Monday, February 8, 2021

How the West Was Won

James Stewart and Carroll Baker.
The words “epic” and “”sprawling” are typically used to describe MGM’s 164-minute, 1962 all-star Western. At the risk of sounding mundane, that’s still an apt description. Filmed in the widescreen process Cinerama, How the West Was Won explores the settling of the Old West through the eyes of the Prescott family. A key theme is the evolution of transportation from the rivers to the wagon trains to the railroad.

Debbie Reynolds and Thelma Ritter.
The story is divided into five segments that cover two generations of Prescotts. The opening tale focuses on young Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker), who falls in love with a beaver trapper (James Stewart) and eventually settles in Ohio. The second segment takes place several years later with Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) traveling via wagon train to California to claim a gold mine. The remaining stories revolve around Eve’s oldest son Zeb and his experiences in the Civil War, working for a railroad, and serving as a federal marshal. His last segment features an elderly Lilith, who has now retired to a ranch in Arizona. 

The most fully developed segment is the first, in which Stewart’s grizzled trapper finds himself smitten with Eve—although he can’t fathom the idea of settling down. Both characters are appealing, with their age difference of 23 years being realistic given the era. This segment also includes an exciting encounter with river pirates and a thrilling raft ride through treacherous rapids. It sets a high mark that the remainder of the film can’t match. 

Young and older George Peppard.
A recurring problem is that the other stories aren’t long enough. Each features a handful of dialogue scenes coupled with a large-scale action sequence. Certainly, those set pieces are impressive, especially a train robbery filled with amazing stunts and crashes. However, the end result is a disjointed film and the superfluous narration by Spencer Tracy doesn’t help connect the pieces. Surprisingly, James R. Webb’s screenplay won an Oscar.

On the plus side, How the West Was Won is a visually enthralling experience. Directors Henry Hathaway (who did three segments), John Ford, and George Marshall clearly understand the Western genre and incorporate the landscapes seamlessly into the drama. The film was one of only a handful of dramas shot in Cinerama, a widescreen process that incorporated three cameras to create a slightly-curved image. When How the West Was Won was later shown in non-Cinerama theaters and on television, the three images had to be “stitched” together. If you look closely at the sky in some scenes, you can see the two “seams,” which appeared as light columns.

The standouts in the all-star cast are Carroll Baker and James Stewart. Debbie Reynolds gets to perform some lively musical numbers and does a very creditable job of capturing her character as a young woman and an elderly widow. George Peppard isn't as effective in repeating that trick, though he still delivers a capable performance. Some of the stars, such as John Wayne and Henry Fonda, have what amount to cameo appearances.

The decision to focus on one family inadvertently omits the contributions of Native Americans in the taming of the Old West. In the wagon train segment, an Indian attack is played strictly for thrills. However, the railroad company's broken agreement with the Arapaho tribe gets a storyline later in the film (although one could argue the subplot is more about George Peppard's character).

Considering its length of almost three hours, How the West Was Won moves along at a nice pace. Yet, as previously mentioned, some of the stories are abbreviated. It might have worked better as a two-part film (which was not a practice in the 1960s) or a television miniseries (also not a format at the time). Ironically, a made-for-TV movie and subsequent TV series based on the movie aired in the late 1970s. They starred James Arness and Eva Marie Saint as members of the Macahan family.


  1. I think a look at how Peppard's character and his Native wife got together would have enhanced the story immeasurably.

    I loved The Macahans and remember the TV Guide article "In a new hat, it's old Matt." Funny how some things stick with you.

    1. Speaking of things sticking with you: When I was a kid, I was with some relatives when this film came on television. As we watched, one of them said, "Jimmy Stewart is all wrong in this part," and "This movie is so boring." That appraisal has stuck with me all these years, and I just realized it's time I gave it another Go + judged it for myself.

  2. I saw this first run at a Cinerama theater in Hollywood, and all I can remember is the train scene and the three screens, which was disconcerting. At my age then, I likely wanted out after the first hour. It was broadcast on TV in letterbox years later, and the visuals were even worse.

  3. Nice post, as always, Rick. Your talking about Cinerama reminds me that I used to go see first run films at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood when I was a kid. I think, but cannot say for sure, that I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey there.

    I guess one comment I have is not about the film so much as about white popular culture enshrining the notion that white settlers "won" "the West", a notion that Aboriginal peoples (First Nations, or whatever is the right term) would completely and utterly dispute.

    Sorry to get political, but I had the same reaction to Oklahoma, which I adore, but it seems almost criminal that there are few African American, and no Native American characters.

  4. How the West Was Won is one of my favorite westerns and it seems to be an underappreciated one, too ( which is often the case with big-budget epics ). I agree that the first segment is the strongest. The scenes with Debbie Reynolds heading out west and meeting Gregory Peck are very well done, too, but the Civil War scenes always seemed a bit of a drag to me. Those could have been improved upon - although there is a standout scene when Carroll Baker bids George Peppard farewell as he heads off to fight the war.

  5. I have a special place in my heart for this film. I saw it in Cinerama when I was six years old. It was the movie that made me understand that a movie could tell a story and I could follow it and relate to it emotionally. I also feel in love with Carroll Baker and Debbie Reynolds. When Reynolds smacked that bandit girl with the pouch of coins, I was like "wow, what a cool girl!"