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! 🙂