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It's the early 1800s and Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) uproots his wife Rebecca (Anges Morehead) and daughters Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lillith (Debbie Reynolds) for the long migration from New York City to a better life out West. After disaster strikes, Eve settles down with a mountain man (James Stewart) and Lilith is courted by a hustler (Gregory Peck) who has plans for the California fortune she inherits. The Civil War hits the Prescott girls and their children hard, as do family rivalries and fierce Indians. Other characters encountered include a dogged US Marshall (Lee J Cobb), a high plains drifter (Henry Fonda), a railroad pioneer (Richard Widmark), General Sherman (John Wayne), and President Lincoln (Raymond Masse).

Review by Shannon J. Harvey:
They don't make 'em like this anymore. But did they ever? How the West Was Won is arguably the most grandiose and unique experiment in American filmmaking. Sporadically narrated by Spencer Tracey, it's a kind of docu-drama travelogue that attempts to condense the entire American experience from West expansion to the freedom of the slaves. It's divided into three chapters "The Civil War," "The Railroad," and "The River, the Plains, the Outlaws," with the chapters directed by John Ford, George Marshall and Henry Hathaway respectively. It was also first film shot and screened in the experimental Cinerama format, where three interlocked 35mm cameras recorded the same scene from a slightly different angle. The film was then projected onto an enormous curved screen with an aspect ratio of 3 to 1, which corresponds to the eye's complete field of vision. Oh, and did I mention a cast of greats that would put those in Ocean's Eleven to shame?

They're all here; Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and
the much younger Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Karl Malden and Richard Widmark. They each inhabit characters that stand for something; the crusty mountain man, the ambitious young railroad pioneer, the card shark, the father figure, the rambunctious female - all symbols of a booming period in a bygone era. This epic is as magnanimous and as patriotic as Americana gets - check out the old-style treatment of horses and the presentation of Native Americans. But boy, this is something to behold.

If only the DVD could give this classic its due. The three-panel Cinerama is an obvious problem, not only for the two permanent horizontal lines down the screen but the different shadings of the panels. The transfer to DVD is a letterbox ratio of 2.55:1 so images on far left and far right are occasionally truncated. Picture quality does vary with are scratches, separations, and washed-out colours. As for sound, it's Dolby Digital 2.0.

The technical aspects of this transfer, I'm afraid, are disappointing. As for special features, we are only given the original trailer and a 15-minute retrospective featurette. It goes into the genesis of the mammoth nostalgia project and into the short-lived Cinerama (a certain precursor to widescreen). It also contains on-set footage of the brazen stunts, reminding us this was a time when stuntmen were stuntmen and yes, animals were injured in the making of this movie.

The Prescotts aren't exactly accurate examples of average pioneering families, and today the film plays like an odd mix of documentary and fiction. But so what? It's unique in the way it captures the spirit of 50-odd years of American history (a la Gone With the Wind), including all the characters, the stunts, the heart-aches and triumphs. It's kind of schmaltzy, but given that the last Western made was Shanghai Noon, How the West Was Won is testament, as said, to the way they don't make 'em like that anymore.

Published August 15, 2002

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(US - 1962)

CAST: 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, Raymond Masse

DIRECTOR: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Richard Thorpe

RUNNING TIME: 155 minutes

SPECIAL FEATURES: Behind-the-scenes Featurette: The Making of How the West Was Won. Trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: August 5, 2002

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