(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.)