1962 - United States - 162 minutes
Directors - John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, and Richard Thorpe
Writer - James R. Webb - suggested by the series in LIFE magazine
Internet Movie Database User Rating - 6.9/10 - Link to IMDb
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars

This was one of those all-star epics that were produced by Hollywood in order to get audiences to leave their television sets and return to the movie theaters. It truly is an epic and truly is all-star sporting a cast of Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, Thelma Ritter, Mickey Shaughnessy, James Stewart, Russ Tamblin, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark - all narrated by Spencer Tracy. All three of the most famous directors of the period, and you have one block-buster film.

The story takes place between 1839 and 1889 and is divided into five parts: “The Rivers,” “The Plains,” “The Civil War,” “The Railroad,” and “The Outlaws.” Three generations of the Prescott family bind the parts together. Zebulon and Rebecca Prescott (Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead) leave their unproductive farm in the East and travel on the rivers to greener pastures in the West (actually Midwest). Their daughters find love along the way - Eve (Carroll Baker) with a trapper, Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) and the headstrong Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) with suave gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). The bulk of the third generation is represented by Linus and Eve’s son Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard).

The whole thing is a grand guilty pleasure with lots of tear-jerking melodramatic scenes and some of the best action sequences ever filmed.

One of the things that made the movie very popular back in 1962 was that it was presented in Cinerama - a widescreen process that involved projecting three 35mm films onto a curved screen (link to Wikipedia). There is a comprehensive and fascinating extra on the DVD that gives the history of Cinerama and the challenges of filming using such a technique. I was surprised to learn that Cinerama preceded Cinemascope and was an offspring of a seven camera projection used to train bomber crews during WWII.

How the West Was Won has been on DVD for a number of years but the transfer was sub-standard. There were two major problems to taking a three-section curved screen and flattening it out. The first was that flattening the image created skewed angles between the division of the sections, and the second was that the joints of the three projections were most often discolored and distracting. In addition, the first DVD version was produced in 2.35:1 image, but putting three 35mm images together produces a 2.89:1 image. Thus, both sides of the original were cut off in a sort of widescreen pan and scan.

This latest hi-def version of the film has pretty much solved most of the problems. I watched the Blu-ray DVD of the film and was overwhelmed by the improvement over the earlier DVD. In my mind, the greatest advantage of Blu-ray is that it enables movie fans to see crisp, clear versions of some of the older films produced by Hollywood, and this reproduction of How the West Was Won does not disappoint. The forty-six year old images look as though they were shot yesterday using state-of-the-art digital equipment. The technicians have pretty much eliminated the discoloration at the joints of the sections and have done a lot to straighten up the skewed angles.

Below are two photographs I attempted to take to show the differences.

You see in the top photo the original DVD picture. Note the poor quality of the image, that the sides are cut off, and the joints of the films are very evident. The shadow in the foreground is of a banner hanging over the street. The image is greatly skewed on the left where the banner is shown on two sections of the image.

In the bottom photo, you see the hi-def version of the same scene. Note the sharpness of the picture, that it shows the full width of the scene, and that the joints are almost invisible. The banner is still slightly skewed, but very much improved. Trust me that this technology makes for more enjoyable viewing throughout the film.
How the West Was Won
Hi-Def Version
The only disconcerting element left could not be solved by the technicians. When characters are speaking to each other across the width of the screen, they don’t look each other in the eye. It’s a quirky little thing that happens when the image is flattened. In the special features the actors spoke as to how this was a problem for them because they had to look into the camera rather than at their fellow actors.

Even though I have a fairly large television set, I found that the 2.89:1 image caused me to move my chair closer to the screen to more fully enjoy my viewing experience, but what an experience - WOW! If you are a fan of those old guilty-pleasure epics of the 1960’s, don’t miss this hi-def version of How the West Was Won.

Neil Turner
October 19, 2008