Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

Dear Old Alma Mater: John Wayne in TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY (Warner Brothers 1953)


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Tomorrow’s the big night, as my New England Patriots go up against the tough defense of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Tom Brady and company will be going for Ring #6, and everyone here in Southern New England is super excited, looking forward to another victory celebration! I’ll be attending a huge party with plenty of food, big screen TV’s, raffles, squares, and like-minded fans, but before the festivities begin, let’s take a look at TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY, a football-themed film starring none other than Big John Wayne !

St. Anthony’s College is a struggling Catholic university run by sweet old Father Burke, who’s getting to be as decrepit as the school itself. The powers-that-be want to close his beloved St. Anthony’s, seeing how the school’s $170,000 in debt, but old Father Burke comes up with an idea. Citing Deuteronomy 32:15 (“The beloved grew fat and kicked”)…

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Young Frontier: John Wayne in THE COWBOYS (Warner Brothers 1972)


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THE COWBOYS is not just another ‘John Wayne Movie’ from the latter part of his career. Not by a long shot. Duke had read the script and coveted the part of Wil Andersen, who’s forced to hire a bunch of wet behind the ears adolescents for a 400 mile cattle drive across the rugged Montana territory. Director Mark Rydell wanted George C. Scott for the role, but when John Wayne set his sights on something, he usually got what he wanted. The two men were at polar opposites of the political spectrum, and the Sanford Meisner-trained Rydell and Old Hollywood Wayne were expected to clash. They didn’t; putting their differences aside, they collaborated and cooperated  to make one of the best Westerns of the 70’s.

Andersen’s regular hands have all deserted him when gold is discovered nearby, leaving the aging rancher in the lurch. He heads for Boseman to look…

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Ride Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (Warner Brothers 1956)


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John Ford’s  THE SEARCHERS is without question an American Film Classic. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my second all-time favorite film, directly behind CASABLANCA. Every shot is a Remington Old West masterpiece, every actor perfect in their role, large or small, and not a minute of footage is wasted. The film has also stirred up quite a bit of controversy over time for John Wayne’s portrayal of the main character Ethan Edwards.

The plot is structured like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but let’s get it out of the way right now: Ethan Edwards is no hero. He’s a mean, bitter, unreconstructed Confederate who’s been on the shady side of the law since war’s end. When he returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, he makes no bones about his distaste for “half-breed” Martin Pawley (really an eighth Cherokee). His hatred of Native Americans even extends to their dead, as…

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Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)


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This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga…

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Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 13: ALL-STAR WESTERN ROUNDUP!


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Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game is tomorrow night, and in honor of that All-American pastime I’ve corralled an All-Star lineup of (mostly) All-American Westerns filled of blazing six-guns, galloping horses, barroom brawls, sexy saloon gals, and wide-open spaces. Hot damn, that DVR sure enough gets filled up mighty fast! Saddle up and enjoy these capsule looks at one of my favorite genres, the Western:

THE CARIBOO TRAIL (20th Century-Fox, 1950; D: Edwin L. Marin) – Randolph Scott   rides tall in the saddle driving his cattle to Vancouver gold rush country in this exciting oater filled with stampedes, Indian attacks, bad hombres, shoot outs, and fisticuffs. There’s a pretty saloon keeper (Karin Booth), a mean town boss (Victor Jory), and Scott’s bitter ex-pardner (Bill Williams), who had to have his arm amputated along the trail. Scenic Colorado stands in for Canada’s Great Northwest, shot in gorgeous Cinecolor by DP Fred Jackman Jr. Look for young…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Longest Day (dir by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, and Darryl F. Zanuck)


As my sister has already pointed out, today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.  With that in mind, and as a part of my ongoing mission to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture, I decided to watch the 1962 film, The Longest Day!

The Longest Day is a pain-staking and meticulous recreation of invasion of Normandy, much of it filmed on location.  It was reportedly something of a dream project for the head of the 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck set out to make both the ultimate tribute to the Allied forces and the greatest war movie ever.  Based on a best seller, The Longest Day has five credited screenwriters and three credited directors.  (Ken Annakin was credited with “British and French exteriors,” Andrew Marton did “American exteriors,” and the German scenes were credited to Bernhard Wicki.  Oddly, Gerd Oswald was not credited for his work on the parachuting scenes, even though those were some of the strongest scenes in the film.)  Even though he was not credited as either a screenwriter or a director, it is generally agreed that the film ultimately reflected the vision of Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck not only rewrote the script but he also directed a few scenes as well.  The film had a budget of 7.75 million dollars, which was a huge amount in 1962.  (Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, The Longest Day was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made.)  Not only did the film tell an epic story, but it also had an epic length.  Clocking in at 3 hours, The Longest Day was also one of the longest movies to ever be nominated for best picture.

The Longest Day also had an epic cast.  Zanuck assembled an all-star cast for his recreation of D-Day.  If you’re like me and you love watching old movies on TCM, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces go rushing by during the course of The Longest Day.  American generals were played by actors like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.  Peter Lawford, then the brother-in-law of the President of the United States, had a memorable role as the Scottish Lord Lovat, who marched through D-Day to the sounds of bagpipes.  When the Allied troops storm the beach, everyone from Roddy McDowall to Sal Mineo to Robert Wagner to singer Paul Anka can be seen dodging bullets.  Sean Connery pops up, speaking in his Scottish accent and providing comic relief.  When a group of paratroopers parachute into an occupied village, comedian Red Buttons ends up hanging from the steeple of a church.  When Richard Beymer (who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) gets separated from his squad, he stumbles across Richard Burton.  Among those representing the French are Arletty and Christian Marquand.  (Ironically, after World War II, Arletty was convicted of collaborating with the Germans and spent 18 months under house arrest.  Her crime was having a romantic relationship with a German soldier.  It is said that, in response to the charges, Arletty said, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”)  Meanwhile, among the Germans, one can find three future Bond villains: Gert Frobe, Curt Jurgens, and Walter Gotell.

It’s a big film and, to be honest, it’s too big.  It’s hard to keep track of everyone and, even though the battle scenes are probably about an intense as one could get away with in 1962 (though it’s nowhere near as effective as the famous opening of Saving Private Ryan, I still felt bad when Jeffrey Hunter and Eddie Albert were gunned down), their effectiveness is compromised by the film’s all-star approach.  Often times, the action threatens to come to a halt so that everyone can get their close-up.  Unfortunately, most of those famous faces don’t really get much of a chance to make an impression.  Even as the battle rages, you keep getting distracted by questions like, “Was that guy famous or was he just an extra?”

Among the big stars, most of them play to their personas.  John Wayne, for instance, may have been cast as General Benjamin Vandervoort but there’s never any doubt that he’s playing John Wayne.  When he tells his troops to “send them to Hell,” it’s not Vandervoort giving orders.  It’s John Wayne representing America.  Henry Fonda may be identified as being General Theodore Roosevelt II but, ultimately, you react to him because he’s Henry Fonda, a symbol of middle-American decency.  Neither Wayne nor Fonda gives a bad performance but you never forget that you’re watching Fonda and Wayne.

Throughout this huge film, there are bits and pieces that work so well that you wish the film had just concentrated on them as opposed to trying to tell every single story that occurred during D-Day.  I liked Robert Mitchum as a tough but caring general who, in the midst of battle, gives a speech that inspires his troops to keep fighting.  The scenes of Peter Lawford marching with a bagpiper at his side were nicely surreal.  Finally, there’s Richard Beymer, wandering around the French countryside and going through the entire day without firing his gun once.  Beymer gets the best line of the film when he says, “I wonder if we won.”  It’s such a modest line but it’s probably the most powerful line in the film.  I wish The Longest Day had more scenes like that.

The Longest Day was nominated for best picture of 1962 but it lost to an even longer film, Lawrence of Arabia.