'How the West Was Won' is best approached not as you would a normal movie, in which you might expect well-drawn characters and a compelling storyline with a clearly structured beginning, middle, or end. The film is more of an illustrated history lesson, a sweeping overview of the title subject told in very broad strokes. In many ways, it's the most expensive Social Studies film-strip ever made. Yet the movie was never designed to be viewed in a classroom setting. Quite the opposite, 'How the West Was Won' was a big-budget, star-studded co-production between MGM Studios and Cinerama, Inc. It is (along with 'The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm') one of only two narrative fiction films shot in the 3-strip Cinerama process intended for projection on a massive curved theatrical screen.
Cinerama productions were not mere movies. They were cultural events. Photographed by an enormous camera with three lenses, a Cinerama film would be displayed using three projectors onto a 146º curved screen that filled a viewer's entire field of vision. Audiences of the time found its immersive qualities simply sensational. The debut feature 'This is Cinerama' was the highest-grossing film of 1952 despite only playing in a single theater that year. The process was admittedly a gimmick of sorts, designed to lure audiences back to movie theaters by giving them an experience they could never get at home on television. Less than a dozen films were made in genuine 3-strip format. The majority of them were travelogue documentaries that showcased the natural and man-made wonders of the world with majestic aerial and point-of-view photography.
'How the West Was Won' has something of a travelogue sensibility to it as well. It's not really a story so much as a visit to the Old West conducted in episodic fashion. A huge cast of stars includes James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Agnes Moorehead, Richard Widmark, Walter Brennan, and many more, each acting out a particular vignette of life on the wild frontier with narration by Spencer Tracy. The picture is loosely held together by a throughline focusing on three generations of the fictional Prescott family. Debbie Reynolds starts the movie as a spunky young teenager and ends it as an elderly matriarch. Gregory Peck is a charming gambler vying for her affections. George Peppard is her young nephew who runs off to join the Union army. John Wayne and Harry Morgan pop in for about 10 minutes as Generals Sherman and Grant respectively.
In the process of telling the history of America's expansion westward, the film reenacts numerous iconic elements from the Western genre: a wagon train attacked by Indians, brawling with river pirates, the Pony Express, the Gold Rush, riding dangerous rapids on a wooden raft, the building of the transcontinental railroad, riverboat gambling, the Civil War (encapsulated by the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh), a visit to Monument Valley, a buffalo stampede, and even a train robbery. The production was so massive in scale that it required three directors. The majority of the movie was directed by Henry Hathaway ('True Grit'), with the railroad section handled by George Marshall ('Destry Rides Again') and the Civil War section by John Ford.
Objectively speaking, the movie's dramatics are kind of hokey, most scenes constructed of large groups of characters sitting around talking and singing. Believe me, Debbie Reynolds does a lot of singing. The action scenes are bloodless so as to be family-friendly, and often unimaginatively staged due to the limited mobility of the huge Cinerama camera. But there really is something strangely captivating about the picture. The "Let's put on a big show" enthusiasm is charming in its naïveté. The movie genuinely tries to give audiences everything they could possibly want in a Western adventure. Its ambition is still impressive even if the specifics of its execution don't hold up to modern expectations.
They truly don't make movies like this anymore. Due to its expense and complexity, 3-strip Cinerama eventually gave way to cheaper and more convenient filming solutions that have never quite replicated the same sense of showmanship. Whereas modern movies must be made to play equally well in theaters or home video, 'How the West Was Won' is a movie made specifically for Cinerama, not just in technical respects, but also in terms of its theatricality. This is a case where presentation is as integral an aspect of the movie as its script, acting, or other production values. Unfortunately, as sophisticated as home video technology has gotten in recent years, a picture like this may never be fully appreciated outside of a real Cinerama theater.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'How the West Was Won' debuts on the Blu-ray format from Warner Home Video. The 2-disc set comes packaged in a book-style digipak with several pages of photos and production notes. As with most Warner Blu-rays, both discs start movie playback immediately without any trailers, promos, or even a main menu screen.
Disc 1 contains the standard Letterbox transfer of the film. Disc 2 contains the exclusive Smilebox transfer (see "HD Bonus Content"). Unlike the comparable DVD editions, the Blu-ray does not split the two halves of the movie onto separate discs at the intermission. Each Blu-ray disc holds the entire movie, including Overture, Intermission, Entr'acte, and Exit.
Because a Cinerama movie image is comprised of three separate strips of film projected side-by-side, previous video transfers for 'How the West Was Won' were a messy affair with prominent "join lines" running down the picture at the intersection of each panel. Registration errors and color timing variances also often left the sides of the image feeling disconnected from the center. For this new restoration, Warner has scanned each strip of film separately at 2k resolution and digitally merged them as seamlessly as possible. The results are revelatory. While the join lines have not been completely wiped away, they are invisible for long stretches of the movie.
The Blu-ray package contains two distinct video transfers for the movie on separate discs. The flat Letterbox transfer has an ultra-wide aspect ratio of 2.89:1. The curved Smilebox transfer on Disc 2 (more on this below) measures 1.95:1 from its highest point to its lowest. The Letterbox version has a slight bit more picture information on the left and right sides of the frame than the Smilebox does. According to David Strohmaier (director of the "Cinerama Adventure" documentary), this was done intentionally. During the video transfer, Warner scanned each camera negative from edge to edge, including parts of the frame that would never be seen during Cinerama projection. The studio opted to include all of that image in the Letterbox presentation as a sort of "bonus material," while the Smilebox version retains the small amount of cropping as it would have been seen in a Cinerama theater.
Other than these framing differences, the two transfers are otherwise virtually identical. The picture quality is frequently breathtaking, with astonishing depth and "looking through a window" clarity. Colors are bold and vivid. Contrasts are rich and shadow detail is excellent. Cinerama offered three times the film negative area as a traditional movie, and thus was a very fine-grained photographic process by nature. The Blu-ray has very little grain and no video noise. I also saw no edge ringing or compression artifacts. Along with the join lines, other age-related print defects have been cleaned up or digitally painted out (though some dirt on the camera lens during the opening and closing aerial footage was not removed).
The image has plenty of High Definition detail, enough that you can plainly see a wire holding the knife that Jimmy Stewart throws at a river pirate. Some scenes are sharper than others, however. In fact, the movie as a whole is just a little bit soft. The bonus features on the disc make repeated reference to the fact that the Cinerama cameras were so sensitive that audiences could tell the difference between machine-sewn and hand-sewn costumes. I feel like I rarely saw that level of detail in the Blu-ray, which doesn't quite stack up to the extraordinary sharpness or detail of Warner's earlier High-Def transfer for 'Grand Prix' (currently still only available on HD DVD).
Of course, no home video format will ever replicate the full glory of three-strip Cinerama. Make no mistake, minor quibbles aside, this is a terrific transfer and by far the best the movie has looked outside of a real Cinerama theater.
Cinerama was as innovative in its sound presentation as it was in picture. 'How the West Was Won' was originally recorded and mixed for seven channels of audio. Cinerama theaters had five channels across the front and two surrounds. To date, no home audio formats are capable of reproducing that configuration. As a result, the Blu-ray's soundtrack has been remixed into 5.1, available in both standard Dolby Digital or lossless Dolby TrueHD formats.
I wish I was as impressed with the audio as I am with the video. Although the musical score may be broad and sweeping, dialogue is flat and is suppressed very low in the mix. The dynamic range of the track is poorly balanced, with the music an order of magnitude louder than the dialogue. This had me riding the volume control on my receiver through the whole movie. Sound effects are brittle, and bass (most prominent during cannon fire and the buffalo stampede) is muddy and indistinct. Dialogue occasionally moves directionally to the left and right sides of the front soundstage (an effect rarely used anymore), but surround usage is limited.
The sound quality isn't terrible by any means, but I do feel that something was lost in the translation from Cinerama to 5.1. Even the age of the picture doesn't quite account for it. I believe this movie should sound better than it does.
The Blu-ray is being released simultaneously with two new DVD editions: a Three-Disc Special Edition and an Ultimate Collector's Edition. All three releases share the same video bonus material.
As a movie, 'How the West Was Won' is a rather dated piece of nostalgia. It's more historical curiosity than genuine entertainment. That said, this new Blu-ray restoration with Smilebox transfer and excellent bonus features helps enormously to foster a greater appreciation for the film's virtues. The disc is recommended for film buffs and Western fans.