored there included the showing of a Stanley Kubrick's personal 70mm copy of 2001. Those days are long gone, and the print is now in Seattle, but seeing it in CINERAMA at the NEW NEON was an awesome experience. Quint, you did a great job of presenting and explaining the system. If you ever have the chance to enjoy this film in the original format, DON'T MISS IT!
July 20, 2009, 11:05 p.m. CST
has his fucking HAND on the train tracks and a train comes over and breaks his handcuffs, holy shit. Damn. That guy was fucking awesome.
July 20, 2009, 11:13 p.m. CST
Because it really didn't send me. <p> Call NORTHSIDE 777 I prefer, but it still isn't the greatest of the docu-noirs (T-MEN and THE NAKED CITY are better), plus Stewart was never meant for noir accept for ones by Alfred Hitchcock. Still it is an OK flick.
July 20, 2009, 11:19 p.m. CST
And an overall great "stream of consciousness" piece of writing as well. Keep this style up, you're an interesting dude.
July 20, 2009, 11:29 p.m. CST
July 20, 2009, 11:40 p.m. CST
by felt pelt
in this (and My Darlin' Clementine) is disturbing when you're used to him as kindly and loveable. Especially the way he offers his daughter up for backroom sex, encourages her efforts in stabbing someone in the ribs, and is finally exploded. The toss of gunpowder into the fire was an amazing move when I was a kid, seeing it on TV last week less so. The film's selling point then, its epic length and scope, is its weakness now. There's not enough room for any of the characters to breathe. Also, the theme song and Spencer Tracy's narration in combination still give me goosebumps. I vaguely remember some attempts at nuance in the narration. But mostly... Spencer Tracy just talks about how these men and women were incredibly badass, and the song repeats the sentiment in choral form.
July 21, 2009, 12:03 a.m. CST
The movie is ok but the album that Bing Crosby (and others) made that inspired the moive if fantastic!Bing reads several pioneer accounts of life on the frontier and sings some great Old West songs. His rendition of 'Hang Me, Oh Hang Me' is chilling and further proof of why he was the greatest entertainer of the century! If you get a chance, check it out.
July 21, 2009, 12:30 a.m. CST
by Droogie Alex
Full triple projection, had one of the 8 cameras in the lobby (one sunk in a river shoot). It was the size of a large fridge.
July 21, 2009, 1:33 a.m. CST
July 21, 2009, 2:56 a.m. CST
Arclight shows this every year in real Cinerama....it's beautiful! "This film makes me wish we’d see something similar attempted using digital photography and projection set-ups. It might be limited to museums and theme parks" Go to Disney World and see Mickey's Philharmagic. http://www.passporter.com/articles/philharmagic.asp "The 165-degree wide screen (nearly three times the width of a normal screen) helps immerse us completely in the action. Disney boasts that this is the widest (150 foot) seamless movie screen in the world (not a Stitch to be found?). According to George Scribner, "Four projectors, two in the center in stereo, and two on each side" are required - the middle two to create the central 3D effects, and one each for the extreme left and right of the screen. These outer images aren't in pop-off-the-screen 3D, as our eyes can't perceive depth at the outer edges of our vision, but the computer-generated scenes are still "modeled" in 3D, just as they are in Pixar's computer-animated features. George revealed that they tested stereo-3D images on the outer screens "early on, but we were not successful. In terms of the story, it starts to get pretty distracting. (It's) better to focus. We're dealing with a range of audiences. It has to be clear and simple and to the point."
July 21, 2009, 3:03 a.m. CST
everytime I watch it, I can't help but play Buffy Sainte Marie's song My Country Tis of Thy People You're Dying (http://tinyurl.com/lwaz44).<p> Oh and Re: The Beatles, George Harrison<John Lennon<Paul McCartney (that means George is the best, right? I could never get these cutesy internet things right). Paul has a house about 20 minutes from here and I've seen him twice. One of those times was in a health food store, where he refused to shake hands with the owner. I guess if you're Paul McCartney, you've gotta set blanket rules like that, but it didn't exactly give me the best impression of him.
July 21, 2009, 3:09 a.m. CST
OK, it cut off the rest of my post. I wrote: George Harrison < John Lennon < Paul McCartney. (That means George is better, right? I could never keep up with these cutesy internet terms). Paul lives about 15 minutes from here and I've seen him twice over the years. One of those times was in a health food store, where he refused to shake hands with the owner... I guess if you're Paul McCartney, you've gotta make blanket rules about these kinda things, but still, it didn't exactly leave me with the best image of him.<p>
July 21, 2009, 3:21 a.m. CST
by axel fff
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July 21, 2009, 4:33 a.m. CST
Hey Quint, Bradford UK has a working Cinerama screen and projection unit at the Pictureville Cinema, part of the Museum of Photography Film and Television. They show This is Cinerama on Saturday afternoons each month and occasionally have full Cinerama screenings. I saw How the West Was Won projected there when i was at University and also, believe it or not, 2001. Both prints were scratchy as hell, but the novelty factor was great and seeing both projected fully was amazing. Got to say the Blu-ray transfer for HTWWW is outstanding!
July 21, 2009, 6:03 a.m. CST
and I saw some amazing films there (not just HTWWW). Quint if you ever have a chance to see "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" there, do it. Although it is not true Cinerama (HTWWW and THe Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm were the only two fiction films ever made in Cinerama), IAMMMMW is one of the great experiences in that theatre. Ditto Lawrence Of Arabia, Kill Bill vol. 1 and 2, any Bond film I saw there... I have a theory that everything I saw there made the movie about three times better than if I saw it somewhere else.
July 21, 2009, 8:11 a.m. CST
You could have referenced and described scenes just as well without revealing major plot points, deaths and other surprises.
July 21, 2009, 8:18 a.m. CST
It's a bizarre little movie but probably one of my favorite Hichcocks. Research it a little before you watch it. It's all one continous take except every 11 minutes or so they after change the film so there are lots of tricks they had to do wth the set to accomplish it. Fun movie.
July 21, 2009, 10:31 a.m. CST
during its first run, and as the old cliche goes, they don't make them like that anymore.
July 21, 2009, 10:34 a.m. CST
is besides the continous takes (Hitchcock was quite the innovator), but watching the skyline backdrop evolve from late afternoon to evening, with city lights and skyscape changing...
July 21, 2009, 11:48 a.m. CST
it holds stuff down, ties stuff up, and is very versatile.
July 21, 2009, 1:35 p.m. CST
by Ill Clinton
Fortunately, Hollywood has relearned this forgotten lesson and America has responded. And so has the rest of the world.
July 21, 2009, 1:38 p.m. CST
is that once Jimy stewart walks into the apartment all of the shitty acting goes out the window. It's incredible to see how all the other actors elevate their game once the pro walks onstage. The first ten minute scene is almost unwatchable in it's poor acting. The next two are a little better and then Stewart comes on an it's go time! <br> <br> I've always wondered if a lot of the dialogue in Rope was improv. Stewart fucks with all the other actors, almost seeming like he's trying to get them to crack up, and his dialogue seems to have the same M.O. Great fucking movie, though. Not Hitch's best, not even top 5, but a great fucking Hitch movie all the same.
July 21, 2009, 2:48 p.m. CST
by David Carradine.....what? Too soon?
July 21, 2009, 5:42 p.m. CST
It was great! The rain didn't bother me at all. He finishes up there tonight. Nice tribute to George as well when he performed SOMETHING. How did you like God of Carnage? I enjoyed it a few weeks ago. & Thanks for this review... I've avoided this film due to the bad image cropping on previous releases. I still think the vertical lines will bug me, but I'll check out the blu-ray. I look forward to your take on ROPE!
July 21, 2009, 6:16 p.m. CST
Although the documentary doesn't make it clear, "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm" was the first Cinerama movie MGM released in the U.S. (Ironically, HTWWW was released first in England). My parents took me to see "Brothers Grimm" in 1963 and I never forgot the experience of seeing a movie projected on a huge curved wall that wrapped around the sides of the theater. I loved the HTWWW previews, too, especially the river rapids sequence!
July 21, 2009, 8:59 p.m. CST
Never seen the rest. It's pretty good, I'll give it a looksee again.
July 22, 2009, 8:02 a.m. CST
by Damned if I can login
...that you are incorrect about Joel<p>Now, don't get me wrong...I don't own a single Billy Joel CD/Album/MP3 whatever. I've always respected his success, but I've basically been indifferent. And from what I understand he's an ass, and his appearance on American Chopper pretty much showed that.<p>But I *won* a couple of tickets to his concert in San Diego back in '91 or so, and for the record I would not have bought them.<p>There was no opening band, just Joel and his band. And when they played the very long and complex Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, it blasted me outta my seat. It - most definitely - ROCKED. Oh, and he didn't play the wussified I Love You Just the Way You Are, or She's Always a Lady (thank heaven).<p>Oh, and another "for the record"...the band I listen to the most these days is Iron Maiden, hands down. Joel in his wildest dreams (or nightmares) never rocked like IM continues to do, but then again no one does.
July 22, 2009, 8:15 a.m. CST
by Crimson Dynamo
Talk about a well run dry...
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