How The West Was Won
One of the last of the classic Hollywood Westerns, the last Cinerama story and one of the last hurrahs of the pre-television, pre-film-school generation of old-guard professionals
|Read more at|
The 70mm Newsletter
|Written by: Sir Christopher Frayling. Originally written as an introduction for the film in Bradford. Later published and re-edited especially for Cinema Retro magazine. All images by Thomas Hauerslev||Date: 14.03.2014|
|How The West Was Won began life not with a script commission from the executives at Cinerama Inc or with an original treatment sent in from an agent, but with a series of seven historical articles in Life magazine—running from April 6th to May 18th 1959. These were mainly written by staff writers from Life and were profusely illustrated with paintings, photographs, period newspaper cuttings, maps, diaries and documents; in some ways resembling the Time-Life books on the Wild West, in their faux-leather covers, which were issued as a series later in the 1960s.|
After a prologue which proclaimed that the ‘winning of the West was justly celebrated in song and story as THE American adventure’, the Life articles began with the first exploration of the West by Lewis and Clark and the mountain men. Then came an essay by celebrated author A.B. Guthrie Jr. (of 'The Big Sky', 'The Way West' and 'These Thousand Hills' fame) about how these days most people tend to ‘travel [to the West] by way of illusion, on page or screen’ rather than by making ‘the actual journey’ themselves. It had recently been estimated that 25% of Americans’ television time was devoted to watching Western series of one sort or another, from the 31 on offer. What made the Western continue to live, Guthrie concluded, was that ‘it freed and frees us—it emphasised and emphasises us as individuals’, rugged individuals who don’t like political dogmas or too much interference in our lives. Guthrie’s article provided the intellectual and emotional focus for the entire series—an updated mix of Theodore Roosevelt’s gung-ho 'The Winning of the West' (1889-96), where the series title presumably came from, and Frederick Jackson Turner’s celebrated 1893 lecture 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History', which famously argued that the frontier experience, the great migrations of settlers westward, shaped the distinctive American character ‘that comes with freedom’. As for the idea of ‘winning’—well, Guthrie was at his most robust about what this meant: ‘…the hell with Indians, Mexicans, British, the hell with weather and windfall and river and range… wheels roll on, hoofs plod.’ Articles 3 and 4 exemplified this by describing the pioneers in their wagon trains on the Santa Fé and Oregon trails (with a detour to look at ‘the colonizing of Texas’ and the Alamo); the Mormons and their discovery of the promised land in Salt Lake Valley; the Gold Rush and the rise of the city of San Francisco with its ‘mixture of races prominent in gold rush days’. The fifth article opened with the Indian Wars, which started—it said—because various tribes, especially the Sioux, thought ‘not illogically, that the land was theirs’:
Now the Indians watched the white man slaughter the buffalo, drank the white man’s whisky and blamed him for its wild consequences, died by the thousands of smallpox and others of his diseases. Confined, many of them, to mementoes, the Indians watched the whites push ahead with saw and plow…cheated, confined, hungry, they struck back.
|More in 70mm reading:|
How The West Was Won - In Cinerama
in70mm.com's Cinerama page
“How the West Was Won” The Original Cinerama Presentations
WSW 2011 Film Introductions
Widescreen Weekend 2011
|Then came the dramatic entrance onto the landscape of ‘the most romantic figure the nation ever produced’, the cowboy, and ‘the lawless men of a wild land’, the outlaws—illustrated with paintings by Frederic Remington and Charles ‘Kid’ Russell. The sixth article centred on ‘the Frontier’s Fabulous Women’, the brave and strong emigrants, mail-order brides, long-suffering wives, dance-hall girls, entrepreneurs, missionaries and actresses—all of whom, it was claimed, ‘helped to tame the pioneers’ and domesticate them. Finally, the series concluded with ‘fulfillment for a promised land’, a survey of transportation in the West—barges, wagons, steamboats, stagecoaches, the pony express and the transcontinental railroads always on the move: ‘the West was alive with people in action’. These innovations were followed by the ‘modern wonders’ of the wireless telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, the freeways, the factories. An epilogue featured seven stills from the film The Great Train Robbery, made in New Jersey in 1903, and said to be: ‘…the first American movie with a true plot and, even more, the first of the Westerns, a uniquely American art form which more than half a century later is nowhere near the end of the trail’.|
So the Life series began with the first explorers and ended with the closing of the frontier and the rise of the Western movie. The next stage in the story of the genesis of How The West Was Won was when Bing Crosby bought the rights to the Life series of articles, and its title, because he saw potential in an album of period songs and musical arrangements on the theme, with a variety of performers. This was recorded in July 1959, just two months after the Life series ended, for a 2-LP set in Living Stereo, ‘suggested by the series in Life’—with Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, various orchestras and, for the final section, The Deseret Mormon Choir and The Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Inserted in the gatefold record sleeve, with the Life logo much in evidence, was a 24-page condensed version of the magazine’s series, rearranged to match the order of the songs on the records.
This double album was well received, and led to the idea that Bing Crosby present and croon a television special of How The West Was Won on actual locations in the West, but this proved too expensive and logistically complicated so the package—articles and songs—was offered to the people at Cinerama Inc/MGM, who were actively looking for a story with dramatic and spectacular possibilities which could show off their very wide screen process. Cinerama Inc and MGM had recently joined forces for this very purpose, and Cinerama had moved its headquarters from Oyster Bay, New York, to the MGM Studios in Hollywood to help make it happen, and to help wean audiences off those 31 Western series on television. Up to then, Cinerama had only been used for travelogues and documentaries, such as This is Cinerama, Cinerama Holiday and The Seven Wonders of the World. One of the distinctive features of these films had been the celebration of America, of American technical know-how and of fast-moving vehicles of various descriptions—kinetic energy across the wide panoramic screen. This is Cinerama, for example, had opened with a fairground rollercoaster and ended with a patriotic montage called ‘America the Beautiful’ that apparently reduced President Eisenhower to tears of delight. The Life series, and the recordings, must have seemed a perfect fit. As has often been pointed out, the very word ‘Cinerama’ is an anagram of ‘American’. So Bing Crosby sold on his rights to the series—and thanks to Irene Dunne donated the resulting profits to a hospital in Santa Monica.
|The earliest concept for the film (which was announced to the press at the end of June 1960 as ‘the Great Western story’) had been for it to consist of five episodes, each centred on a song, and each sung and narrated by Bing Crosby and each based on one of the articles in Life—a semi-documentary idea. It wouldn’t be a sort of Road to California, though, or even Grandson of Paleface, but something much more epic in scale and ambition.|
This legacy of the television special soon made way for a fully-fledged narrative saga—still to be narrated by Crosby—which would begin in 1839, take in the Gold Rush of 1849 and the Civil War of 1861-5, continue with the post-war railroad boom and conclude in Arizona in 1889—a sixty-year, four-generation span in all. The script was entrusted to James R. Webb—who had written, among other films, The Charge at Feather River, Apache and Vera Cruz—and his first full draft was dated 22 July 1960. It opened with a pageant-style prologue, complete with rhetorical voice-over, showing in tableau form (a): the Pilgrim Fathers arriving at Plymouth Rock (b): the early settlers, the virgin soil and the Indians (c): Daniel Boone leading emigrants through the Cumberland Gap (d): Lewis and Clark mapping the West (e): the Mountain Men who followed them and (f): The building of the Erie Canal. The story proper began with Lilith—one of the two female leads—on a keelboat called The Flying Arrow, playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on an accordion. The passengers all stand up, in reverence for the nation—although the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ hadn’t in fact, in 1839, become the national anthem. Already, the first half of the saga would be seen from the points of view of two female characters—one a pioneer, one a dance-hall girl, both with the suitably biblical names of Eve and Lilith. This would neatly reference the sixth article in the Life series, about the women who were to become the matriarchs of the nation. Halfway through Webb’s first draft, there was to be a montage of all the major battles of the American Civil War. In structure, it reads as if it is midway between the Life articles/the double album and a narrative saga; a series of historical tableaux. By the time of the next major draft, dated January 1961, much of the prologue had been cut—as had ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—and the story now began with the Mountain Men and in particular Linus Rawlings, the character who was to be played by James Stewart. The rhetoric of A.B. Guthrie’s essay for Life was now reflected in a voice-over about how the West was ‘won from nature and primitive man’, and how ‘Americans have a way of acting out their dreams’. Gradually, and after many drafts, the screenplay was moulded into its final shape, ‘loaded with enough plot twists to fill a dozen pictures’, with help from veteran director Henry Hathaway (born 1898), the man who was credited with having made the first outdoor film ever in Technicolor (The Trail of the Lonesome Pine).
How The West Was Won would become the saga of the Prescott family, originally from New England, and would include along their exodus to the promised land a series of set-piece action sequences—on location and with a lot of stunts—to show off the Cinerama process to its full advantage, ‘taking you right into the action’; the equivalent of the rollercoaster ride in This is Cinerama: shooting the rapids in a wooden raft; a Cheyenne attack on a wagon train; the bloody battle of Shiloh; a cattle drive; a buffalo stampede; desperadoes shooting up a train; a runaway locomotive. There would also be an emphasis on transportation to keep the story on the move, another characteristic of Cinerama, as we’ve seen: keelboat, raft, wagon, pony express, steamboat, stagecoach, railroad and buggy.
|The original idea was for there to be a separate director for each episode—five in all—but in the end Henry Hathaway directed the most ('The Rivers', 'The Plains', 'The Outlaws') and also supervised 'The Railroad', directed by George Marshall (born 1891), which apparently needed quite a lot of remedial post-production surgery: John Ford (born 1895) directed 'The Civil War' sequences—from Linus and Eve’s log-cabin, through Shiloh and aftermath, and back to the log-cabin after the death of Linus and Eve—and, as many critics pointed out at the time, these were made in a distinctive style, more emotional, low-key and intimate and less crisp, frenetic and fast-paced than the rest of the film. The centrepiece had the audience eavesdropping on a quiet moment in history. All of this led to the classic credit at the beginning: ‘The Civil War Directed by John Ford’. I guess many people think he really did direct the Civil War, by himself. Ford had very recently directed John Wayne as General Sherman (the same character he played in West) as his contribution to television’s 'Wagon Train' aired in November 1960, 'The Colter Craven Story'. All three directors were veterans whose résumés went back deep into the silent era: they had 150 years of directing experience between them, as the publicists were later to point out, and they were well-known for their work with Westerns. The four main directors of photography were all born before 1905—one in 1895—they had all lensed many Westerns before, and they had all won Academy Awards. Clearly, these were gilt-edged Hollywood professionals, safe pairs of hands, who could be trusted with this very expensive and cumbersome technology. The cast of stars, too, was unusually mature for an action film—few of them under 45—and they were mostly well-known for their work in Westerns, a tight-knit, seasoned repertory company of actors: Spencer Tracy as narrator; James Stewart as the mountain man; Walter Brennan as the river pirate; Robert Preston as the wagon master; Gregory Peck as the tinhorn gambler; John Wayne as General Sherman; Richard Widmark as the railroad construction boss; and Eli Wallach as the last of the train robbers. Critic Pauline Kael was to write soon after the release of How The West Was Won, in her review of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, that continuing interest in the Western was less about the stories than about whether the ageing actors could still manage to get on a horse. It was, she said, dying on its feet. The youthful lessons of The Magnificent Seven had yet to be absorbed. Wallach—the bad guy in The Magnificent Seven—was in fact from the Actors’ Studio generation, a rather different approach to acting—as was Karl Malden (the pioneer father), Lee J. Cobb (the frontier marshal) and George Peppard (son of Eve Prescott, soldier-turned-lawman). The two female leads were Carroll Baker (also Actors’ Studio), who had made her name with Elia Kazan’s steamy Baby Doll, and Debbie Reynolds, who usually specialised in musicals and light comedies rather than dramatic roles of the range required here. Both were surprise pieces of casting. Carroll Baker as the pure, virginal Eve? When she was the same age as George Peppard, who was to play her son? Debbie Reynolds as the teenage Lilith, who lives long enough to become a grey-haired grandmother, with much tragedy in her life?|
When How The West Was Won was released, some critics asked: ‘Where – for example – are Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster and Glenn Ford?’, to complete the cast of Westerners. Well, according to the LA Times, all three were in fact approached, but Ford and Lancaster were not available and Gary Cooper died in May 1961 before he could appear. Spencer Tracy was originally cast as General Grant, but over-runs on a previous film meant that he became the narrator instead and Henry (Harry) Morgan took over his part. So Bing Crosby withdrew from the project altogether.
|Pictureville audience. Spot your self. Click the image to see a CINERAMA version.|
SMILEBOX version thanks to Dave Strohmaier.
Carolyn Jones was signed very late in the day, to play Peppard’s middle-aged wife Julie in the final section. This was because an entire subplot in which a younger Julie—the daughter of buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda) in 'The Railroad' section—and her relationships with Richard Widmark and George Peppard—was cut in post-production. Julie was played by Hope Lange, who was signed early in the casting, and stills of this subplot not only survive, they were issued in error as part of the publicity campaign! Jethro Stuart hopes that his daughter Julie will settle on Lieutenant Zeb Rawlings rather than on Mike King—because he much admired Linus, Zeb’s father ("If you’re anything like Linus, I’m glad you’re seeing her")—but Mike King of the Union Pacific railroad can at least offer security and a wealthy future ("whatever else could be said about him, King had a future"). Eventually, Julie declares her preference for Zeb, and they later get married (off-screen) in time for 'The Outlaws' section and the conclusion. The subplot still featured in the novelisation of the film by Louis L’Amour. Why the subplot was cut, after it had been shot, remains a mystery. As does the casting of Jones rather than Lange. Whatever the reason, Carolyn Jones (playing older than her age) makes a sudden—and unexplained—appearance in the final segment as the mature Julie.
The other sequence of significance which is known to have been cut happens just before the train robbery, when Zeb clubs Marshal Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) on the skull with a rifle, in a livery barn—because Ramsey is still trying to prevent him from confronting outlaw Charlie Gant. In the film as released, Lee J. Cobb still has the mystery wound on his forehead during the actual robbery…
Scenic wonders, another Cinerama speciality, ranged from the High Sierras to the Ohio River Valley, including Battery Rock and Cave-in-Rock State Park, the Uncompahgre National Forest high in the Colorado Rockies, to the Mackenzie River in Oregon to the Black Hills of South Dakota—the buffalo stampede was filmed in Custer State Park, where 1,600 of them roamed—to Lone Pine and Pinnacles National Monument in California, to several remote or ghost towns in Arizona and finally to Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border—John Ford’s favourite location, from Stagecoach onwards. Not quite finally, because in the original Cinerama print there was an epilogue showing aerial shots of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, the Golden Gate Bridge, open-cast mining, vast wheatfields being harvested, a logging camp and a spaghetti junction on the Los Angeles freeway, choked with traffic. Some of these shots were recycled from the first two Cinerama travelogues (the Golden Gate Bridge; the wheatfields—only with the shot reversed). From wagons to railroads to other technical marvels to automobiles was the general idea, a visualisation of the ‘modern wonders’ essay in the concluding Life magazine article. Some critics of the film, though, thought this had to be a joke, cutting from a buggy in the wide open spaces of Monument Valley to a traffic jam, with a voice-over about progress and the legacy of the West today. How were the mighty fallen! But it wasn’t a joke.
Over 75% of the film was shot on location. The credits were designed to resemble the paintings of Remington and Russell, another nod in the direction of the Life series.
The three-camera set-up—three interlocked 35 mm cameras in one, each set at a 48o angle to the next, with the centre camera filming straight ahead, the right-hand one filming the left-hand portion and the left-hand one filming the right-hand portion—this set-up, when projected onto an enormous louvred screen, amounted to a horizontal 146o angle of view, six times the size of the usual Academy ratio and twice the size of 65 mm. An aspect ratio of 2.76:1, ‘approximately comparable to the eye’s full field of vision’. But the equipment involved—seven three-camera cameras, 21 lenses in all—did present huge challenges to the directors. Henry Hathaway and the surviving directors of photography subsequently listed some of them for an article in 1983. You had to get 18 inches from an actor just to get a shot from the waist up. For close-ups, in order to see what exactly you were doing, you had to lie on top of the camera and look down on the person being filmed. The actors had to hit their marks with absolute precision: if they moved only slightly, they seemed to be moving abruptly. If you had one actor in one panel talking to another in the centre panel—in a two-shot—the first actor had to stand way back behind the actor in the centre or the eyeline would look fake. Each panel created its own vanishing point—and in each you could look down both sides of a building at the same time, so the sets had to be built taller and smaller, at an angle, and with an exaggerated sense of depth. And you couldn’t move the camera much or the picture would distort—hence the static ‘tableau’ quality to many of the dialogue set-ups. The opening dolly-shot (after the prologue) from the street to the wharf where the Prescott family is waiting to embark was the first such shot ever attempted with Cinerama. And you had to hide the sunlight with tree branches and foliage or flowers, otherwise you’d have seen the sunlight three times. And then there were the telltale joins between the panels, which had to be hidden where possible with trees and lamps and corners of buildings, anything that was vertical. Even so, you always had slightly overlapping images. Because the single-panel prints which went on general release, after the road-show presentation, were taken from the three-panel prints, the seams between the panels remained. MGM Cinerama claimed that ‘former Cinerama techniques [had been] improved’, but the join still irritated some of the critics.
|John Ford for one never did get used to this heavy-duty equipment. When he was asked to take on 'The Civil War section', he summoned photographer Joseph La Shelle to his office at MGM—the man who shot Laura and most of Otto Preminger’s best known films—and said to him: "Tell me—do you know anything about this Cinerama crap?" He was an Academy-ratio man. But he needn’t have worried, as it turned out. The 'Battle of Shiloh' set-ups—crossing the river with field guns, the advance across a field, the battlefield with the Union flag in the background—were all recycled from the 'Battle of Chickamauga' sequences of MGM’s Raintree County, of four years before, where they represented Montgomery Clift’s baptism of fire. Raintree County was the first film to be shot with Camera 65, a new 70 mm system later to be re-branded Ultra Panavision, created for MGM by the Panavision Corporation (the second film was Ben-Hur). The system was also used for second unit and back projection work on How The West Was Won. In addition, Raintree County was raided for a shot of a sternwheel riverboat at dusk (from Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor’s honeymoon) and another, briefer and more close up, which appears just before the intermission of How The West Was Won. John Ford’s contribution to the combat footage was a matching pair of shots of field plus firing, lined up in a row as if in a salute—to no apparent purpose. The film did, however, include a shot of Santa Ana’s massed army advancing on the Alamo, taken from The Alamo, which may well have involved one of Ford’s contributions to the second unit on that film. So there was something to console him, if consolation were needed.|
The musical score—and there was a lot of it—was by Alfred Newman, assisted by arranger and choirmaster Ken Darby. The score had originally been planned for Dimitri Tiomkin, of Red River, High Noon, Rio Bravo and The Alamo fame, but he had to withdraw from the project while recovering from eye surgery. Newman wasn’t quite so well known as a composer, even though as head of 20th Century Fox’s music department from 1939 to 1960, he had composed the studio’s celebrated fanfare, had helped to launch the film careers of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith among others, and had composed literally hundreds of film scores including, for John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. Ken Darby had been choirmaster and arranger at Fox from 1948-1960: these two had worked together in close association on the musicals Carousel, The King & I and South Pacific. So although they weren’t exactly Western specialists (unlike Tiomkin), they were very well placed to transform Bing Crosby’s double album into a big score for an augmented 75-piece orchestra. Several of the album’s songs were used in the film: ‘Shenandoah’, ‘Bound for the Promised Land’, ‘Ox Driving Song’, ‘What Was Your Name in the States?’, ‘A Railroader’s Bride I’ll Be’, ‘Nine Hundred Miles’, ‘Careless Love’, to which were added other traditional tunes including ‘Erie Canal’, ‘Rock of the Ages’, ‘Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger’, ‘Raise a Ruckus Tonight’, ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, all giving the film a folksy feel, albeit on a lush scale. Some of the male solos were by Dave Guard, ex-Kingston Trio, backed by his Whiskeyhill Singers: the original idea had been to use the Trio, at that time a very successful folk band (‘Tom Dooley’ had been a hit record). Alfred Newman added a big, muscular, orchestral main theme—school of Aaron Copeland—performed by the MGM Studio Orchestra, as well as over thirty major orchestral links. A theme tune, 'A Home in the Meadow' sung by Debbie Reynolds, added Sammy Cahn lyrics to the traditional tune of 'Greensleeves'—according to legend, composed by King Henry VIII for his future queen Anne Boleyn, making this the only Western ever to have its theme tune written by a King of England!
Filming began on May 26 1961, in the Ohio River Valley, and the final voice-over narration was completed on June 7 1962. Originally, it had been announced that How The West Was Won would be ready for a 4th of July 1962 premiere, but that proved far too ambitious a target. Unusually, How The West Was Won opened first in London in November 1962 (which is where I first saw the film, at the three-strip Cinerama-equipped London Casino), then in Tokyo a month later and in Los Angeles three months after that, on February 20 1963. In all three territories, it was a smash hit. Variety—reviewing the film in London—said: ‘There can be no element of doubt about how this, the first story-line film in Cinerama to reach Europe, is the blockbuster supreme, a magnificent and exciting spectacle which must, inevitably, dwarf the earnings of the travelogues in the three-screen process. It will undoubtedly run for several years…’ Others weren’t quite so sure. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times described it, after the Los Angeles opening, as a contrived patchwork of Western fiction clichés. The review finished on the thought: ‘It should be called “How the West Was Done – to Death”.’
|Variety had been wrong about one thing, though: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm was the second Cinerama story-film to be shot (in Europe), but actually the first to be released. It had cost 6 million dollars, and the feeling at MGM/Cinerama was that it was best to release the lower-budget film first, building up to the 14.5 million dollar How The West Was Won. But Variety was right about everything else. The film may have cost about six times the budget of the average Hollywood feature at the time, but it earned more than 50 million dollars in worldwide rentals on its first release, the third most successful film MGM had ever produced, after Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur. Much of this revenue came from non-Cinerama cinemas, showing prints made for single projectors—complete, still, with seams showing. How The West Was Won was nominated for seven Oscars (with an emphasis on the technical categories) and won three—for the screenplay, editing and sound. Tom Jones swept the board that year. Traditionally, Westerns did not do well at the Academy Awards. But it did win—significantly—a Thomas Edison Award for being a ‘film that most serves the national interest’.|
How The West Was Won, as it transpired, was the first and the last of the three-panel Cinerama story-films. The first to be shot and the last to be released. The moment had passed. Like the monorail in cities of tomorrow, it was an idea of the future that soon became history. It was one of the last hurrahs of old Hollywood, which opened eight months before the assassination of President Kennedy. It has been called one of the last of the great classic Hollywood Westerns, the end of an era before revisionism, irony and self-consciousness set in, so mainstream and consensual in its attitudes that its title and main theme were even used for the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And yet, How The West Was Won had a deep influence on the future of the Western as well. There was the increasing use of national parks as spectacular settings—in the John Wayne film True Grit, for example, the most prominent end credit went to the list of national parks where it was filmed: audiences would no longer be satisfied with television-style studio backlots and California ranches for their movie Westerns. There was the more liberal attitude in big-budget Westerns to the Indians—or native Americans as they came to be called—especially in the wake of the Vietnam War. How The West Was Won opens with Linus Rawlings peacefully trading with friendly Indians at their camp in the high country. 'The Railroad' section—with nasty construction boss Mike King (Richard Widmark) clashing with more accommodating and understanding Zeb Prescott (George Peppard), who wants to liaise with the Arapahoe to stick to treaty obligations and conserve the environment at the expense of ‘buffalo slaughterers’ —is unusually advanced for a big-budget blockbuster. Okay, the film never really questions ‘progress’ as represented by the railroads, but as one critic has written: ‘[the film] had a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of the Indian question and ecological issues’. And, come to that, a surprisingly cynical view of the bloody battle of Shiloh: "It ain’t what I expected. Not much glory in seeing a man with his guts hanging out." One problem—looking back—is that the film makes no mention at all of slavery as the big issue, in 'The Civil War' section. It excises slavery, perhaps as part of its overall spirit of reconciliation and search through consensus for the widest possible audience. There are no black characters at all, and ethnic minorities throughout are just glimpsed at the edges of the screen. This has been blamed on James R. Webb’s screenplay—a ‘whites only’ WASP version of the West—but in fact his draft of January 1961 contains an explicit voice-over reference to slavery as one of the primary causes of the Civil War. This was subsequently cut, to make way for: ‘The South saw its power and influence wane…and slowly the bitter seeds of Civil War take root’, which makes it look as though the conflict was really about states’ rights instead. The Life series, with its multicultural treatment of the Gold Rush and the Indian wars, did better on this score.
|Another influence of How The West Was Won was on the whole spate of ‘end of an era’ outlaw films—bad guys who have outlived their times—especially in the work of Sam Peckinpah. Many of these were based on/inspired by the final section of the Cinerama film, and involved speeding locomotives. Surprisingly, there was an influence on the Italian Westerns as well. First of all, in the casting of Eli Wallach as Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Sergio Leone told me that he didn’t cast Wallach because of his performance as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (the obvious connection), but because of the moment in West when Wallach as Charlie Gant turns and points his finger to mime the shooting of Zeb’s children at the Gold City mine: "I adored his humour in this short scene…which showed me that Wallach was a great comic actor. They said to me, 'Beware of him! He comes from the Actors’ Studio,' but I wouldn’t listen. I knew from that scene that he was a great clown." Leone’s later Once Upon a Time in the West was in many ways a reply to How The West Was Won—questioning its view of ‘progress’, its history of the transcontinental railroads and its overall celebration of America; even directly quoting the auction scene in San Francisco, when Lilith’s possessions go under the hammer. And then there was Lee Van Cleef, who doesn’t even feature on the credits of West, although he plays one of the river pirates (the lookout who shouts, ‘Customer!’) and who was about to consider retiring from the movie business because his parts seemed to be getting smaller and smaller. Leone remembered Van Cleef from High Noon, The Bravados, Gunfight at the OK Corral—and West—and a couple of years later would cast him as Colonel Mortimer in for a Few Dollars More.|
So, yes, one of the last of the classic Hollywood Westerns, the last Cinerama story and one of the last hurrahs of the pre-television, pre-film-school generation of old-guard professionals. It was also one of the last times that actual Westerners appeared as themselves (well, almost) in a film: the cast of native Americans in the wagon train sequences included real-life survivors from Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. But How The West Was Won also contained the seeds of the 1960s Western, and beyond. And it all began—strangely enough—with a series of historical articles and a double album of songs sung by Bing Crosby and George Clooney’s aunt.
|The following proved especially useful in the writing of this article: Sheldon Hall: How the West was Won (in The Movie Book of the Western, 1996); Greg Kimble: How The West Was Won - In Cinerama (in American Cinematographer, October 1983); James R. Webb’s draft scripts and related materials (in the University of Southern California Doheny research library); files of the L.A. Times; Louis L’Amour’s novelisation (1963); the double-disc CD of Alfred Newman’s music (TCM Music) and the Gold Key comic of the film.|
| || |
|Go: back - top - back issues - news index|