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How The West Was Won

review by Eric Dahl

Rated G

Studio: MGM

Running Time: 155 Minutes

Starring Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark

Written by James R. Webb

Directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall

Retail Price: $19.98

Features: Behind-The-Scenes Documentary "The Making of How The West Was Won", Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Surround Stereo, French Dolby Surround Stereo, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search (32 Chapters)

Now, let's, for a second, take the time-travelling Delorean back to the year of 1953. The old practice of going to the movies was quickly being killed by an invention called television, and the movie-moguls needed something to get people back into the theater seats. Well, thus with a film called "The Robe", the process of filming and projecting a "wide-screen" image was first really effectively put to use. The image, approximately 2.55 times wider than it was tall, shocked audiences with it's beautiful panoramic views. Hollywood has continued filming and projecting in widescreen ever since. Now, the typical theatrical aspect ratio is commonly divided between two types: A "scope" film is 2.35 times taller than it is wide, and a "spherical" film is 1.85 times taller than it is wide. We rewind in time yet again to the year right before "The Robe" was released: 1952. A new film format is just about to be released. This format is called Cinerama. The Cinerama image, even topping the gargantuan aspect ratio of "The Robe", is 2.75 times wider than it is tall. Using a three-camera filming process, the format can capture a viewing field of about 150 degrees. That's practically your entire peripheral vision from left to right. Projected with 3-projectors on a highly curved screen, the format, depending on where you sat in the theater, would give you an completely enveloping sense of being "inside the movie". This, along with the then unheard of 7 track surround sound system that it used, made Cinerama a reason to switch off the TV, and make going to the movies the "event" that it used to be. Flash forward 10 years. Cinerama's novelty has started to wear off, as it is being used for mostly travelogues (as our IMAX system is pretty much devoted to right now) and something is needed to bring the masses flocking back in.

Cue "How The West Was Won".

The film, with an unbelievable cast of all-stars, and three directors (among them, the legendary John Ford) is released. This is the first time that Cinerama is used to actually "tell a story", and it is pulled off with a resounding BANG. The film, with a budget of $12 million is a success with $50 million taken in worldwide. It is also the winner of three Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. Now, I know you're saying "Enough backstory, I just wanna know how good the movie is.". Well, here you go:

"How The West Was Won" can only be summed up in one word. Well, maybe a couple of hyphenated words. These would be: "could-this-possibly-be-any-more-epic"? The story of three generations of a family, moving to the West while it was still a raw, uncivilized place was, in my opinion, perfect for Cinerama's "larger-than-life" technique. Now, I'm too young to remember any real Cinerama theaters being operated, although there is a restored one in Seattle, Washington, which is 2 hours away from me, so I can only dream at how amazingly awesome this movie would be in a real Cinerama experience.

Anyway, it's the 1800s, and sisters Eve Prescott (Caroll Baker) and Lily Prescott (Debbie Reynolds) are travelling westward with their families, who are looking to build a farm in "the virgin land of the west". This is pretty much the story of them. Throughout the course of the story, Eve falls in love with a mountain man (played by the always wonderful Jimmy Stewart) named Linus Rawlings and Lily finds love in a seemingly heartless, money-grubbing gambler (Gregory Peck). The story alternates between the two, with each having their fair share of subplots, and then even continues a generation from there to Eve's children, focusing on her son (George Peppard) who joins the Civil War to fight for the Union side. There, John Wayne and Harry Morgan can be found portraying Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant respectively. Now, I won't go into the multitude of other very famous people who show up in the film, because I think it's more fun not knowing and feeling your jaw drop lower and lower with every familiar face that you recognize.

The acting and the script are great, the story is pulled off fantastically, and the film at approx. 155 minutes only lagged for me in a couple of short places, but that's probably due to the complete exhaustion which I had prior to watching the film. Your mileage may vary. After years of catching only bits and pieces of it, when I finally sat down and watched it all the way through, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and am glad to have it as a part of my DVD library.

"How The West Was Won", presented here in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, in my opinion, has somewhat of a poor transfer. First off, the film, shot in Cinerama's extreme aspect ratio of 2.75:1, has been cropped here, like it was for normal theatrical engagements, to the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This means a loss of about 15% of the picture that was seen in the Cinerama version of the film. Occasionally, you can tell because someone is half cropped off the side of the frame. Another problem, although unsolvable, that I have with the picture is that, because of Cinerama's 3-camera projection system, there were always two vertical lines about 2/3 of the way across the picture on both the left and right sides of the screen when it was shown in the theater. The trick was always to keep all 3 projectors aligned perfectly, or the illusion of the enveloping picture was lost. The 2 lines where the alignment took place are on the DVD transfer, too. It's not really all that grating or annoying, but it does take some getting used to. You'd think that in this day and age of digital restoration, someone could go in and digitally erase the lines connecting the 3 sections of picture, but alas it hasn't been done yet. Other than that, the film's colors are good, with nothing too washed out, but occasionally, there are some color shade differences between the three frames: yet another thing that could be fixed with a proper restoration. The blacks are solid and good, and nothing is too sharp or too soft. Yet another problem are the almost continuously visible flecks and white specks which are physical film defects. Now, what this film needs is a true and thorough restoration: something which will bring back the potential beauty that I can see in the picture under all of the film defects. Maybe it's too late to do anything about it, but if it is at all possible to restore, this film should get the 5 star treatment as soon as possible. Until that time, this is the best that the film is ever going to look, and it's sad, because it deserves so much more than this.

The audio is another issue involving this disc that puzzles me. "How The West Was Won", presented in Cinerama, was utilizing a 7-track surround sound format, and yet this disc only contains Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Stereo. Why couldn't they pull the soundtrack from the original film and put it here? That is another aspect of the presentation that would be greatly improved with a restoration effort. The soundstage is limited to the front channels with no rear surround activity that I could detect. The presentation would most likely seem center-channel oriented monophonic if it weren't for Alfred Newman's absolutely beautiful score which pipes in through the left and right speakers from time to time, reminding you that you are listening in stereo. The audio quality isn't even close to being noteworthy, but it does an adequate job.

Only two extras are to be found here: a short documentary on the making of the film, and the original theatrical trailer.

The Behind-The-Scenes Documentary "The Making of 'How The West Was Won'" is an informative little piece, clocking in at just over 15 minutes. The documentary opens with a brief history of the Cinerama process, and then moves on into how the film was shot and how some of the stunts were done. Hand-held home camera footage shows first-hand how some of the stunts were done, and the interviews with a stuntman from the film are quite interesting. All in all, a nice extra, but it would have been great if it were a little longer. This extra was presented in 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic Full Screen and Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono.

The other extra, the Theatrical Trailer is just the preview that was shown before films at the time. It showcases the films numerous stars, and makes the film look very enjoyable. This extra was presented in 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen and in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.

Overall, the film is excellent, but the presentation is quite lacking. This is the best that is probably going to be available for a long time, so if you're a fan of the film, definitely get this disc. If you're only looking for reference quality picture or sound, look elsewhere: you won't find it here. For the DVDs inexpensive price (retail is $19.90, but it can be bought in a online or in a store for $16.99), if you're just looking for a good movie for a good price and it doesn't matter how it's presented, please give "How The West Was Won" a shot. If there is enough interest generated from this title, maybe a restoration could be in this film's future. I really hope so, because this is one film that definitely could benefit from such an undertaking.

(4/5 - NOT included in final score)




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