How the West was Won
Release Date: Available now (original release date September 9, 2008)
Studio: Warner Home Video
Running Time: 2h44m
Video: 1080p high definition 16x9 2.89:1 / Special Features 480i or 480p standard definition; partially 16x9 1.85:1 and 4x3 1.33:1
Audio: Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1; Dolby Digital: English 5.1, French 5.1, Spanish (both Castillian 5.1 and Lation 1.0), German 5.1, Italian 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish (movie and select bonus material)
Portions of this review are from Ken McAlinden's HTF review of the DVD release and are in italics. You can read the entirety of his excellent write up here.
This Is Cinerama!
Despite having been to the Cinerama Dome at the Arclight in Hollywood as well as having a restored Cinerama theater several hours north of me in Seattle, I must confess to being embarassingly ignorant of both the Cinerama format, the intriguing history of the company, and its impact on the film industry. Fortunately we have Warner Brothers and its stellar treatment of "How the West was Won" as a remedy, introducing this late blooming film enthusiast to a format that is not only effective in its approximation of human vision but a landmark in the history of cinema.
In simple terms, Cinerama uses three cameras, set up in an arc that mirrors that of human vision, to film a scene on three separate, but synchronized strips of film. The three panels are then projected onto a curved screen. What makes the presentation more visceral than a flat screen presentation is its exploitation of our peripheral vision, imparting a "you are there" experience unlike any other. The widescreen aspect ratios we take for granted today actually owe their existence to Cinerama's technical and commercial success, though none of the flat-surface formats have ever truly replicated the feel of the three-projector, curved screen presentation. IMAX, the current king of spectacle film formats, probably comes close, but where IMAX seems to depend on overwhelming size to fill one's field of vision, Cinerama's wraparound approach could, in theory, be effective regardless of screen size. Sadly, the current filmgoing community has limited opportunity to compare the two, with there being only three Cinerama theaters left in the world. I'm fortunate to live on the same coast as two of them and now that I'm adequately informed, you can bet I'll jump on the chance to see an actual Cinerama presentation.
Until then, the Blu-Ray release of "How the West was Won" is a good proxy, in particular the exclusive-to-Blu-Ray special feature on Disc Two that simulates the original curved screen experience. Albeit everything is still on a flat surface, the "Smilebox" treatment of the film restores the intended perspective lines to make for a more effective and accurate presentation. The non-Smilebox presentation found on Disc One is no slouch, both versions offering excellent image quality, but there are some obvious issues caused by flattening the image to a rectangular shape. Where horizontal lines should be curving towards the viewer, they instead curve away - the opposite of the original intent. Eyelines also wind up misaligned - where two actors should be looking into each others eyes, they instead seem to be looking past each other (something they were in fact doing, but which was required to make things seem normal in Cinerama's arc). The Smilebox version has its own distortion issues - figures on the far left and right can look elongated - but they tend to be less jarring than those found on the other version. If you're sitting further than 1.5 times screen width, move closer and you'll get a pretty good idea of what the Cinerama experience is like, though I'm sure it doesn't come close to the real thing.
The Feature: 4.5/5
The film itself, as Ken notes in his review, is very much about spectacle - the film shows off the capabilities of the format by staging scenes that are especially conducive to the ultra widescreen format. At times it makes for a somewhat "put on" feel to the story and characters, particularly in the beginning when we're just getting to know them. But by the intermission it's hard not to feel emotionally invested in the multigenerational tale and the last chapter is a nailbiter of a finale. In a lesser film, the "who's who" cast and crew - featuring names like Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Director John Ford and a host of other Hollywood professionals - might have proved a distraction, but the format's technical grandeur and the film's epic scope prove more than capable of supporting the collective Hollywood talent and celebrity.
Ken's comments on the feature:
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 (Karl Malden) decides to take advantage of the newly constructed Erie Canal to move his family, including daughters Julie (Carroll Baker) and Lily (Debbie 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 (Robert Preston), and finds herself subject to the attentions of semi-notorious gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory 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 (John 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 (Henry Fonda) and hindered by the single minded drive of railroad man Mike King (Richard 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 (Carolyn 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 (Eli Wallach) if only he can convince Marshal Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) to help him.
As one of only two narrative features ever made in the three-panel Cinerama process, How the West Was Won is unapologetically all about spectacle. The Cinerama process used three separate interlocked cameras with 27mm wide angle lenses. This resulted in images with a staggering amount of detail while creating a similarly staggering amount of work for cinematographers, production designers, and location managers just to set-up a shot. Criticizing this film for favoring spectacle over intimacy would be like criticizing a fish for favoring water over air.
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.
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Both versions of the film sport a VC-1 encode and are free of physical blemishes. Detail is excellent and makes an immediate appearance with the mountain flyover. The high amount of detail also proves important in the many extreme wide angle, deep depth-of-field compositions, where figures in the background are as important as those in the foreground. Black levels and contrast appear solid and stable, colors are nicely deep and saturated, and there is no obvious edge enhancement or digital noise reduction. Though there was some amount of work done to minimize the separation lines between the three strips of film, there is minimal impact on the picture quality. The junctures between strips are obvious at times, but there's no reason to be bothered by them if one understands the nature of the format.
As mentioned earlier, my preference is for the Smilebox version of the film, which maintains the intended perspective with minimal (or more forgivable ) distortion. Here's hoping the release of other Cinerama films will include - or be presented exclusively in - the Smilebox format.
Audio Quality: 4/5
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless audio track is nicely revealing and detailed with the film's orchestral score, but dialogue tracks can stand out in stark contrast for a certain roughness or granularity. Because of the wide compositions and the blocking of actors within that wide frame, dialogue often shifts across the front soundstage. On large front projection systems this will likely be effective, but I found it a bit distracting in my modest 47" display environment. Dialogue can also seem a little low compared to the score or even from character to character. Surround channel activity primarily provides support for the music, though they also have the occasional localized and ambient sound effect. Bass effects are minimal and mostly found in the final chapters of the film, but they have good depth and punch, at one point making me jump in my seat.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track's most notable difference is its more constricted soundfield. Portions of dialogue continue to seem a bit low and the strings in the orchestra lose a bit of their silkiness in the lossy encode.
Special Features: 5/5
Audio commentary by Filmmaker David Strohmaier, Director of Cinerama, Inc. John Sittig, Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Music Historian Jon Burlingame and Stuntman Loren James: From Ken's review: This is an outstanding commentary that is well-worth the time spent listening to 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. The commentary also includes a Chinese subtitle option.
Cinerama Adventure (1h36m): Directed by Strohmaier, "Cinerama Adventure" tells the story of the Cinerama format and company through archival footage and interviews with surviving Cinerama engineers and support staff. The thorough and engaging piece gives viewers a real sense of the era when Cinerama represented a significant breakthrough in film technology. In today's technologically savvy - but also jaded - times, it's hard to imagine a piece of technology having the same allure and generating the same kind of excitement. "Cinerama Adventure" is encoded in VC-1 and has 384 kbps 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.
Ken's comments on the documentary:
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.
Theatrical Trailer (3m02s)
Smilebox Curved Screen Simulation (2h44m): The sole contents of the second disc, the Smilebox version of the film, in its entirety, is easily worth the price of the release and is the recommended way of viewing the feature.
Collectible Book: The attached-to-the-packaging collectible book provides 44 pages of written history of the film along with handsome archival photographs.
The Feature: 4.5/5
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Audio Quality: 4/5
Special Features: 5/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4.5/5
Shot in a format that was a landmark in film history, "How the West was Won" gets excellent video treatment, decent audio and a phenomenal special features package that includes a curved screen simulation that actually surpasses the main presentation. Highly recommended.
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