Saturday, January 11, 2014

How the West Was Won

Film: How the West Was Won
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

This is not going to be easy. How the West Was Won is a film that not only spans a massive amount of time, a good 40-50 years, and has one of those casts that starts on a Tuesday and ends on Friday. Lots of folks are given top billing for a few minutes work here but nonetheless, there are so many stars and future stars involved in the cast of this that it would take a full paragraph or two to name them all. Just as interestingly, many of them are not immediately recognizable, but can be identified by their voices. Henry Fonda in particular doesn’t look anything like himself, but there’s no mistaking that voice. Ditto for John Wayne, who makes a several minute appearance as William Tecumseh Sherman. Spencer Tracy narrates the film, and his voice is just as immediately recognizable.

We begin with the Westward quest of the Prescott family, heading to the wild country of Ohio. Led by patriarch Zebulon (Karl Malden) have little but their own gumption for the trip, and they encounter a series of problems. One of those problems turns out instead to be a friend named Linus Rawlings (James Stewart). There is a mutual attraction between Linus and Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker), but Linus is a mountain man. When he saves the family from being bushwhacked, that attraction grows. It’s not until a serious accident kills off Zeb and his wife that Eve makes a choice to stay on that spot, and Linus agrees to stay with her.

The other Prescott daughter, Lilith (Debbie Reynolds), heads to St. Louis and ends up working in a stage show. She learns that she has inherited a gold mine in San Francisco and heads west, meeting up with a gambler named Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). Van Valen is with her mainly because of the gold mine, which turns out to be worthless. The pair separates and Lilith ends up working on riverboats entertaining the masses. But she meets up with a mildly changed Cleve again, and the two marry and move off to San Francisco to make their fortune.

Meanwhile, Civil War breaks out and Linus goes off to war followed by his and Eve’s son Zebulon (George Peppard). Zeb manages to save William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne) and U.S. Grant (Henry Morgan) from assassination, and decides to stay with the army after the war. He works with the transcontinental railroad, toiling for the unpleasant Mike King (Richard Widmark) and also meets up with buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of his father’s. When King violates the treaty with the local Arapaho tribe, Zeb leaves.

Eventually, Zeb winds up in Arizona working on the ranch of his aunt Lilith. He meets up with an old enemy (Eli Wallach) and has a confrontation that helps to further tame the West.

Okay, so this was a very cursory summary, and that’s all you’re going to get. There’s far too much that happens in How the West Was Won to summarize easily or completely. Along the way, we get rafts tossed in the rapids, a buffalo stampede, explosions, war, train robberies, and more. There’s a lot here that’s about the best you’ll find in the Western genre, but other places where the rear projection work is both obvious and bad. That’s more a product of the time than it is the quality of the film, though. It’s hard to ignore, though, particularly in the train robbery sequence. It’s almost painfully rudimentary, and moments like one man falling off the train and landing on an obviously wooden cactus become comic.

This is a difficult film to dislike, but I found it also a difficult film to love. It never seems to focus on anything, jumping from time to time and event to event. The film is close to three hours long, but it doesn’t focus on a particular time or place for much more than half an hour. The film feels episodic because of this, and not as satisfying as it could be. Just when we get used to a set of characters, everything shifts. Some of those characters come back and some of them don’t, and they don’t because dozens of years have gone by between frames of film.

Additionally, this episodic nature doesn’t really identify exactly how the West Was won after all. I guess, the train and shooting Eli Wallach is what made the West safe for settlers.

How the West Was Won is certainly epic and it certainly attempts to be grand in the way that only epic films can be. It attempts too much, though. It might simply be too large of a story to tell in a single film. It seems more suited to an episodic format, like a television mini-series. It’s both too long and not nearly long enough to be fully satisfying. The spectacle is a good one, but it needs to either be more selective in the stories it tells or to have more story in its stories.

Why to watch How the West Was Won: A grand Western spectacle.
Why not to watch: Just when you get comfortable, the scene and characters change.


  1. I agree. Even at three hours it felt like it wasn't showing much of anything before moving on. It was more a sampler of key events in winning the West.

    1. In a sense, it reminds me of something you said about Cavalcade. It's like it's going down a checklist of important events to make sure it gets each one.