How the West Was Won: Ultimate Collector's Edition
Directed By: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall
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, Harry Morgan
Released by MGM in the three panel Cinerama format in 1962, "How the West Was Won" tells a multi-generational tale of the Prescott family spanning most of the 19th century. The film is broken up into five discrete episodes with interstitial segments narrated by Spencer Tracy covering the passage of time between them.
- The Rivers introduces us to the Prescott family as farmer Zebulon Prescott (Malden) decides to take advantage of the newly constructed Erie Canal to move his family, including daughters Julie (Baker) and Lily (Reynolds), west from Pennsylvania. Excitement and tragedy ensue along their passage as they encounter an experienced trapper named Linus Rawlings (Stewart), a group of river pirates, and some treacherous rapids.
- In The Plains, we move forward to the time of the California Gold Rush. Lily, who has become a saloon entertainer in the booming town of St. Louis, learns that she has inherited a California gold mine from a relative. She hitches on to a westward traveling wagon train led by the no-nonsense Roger Morgan (Preston), and finds herself subject to the attentions of semi-notorious gambler Cleve Van Valen (Peck) who found out about her gold claim through eavesdropping. Distrusted by Roger, Cleve has a chance to show his mettle when the wagon train is attacked by Indians. Additional surprises are also in store for Lily when she arrives in California.
- The Civil War moves things ahead another fifteen years where we are introduced to Zeb Rawlings (Peppard), the grown son of Linus and Julie. Zeb prevails on his mother to let him enlist in the Union army, and finds his wartime experience less glorious than he imagined. A fateful encounter results in him stumbling across an assassination attempt on General Grant (Harry Morgan) and General Sherman (Wayne).
- The Railroad moves us forward to the post-war period where Zeb is working as an Army representative for the Union-Pacific Railroad company. His efforts to keep the peace between the company laying the tracks and the Indians whose lands they are passing through are helped by a knowledgeable trapper and buffalo hunter named Jethro Stuart (Fonda) and hindered by the single minded drive of railroad man Mike King (Widmark). Zeb negotiates an uneasy truce with the Indians, but when he is unable to prevent the railroad company from violating the terms, violence becomes inevitable.
- The Outlaws concludes the film with a segment set in the late 1800s when range wars have contributed to an era of outlaws on the American frontier. A widowed Lili decides to leave San Francisco for a ranch property she has acquired in Arizona. Zeb, who has been working as a lawman since resigning from the military, intends to move his wife, Julie (Jones), and children to the ranch to help his aunt work it. Before he can do that, he has one last score to settle with notorious outlaw and train robber Charlie Gant (Wallach) if only he can convince Marshal Lou Ramsey (Cobb) to help him.
The episodic narrative, inspired by a series of "Life" magazine articles that previously had been adapted into a record album narrated by Bing Crosby, is appropriately large in scope to both encompass the history of 19th century America and to create a frame from which to hang the kind of large scale outdoor action sequences audiences queuing for a Cinerama film would expect. Such sequences include a dangerous river crossing, an Indian attack on a wagon train, a buffalo stampede, and a battle with bandits on a moving train among others.
The large big name cast also assured audiences that they would be getting their money's worth, and most of them deliver whether in an extended role in multiple sequences such as Debbie Reynolds, or in cameos such as John Wayne's brief role as General Sherman. George Peppard is perhaps the weak link in the cast, coming off a bit bland in the key role of Zeb Rawlings, especially compared to the dynamic actors with whom he shares the screen such as Russ Tamblyn, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Eli Wallach, and Lee J. Cobb.
The film is presented in a 16:9 enhanced transfer letterboxed to an ultra-wide 2.89:1 aspect ratio. The technical folks at Warner Bros. Home Video have more than gone the extra mile with this release, employing digital wizardry to erase and/or soften the join lines between the three separate frames that constitute the Cinerama image for a near seamless result. Just as importantly, they started from early generation film elements, carefully touched them up in the digital domain for a clean, balanced, yet still film-like image with excellent color and contrast, and presented the film on two discs at an extremely high average bitrate, eking out just about all of the detail possible from standard definition video. I would almost go so far to say that with a decent upscaling DVD player, you could likely convince many viewers that they are watching a 720p high definition presentation during many sequences. There are some source related variations in density that pop up from time to time, naturally limited to one of the three "panels" of the image. There are a few instances where a bit of video flickering occurs due to some fine detail beyond the transfer's ability to resolve. This is always due to closely grouped vertical or horizontal lines. Since the essence of the film is wide angle deep focus spectacle, and detail is important to conveying that, I would rather have these infrequent (I noticed only about 3 instances) small anomalies in the image than see them artificially soften the frame to remove them.
Comparisons with the video quality of previous DVD and laserdisc presentations of this film are not even worth making, as they were all derived from optically reduced and cropped 35mm elements that were reflective of the film's release in non-Cinerama engagements and were presented in 4:3 letterboxed video. They are inferior in every way to what is presented here.
The audio comes courtesy of a Dolby Digital 5.1 track encoded at a 384 kbps bitrate. The film was originally presented with multi-track stereo sound, and while this appears to be a remix rather than just a straight repurposing, I suspect it is not a radical departure from the original, which I have never heard. The score and sound effects are spread widely across the front channels. There is directional dialog, but it is not spread as wide across the front as the sound effects. The rear channels are used frequently for score elements and when appropriate for sound effects. There are occasional discrete stereo effects in the rear channel such as the sound of an off-screen train whistle during the films concluding segment. Fidelity is outstanding, particularly for the rousing Alfred Newman score. I did hear the sound of either noise gating or faders lifting on the dialog track from time to time, but this was at worst a minor distraction. An alternate French language dub track is also included in 384kbps Dolby Digital 5.1. It is always entertaining to hear what John Wayne sounds like in French.
A feature length audio commentary spans the full length of the film on discs one and two. Participants include filmmaker David Strohmaier, Cinerama, Inc. Director John Sittig, Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Music Historian Jon Burlingame, and Stuntman Loren James. This is an outstanding commentary that is well-worth the time spent listening o it for anyone interested in the production of How the West Was Won or in the Cinerama process in general. The participants offer a variety of perspectives with Strohmaier and Sitting specializing in the history of Cinerama, Behlmer offering his encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood personalities as well as well-researched comments on changes from script to screen and production issues, James reminiscing on the film's impressive stuntwork, and Burlingame discoursing on the work of Alfred Newman, Ken Darby, and Robert Emmett Dolan. There is also some good interaction between them encouraging each other to expand on their comments in interesting and informative ways. I believe all except for Burlingame sat together when the commentary was recorded.
Disc one also includes the film's theatrical trailer which is presented in 4:3 letterboxed video. As one would expect, it emphasizes the film's all-star cast and grand spectacle. (3:06)
The third disc is devoted entirely to the outstanding 97 minute documentary Cinerama Adventure. Much like either of the bonus discs on last year's outstanding release of The Jazz Singer, this "bonus" disc is substantial enough to have been an independent release all on its own. The documentary, directed by David Strohmaier, looks at the history of Cinerama from its evolution from a flight combat simulation device for training Allied World War II pilots developed by Fred Waller. In the early 50s, Waller commercialized a three camera system with technical and promotional help from a number of folks along the way including broadcaster and world traveler Lowell Thomas, Producer Michael Todd, Producer Merian C. Cooper, and sound technician Hazard Reeves. The documentary starts off with a nostalgic tone, uses this to set-up the context for the television threatened Hollywood of the early 1950s, and then goes on to explore several aspects of the history and influence of Cinerama in great depth. Topics covered include its function as a catalyst for other widescreen processes, its unique commercial presentation and success, and how it figured in to the world politics of the time in interesting and surprising ways. Along the way, tribute is paid to several key contributors to Cinerama films including pilot Paul Mantz who flew the planes that captured many of the signature shots from the Cinerama travelogues, cinematographer Harry Squire, and European distributor and eventual Cinerama President Nicholas Reisini. Also included are several anecdotes from the production of Cinerama films from first hand participants.
The documentary is presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio encoded at a 384 kbps bitrate. The majority of the documentary, which was shot on film, is presented in 4:3 video, but several key clips from Cinerama productions are shown "smileboxed" with the outer edges of the image nearly as tall as the 16:9 frame and the inner part of the image progressively narrowed to simulate the curved Cinerama screen. This arrangement will not be ideal for those watching on 4:3 televisions, although it does offer a hint of the "This is Cinerama" effect whenever the screen opens up from 4:3 windowboxed to panoramic, and it is perfect for those watching on 16:9 televisions. Subtitle options for the documentary are Japanese and Thai.
Physical extras include ten postcards with color promotional images from the film, ten postcards with black and white behind the scenes images from the film's production, a 36 page color reproduction of the Random House Souvenir Book, and a 20 page black and white reproduction of the original general release Press Book.
The contents are all contained in a sturdy cardboard box. A three panel digipack contains the three DVDs. The film is split between the first two dual-layered discs using the natural break of the intermission/opening act. The third disc with the Cinerama Adventure documentary is single layered. A two pocket cardboard folder contains the postcards. Another two-pocket cardboard folder contains the two replica booklets. The boxes, digipack, and folders all have embossed lettering and textures on them giving them a faux leather bound book appearance. An additional insert is a certificate allowing the user to mail it in along with a purchase receipt, a proof of purchase, and US$3.25 shipping and handling for a 27" x 40" replica How the West Was Won movie poster.
While any home video presentation of this film will be at best a pale shadow of the cinematic experience which it was designed to be, this DVD release is the first video representation I have seen that is even able to suggest the essence of it. The audio and video quality are outstanding, and the extras, consisting of a trailer, a group commentary track, and a documentary on the history of Cinerama, whille few in number, are high in quality and value.