1963 / Best Picture

Film #258: How the West Was Won (1963)

Whilst films such as The Graduate were still being made the old-fashioned epics of yore still dominated several of the Best Picture slots at each academy awards during the 1960s. These epics were now being made with bumper casts and the next two posts will explore too such examples kicking off with How the West Was Won.

The film was an interesting one, as it split its story into five parts with three of these directed by Henry Hathaway and the other two by John Ford and James Marshall respectively. In addition, How the West Was Won marked itself out visually as it was filmed in a three-strip cinerama which had both post and negative effects on the viewing experience. The story itself deals with generations of the same family initially known as the Prescotts, whose daughters would both go on to marry and have children. Over time we saw how the families battled the wild rivers to get to the west, how they battled through the civil war and ultimately dealt with outlaws to claim the land for themselves. The two sisters – Eve and Lilith, had different fates with the former creating a homestead on the place where their parents died. Eve’s son Zeb would later go on to fight in The Civil War and negotiate with the Native Americans. Lilith meanwhile hooks up with a gambler and inherits a rundown gold mine before finally reuniting with Zeb and his growing family. The story comes full circle as the Prescott family finally settle in the west once and for all.

Seeing as it was made in 1962, How the West Was Won has a very old-fashioned feel to it and almost seems a little out of place Similarly, the big name cast are mostly wasted with John Wayne being the biggest example as his role is nothing more than an extended cameo. Indeed, the actors who have the biggest parts are Debbie Reynolds and George Peppard, neither of whom are promoted as the main stars of the piece. I felt that actors such as James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck popping up for two minutes did nothing to enhance the film and instead made the story feel a little flabby. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy How the West Was Won and found it to be a colourful western epic which passed the time fine. The sweeping scenery and Spencer Tracy’s assured narration were definitely the film’s biggest strengths while I learnt a lot about the formation of America. At the same time, I was never blown away by the film and none of it really stuck with me after the DVD had finished playing. The three-strip Cinerama process also made the film seem a little odd with the visible strips of paper almost looking a little messy. Overall, while not a bad film, How the West Was Won was quite unremarkable endeavour which is odd when you consider who was involved.


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