My Review of ‘How the West Was Won’ (1962)

I happened to catch this movie on TV after a particularly bad day. This was back when I was in college in the early 80s. The minute I started watching, I could tell I was in for a treat. The family that the story revolves around (the Prescotts) was made up almost entirely of stars I recognized.

The movie starts off focusing on the Prescotts’ move out West. Along the way, they encounter even more stars I knew, including Jimmy Stewart as a mountain man named Linus and Walter Brennan as a really bad guy who tries to bring the Prescotts’ trip to an abrupt (and fatal) halt.

Without going into all the details (because it would so completely spoil the story), the movie follows the Prescotts’ two daughters, Eve and Lilith—those early settlers could be so biblical. 🙂 And as their names suggest, they each follow very different paths.

Eve (played by Carroll Baker) ends up marrying Linus (the mountain man), starting a farm, and having a son. Lilith (played by Debbie Reynolds) goes West, where she becomes a singer and eventually hooks up with a professional gambler bearing the show-boaty name of Cleve Van Valen (played by Gregory Peck).

As the plot of unfolds, you not only get the story of these two women and their heirs, but you get a whole history lesson. That was the other thing that captivated me about this film—its sheer breadth. As it happens, I was taking a class in the history of the trans-Mississippi West at that time. Watching this movie was a bit like reviewing the material for a final exam, but with storylines woven in that made the already interesting subject positively exciting.

This movie is an epic in every sense of that word. Not only was it filmed in spectacular color using the state-of-the-art Cinerama of that time, but the array of acting talent and the locations are breathtaking. On top of that, the film is populated with all kind and manner of character actors familiar to the genre, like Andy Devine.

The film even touches on the conflict created when the transcontinental railroad crossed over lands where the Native Americans lived apart from (so-called) civilization. Henry Fonda puts in a moving and humorous performance as a grizzled buffalo hunter named Jethro, whose contempt for the white man contrasts sharply with the hardnosed sentiments of Mike King, the railroad’s corporate stooge (played as only Richard Widmark could).

In a sense, this movie marked the end of an era in cinema. It was not only a film made on a grand scale, but it was an old-fashioned Western that managed to squeeze a bit of social critique in with sentiment for the past. The plot is episodic, with each episode representing a different time period in the civilizing of the frontier. And not only does it have a star-studded cast, but it had three directors: John Ford (what a surprise!); Henry Hathaway; and George Marshall. Plus narration by Spencer Tracy and some awesome aerial photography.

I thoroughly recommend this one for anyone who enjoys classic movies and Westerns. They really don’t make them like this anymore! 🙂

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5 Responses to My Review of ‘How the West Was Won’ (1962)

  1. Michael Eddy says:

    If you’ve only seen this movie on a TV screen – than you haven’t really seen it. I saw it as a kid when it first came out – on a Cinerama screen. It was incredible. Westerns (other on TV where they ruled for a while) were starting to die out on the big screen and this was one of the last of the breed. The All -Star cast (and no kidding around – ALL stars almost – and as you said – the classic heavy hitting directors – the scope of it all – told through the exploration of the West through the Civil War etc. – with the connective tissue being the terrific Debbie Reynolds – the spectacular action set pieces (the battle of the river pirates after the white water rafting, the buffalo stampede, the train robbery at the end (when a stuntman lost a leg in real life) – the rousing score (which I can still hum on request) – it was just terrific. One of my favorite movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      I so agree! I’d love to see this on the big screen. It’s an amazing film all around.

      It’s like Lawrence of Arabia, in the sense that it’s best seen in a theater. I feel privileged to have watched Lawrence of Arabia on a BIG screen. That’s one astounding movie. Four hours long, yet it feels shorter. But I digress … 🙂

      This is one of the then-dying breed of Westerns. They went out swinging, huh? 🙂

      Like

      • Michael Eddy says:

        They indeed went out swinging. There is still the occasional western – the last I remember that impressed me was DANCES WITH WOLVES (I wasn’t crazy about the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven”). Did you see LAWRENCE when they re-released the restored version? Excellent. For me, I’d expand on your comment and say that ALL movies made for the big screen should be SEEN ON A BIG SCREEN. Look, an intimate character study like ROOM will play on TV almost as well as a movie screen because it’s all emotion and intimacy. But almost all Westerns have scope and incredible vistas (just look at a scattering of scens form ANY John Ford Western shot in Monument Valley…) – and they are FILMED to be seen on a big screen. So much is lost on a TV – and worse still – on a laptop or cellphone (don’t get me started). Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben Hur, El Cid, Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, Shane, North By Northwest — the list is endless. I know that when we’re going vintage – it’s tough to see something in CinemaScope of VistaVision – because they’re old films that you’re stuck watching on DVD on your big flatscreen – but so much impact is lost. The movies are trying to keep you coming with IMAX (which is incredible) and 3D (which is usually just a tacked on excuse to charge more for a ticket), but even as recently as last year – movies like (fill in most superhero movies here), The Shallows, Jason Bourne, Hell or High Water (kind of a modern Western), Deepwater Horizon (!), Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Star Wars:Rogue One just HAVE TO BE SEEN on a movie screen. It’s an experience like no other – and it simply doesn’t have the same impact sitting in your living room. Funny you mention LAWRENCE, because I was skimming through the channels a week or so ago – when I should have been going to bed – and hit that movie on Retroplex – and was mesmerized. I’ve seen it many times – but I came in with O’Toole and Quinn and ended up watching it right to the end – went to bed with the newspaper on the driveway and the sun coming up (although not nearly as impressively as the classic shot of the match being blown out and turning into a sunrise…)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t scream: I have never seen this movie. It’s not that I didn’t want to – the opportunity never came up. However, now that I’ve read your review, I see I’ve really been missing out on something. I’ll be watching it soon, and then I’ll wonder why it took me so long!

    Liked by 1 person

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