How The West Was Won is one of only two feature length films to ever use the 3-Strip Cinerama process to tell a narrative based story. Up until that point, the cameras were primarily used for travelogues; showing audiences sights and locations that only the rich could afford to see first hand. The presentation of these films gave audiences a sense of placement within the stories, having the screen fill up their entire peripheral line of sight. On top of that, it was the first real exposure to both widescreen presentations and high fidelity audio set up; the few Cinerama theaters at the time were the first to utilize a 7.1 surround sound system. Everyone one else was stuck in the full frame and mono era. Not the best line of defense against the growing television market. A night out to one of these establishments was cause for celebration. The only thing that comes even remotely close to this type of experience today is that of IMAX.
Split up into five separate segments directed by some of the most prolific directors of the time, this pioneering film plays more so like a mini-series or anthology that runs continuously than a traditional motion picture. The story connects these touchstone eras of American history by following the lives of two sisters, Eve and Lily, whose family is traveling down the Ohio River in hopes of settling in Illinois. As they grow older, one settles down with a fur trader for a farm life, while the other sets out to become a stage performer but soon finds herself falling in love with a gambler. As time passes and their family’s expand, we get a look at people crossing the plains in hopes of striking it rich during the gold rush, the Civil War, expanding the railroad system, and the rise of the American outlaw. It’s a look at just how much had changed over the course of developing the west into the place we know today.
The all-star cast includes Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. The introductory, intermediate, and closing narration is voiced by Spencer Tracy. All of them help create this cinematic quilt of American culture with performances that all combine into one of the best ensembles ever. You know the cast is big when someone like John Wayne is in a minor role.
How The West Was Won is more than just a sweeping epic set during the western expansion. Cinerama isn’t what makes this film stand the test of time. It’s more than just a huge leap forward in the way we make films today. A gimmick can easily make a big splash and then slowly fade away, this one was able to avoid those constraints and go on to become a classic. It showcases the evolutionary process not only of this country, but of the people that inhabit it. From the good to the bad, we really get a sense of how some of these characters lived through the time periods presented. HTWWW does more than just display how much can change over the course of a life time, it reveals the things we learn, the things we love, and the things we lose, and all of the things we gain in the process.
When speaking of the visionaries behind the lens, Ford has remained a mainstay in common day retrospective discussions on the western genre. However, the other two filmmakers have sadly fallen out of notoriety. These are directors whose work can be seen not only in later films of their time, but even in today’s movies. Perhaps the reason for this is that, while Ford eventually settled into the notion of being a western director, the other two branched off. Leaving less of a distinct mark. Their work, for the most part, remained unavailable until fairly recently. Hathaway, who directs the bulk of the feature, spent most of the ’40s shooting many noir films (The House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777, Niagra), which are just now being rediscoved by modern audiences thanks to studios releasing some of their library titles. That includes Marshall’s work also. But all three are still mentioned whenever How The West Was Won is ever brought up.
Sadly, only this and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm were ever shot using Cinerama. It was a difficult process that seemed to limited the directors framing choices, left many actors confused, and one can only imagine how difficult it would have been to edit a film of this magnitude. Having said that, the final product is undeniably a work of art, capturing images that over fifty years later still put most of today’s auteurs to shame. The film is so pleasing to watch, its musical score so wonderfully composed, and story so compelling that it could only have been told on such a grand scale. While Cinerama may have faded away, being replaced by modern day 70mm film, it certainly left it mark. Forever changing the ways in which we would make films.
Today when most movies are put through the restoration process, they are all cleaned up and then digitally scanned into computers frame by frame. Standard procedure. How The West Was Won marks quite a hard task at hand for the restoration artists. As if restoring one film wasn’t hard enough, How The West Was Won is, as you probably have guessed, the work of three films combined. And once the three prints have been cleaned up, they all have to be digitally touched up by workers to get rid of any imperfections that remained on the film reels. Then, on top of all that, combine all three elements into one seamless image. To put it simply, the new 6k print is so pristine that it may very well be the best looking DVD ever released on home video.
Seeing this brand new restoration done by the workers over at Warner Brothers makes me want to go out and spend and exorbitant amount of money on a brand new home theater set up with a Blu-ray player, just so I can witness their hard work in as crisp a picture possible. This is the kind of restoration work that every single studio should be doing for their classics.
While the old release of How The Wet Was Won clearly had quality problems from day one, time has only made the release even harder to view. To say this new DVD set puts the old one to shame would be an understatement. The difference of more than just night and day, it’s like you’re seeing this movie all over again for the first time. This brand new 2.89:1 anamorphic transfer presents the film in its most complete form to date. The older version cropped the image down to a more traditional 2.35:1 (non anamorpic) picture.
Now, while I did nothing but completely gush in the past few paragraphs, there are a few points in the film where some of the restoration work isn’t as seamless as one might like. Especially after seeing the stunning clarity which makes up almost the entire feature. There are a small number of scenes where the quality takes a slight dip. All of these minor issues can be counted on one hand. Plus, given the arduous task the people behind this restoration worked were forced to face, I think we can let those moments slide.
Before people start complaining, the occasional ‘fisheye’ effect is a natural thing. HTWWW was shot with the intention of being projected on specifically designed, deeply-curved screen, which had a 146° subtending arch to them. It might take a little getting used to for some, with only a few times where the effect is overly noticeable. Along with this brand new DVD release, Warner is planning to release the movie on Blu-ray with an simulated ‘Smilebox’ experience to best replicate the original exhibition.
Here are a few comparison shots between this new set and the previous DVD release:
Shot #1, Shot #2, Shot #3, Shot #4, Shot #5, Shot #6, Shot #7, Shot #8, Shot #9,.
While it would have been nice to see them include a 7.1 audio track on the discs to reproduce the original mixing (especially considering the feature is spread over two DVDs), this newly remastered and remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital track is phenomenal. The opening overture, which runs roughly five minutes, is the starting point that lets you know this new mix isn’t going to simply be “acceptable.” No, it instantly makes you sit up and take notice. Dialogue can be heard clearly and Alfred Newmans score has never sounded better. This brand new DVD release has completely restored the original overture, intermission, entr’ acte and exit music from the original theatrical release and Newman’s work, along with Ken Darby, have never sounded better (except for maybe inside of an actual Cinerama theater).
Starting things off is a feature length commentary with Filmmaker David Strohmaier, Director of Cinerama, Inc. John Sittig, Film Historian Rudy Behlmar, Music Historian Jon Burling and Stuntman Loren James all participating. All five contributors have a clear love and admiration for this movie, and each one brings something to the table that helps to expand your appreciation for How The West Was Won. Talking about everything you would want to know, our commentator discuss topics like what is at work underneath Alfred Newman’s score, the stunts for all of the major action scenes, tricks used for framing shots, even talking about some of the background actors’ careers in Hollywood. I’m a sucker for a good commentary track and this one is hands down one of the best tracks I have ever listened to on a DVD release. And this is coming from someone who listen to commentaries more than he watches the actual films.
Disc Three offers up Dave Strohmaier’s critically-acclaimed, feature-length documentary Cinerama Adventure. This is more than just an extra documentary crammed into a package to make it seem more elaborate. The incorporation of Cinerama Adventure makes this package complete. A through and through celebration of the truly unique movie making process. You come to learn how dangerous it was for them to capture some of the shots in the earlier travelogues. From plane engines failing while flying over an active volcano to a boat flipping over in white rapids due to the weight of the mammoth camera, to Paul Mantz’ fascination with flying under bridges. These people were maverick, pioneers, inventors that revolutionized the motion picture experience. This documentary is worth the price of the DVD set alone. You’d be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive look into the history of Cinerama.
Also available on disc one is the original theatrical trailer.
The version sent for review is the elaborate Ultimate Collector’s Edition. This includes the 3-disc special edition, as well as a 36-page Cinerama Souvenir Book reproduction, 20-page theatrical press book reproduction, 10 black and white behind-the-scenes photo cards and 10 collectible color photo cards. Also included inside is a mail-away offer for a 27″x40″ reproduction of the original poster for the film.
The biggest disappointment by far with this title has to be the lack of involvement with living cast and crew members. Sure some are included in Strohmaier’s documentary, but most of that was shot a few years ago when the documentary was originally shot. If James’ on-set stories from commentary are any indication, Warner missed out on a golden opportunity.
It should be noted that the previous fifteen minute “Making Of” featurette on the old disc is not included in the collection. However, just about everything from it is told in far greater and richer detail on the new documentary. Just wanted to give the heads up to you completists out there.
In terms of classic releases this year, How The West Was Won: Ultimate Collector’s Edition is right up there with the best of the best. Warner continues to go above and beyond with their classic titles in 2008, with both Bonnie & Clyde and Dirty Harry also receiving stellar releases. How The West Was Won is the type of film studios should be putting more of out on Blu-ray. Watching this on standard DVD makes me want to go out and spend thousands of dollars on a new setup just to view it all over again in the best quality possible. This brand new release, be it as the stripped down three-disc release or this more elaborate Ultimate Edition, should be on the shelf of every self respecting film lover.
Now it’d be nice to see them find, restore, and release The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, the only other feature length film to use the Cinerama cameras.
Warner Bros. Home Video presents How The West Was Won. Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall. Starring Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Spencer Tracey. Written by James R. Webb. Running time: 164 minutes minutes. Rated G. Released on DVD: September 9, 2007. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Gregory Peck, James Stewart, John Wayne