How The West Was Won (1962)



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I am not well versed in westerns, so I scrolled through the Turner Classic Movies collection and settled on How The West Was Won because it featured John Wayne and Gregory Peck. Peck, of Roman Holiday fame, plays a much large role than Wayne. The movie is also notable for being filmed for Cinerama, an early widescreen format. The filming was done from three adjacent cameras and would have been projected with three projectors onto a large curved screen. For digital copies, the three films are digitally combined.

The opening and closing shots of the film are large tracking shots over broad areas that appear somewhat distorted like a fish-eye lens. It is still very impressive to see broad, widescreen footage from this era. For most of the movie, the stitched seems are not noticeable, but occasionally they appear a bit darker than surrounding film. The fish-eye effect is less noticeable in most of the film than at the beginning.

How the West Was Won took full advantage of this filming setup. There are two prolonged action sequences that are gorgeous to look at in full widescreen. The first is an extended white-water sequence where the family's raft is tossed all over the place and breaks up as it goes over a waterfall. I was mesmerized during the entire sequence. The second scene of note is a 200 strong buffalo stampede through a frontier town. It is amazing to watch so many of these majestic mammals run in front of the camera. The live-action Lion King had to rely on CGI for a stampede, but in the 1960s they had real buffalo running real fast.

How the West Was Won is a five-part tale of four generations of one family moving westward. The journey starts in Albany, New York, and follows the Erie canal, within ten miles of my childhood home. It makes its way to St. Louis, Missouri, my current home next. After the Civil War, the journey continues through the Rocky Mountains to California and circles back through Texas.

Each of the five sequences of the movie is a self-contained story that is worth a watch on its own. I split the movie up over two viewing sessions because 2:44 is a long time to sit and watch a movie at home. The intermission, remember those, serves as a great place to split up the movie.

I was more enthralled with the visuals than the story arc but found the characters interesting enough to hold my attention. It is surprising how well the cutting-edge Cinerama holds up today. I am used to classic movies being in letter-box format and everything feeling cramped as compared to modern films. I was awestruck by what was on screen several times. I do not believe this is a classic western as much as it is an adventure movie. I will have to dive back into TCM and find a true Western, but I am not disappointed I watched this movie.

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©2019 by Sean Whitehurst