#324) How the West Was Won (1962)


#324) How the West Was Won (1962)

OR “Frontierland: The Motion Picture”

Directed by John Ford (Part 3), Henry Hathaway (Parts 1, 2 & 5), and George Marshall (Part 4)

Written by James R. Webb. Based on LIFE Magazine series.

Class of 1997

The Plot: Narrated by Spencer Tracy and filmed in Cinerama, “How the West Was Won” spans 50 years of the Prescott/Rawlins family traveling and surviving in the American West. In 1839, the Prescott family travels along the Erie Canal to Illinois, with daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) falling for mountain man Linus Rawlins (James Stewart). In 1851, Eve’s sister Lily (Debbie Reynolds) travels across the plains to inherit a California gold mine. In 1861, Eve’s son Zeb (George Peppard) joins the Union Army, serving in the Battle of Shiloh. By 1868, Zeb is in the cavalry, trying to maintain peace between the Arapahos tribe and the impending Central Pacific Railroad. And finally, in 1889, Zeb, now a Sheriff, must protect his family from a bandit (Eli Wallach), and help bring order to the lawless West.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “sprawling epic” and declares Ford’s segment on the Civil War “probably the best of the film’s three parts”. First of all, the film is five parts. Second of all, no.

But Does It Really?: In an era of filmmaking filled with spectacles, “How the West Was Won” out-spectacles them all. While not without its shortcomings, the film’s expansive Cinerama photography and all-star cast help put it head-and-shoulders above other Westerns of the era. Definitely NFR-worthy, though I recommend watching this on the biggest screen you can find, preferably in the curved “Smilebox” format available on the Blu-Ray release.

Everybody Gets One: James R. Webb got his start at Republic Pictures in the ‘40s writing screenplays for the Roy Rogers westerns. He also wrote the screenplay to the original “Cape Fear”. Producer Bernard Smith was a literary editor and critic during the ‘30s. His few producing credits include this, “Elmer Gantry”, and John Ford’s final films.

Wow, That’s Dated: While there is some nuance to the film’s depiction of Native Americans, they are still secondary to the white settlers who take over their land. Also, thanks to some detailed background action, this film requires a BLACKFACE WARNING. In fact, anyone in this movie who isn’t a white male gets a raw deal overall.

Seriously, Oscars?: Oddly enough, “How the West Was Won” premiered in London in 1962, with American screenings starting in January 1963. At the 1964 Oscars, “West” received eight nominations, including Best Picture. The film won three awards: Editing, Sound, and Original Screenplay. Most egregious of its losses, Alfred Newman’s iconic score lost to Best Picture winner “Tom Jones”, and the film’s four cinematographers all lost to the equally epic “Cleopatra”.

Other notes

  • I know I’ve definitely heard this score before, but until this screening I couldn’t have told you it was from this movie.
  • Cinerama is impressive to watch during the action sequences, but doesn’t lend itself well to more intimate moments. For one thing, close-ups were technically impossible, so the best you can get is a medium shot with plenty of space on either side of the actor.
  • Karl Malden plays Carroll Baker’s father. If you’ve seen “Baby Doll” you understand how unintentionally creepy that is.
  • This movie has not one, but TWO readouts on the Michael Douglas Scale. There’s 23 years between James Stewart and Carroll Baker, and 16 between Gregory Peck and Debbie Reynolds. Oh Classic Hollywood, will you never learn?
  • The film’s first major action sequence is the Prescott’s raft navigating the rapids. If nothing else, Debbie Reynolds is unsinkable, I give her that.
  • It’s fun watching Gregory Peck play against type as a con artist. Also great seeing Robert Preston in the kind of rugged western role he specialized in before becoming a Broadway star.
  • Those are some impressive wagon train sequences. When does someone die of dysentery?
  • How much did years of playing the loveless sidekick damage Thelma Ritter’s self-esteem?
  • The Indian raid wins no points for its depiction of Native Americans, but is an impressive coordination of camerawork and stunts.
  • It turns out “Rosebud” was the name of Andy Devine’s horse. Mystery solved!
  • Despite being one of the film’s biggest stars, John Wayne only has one scene, playing General Sherman to Harry Morgan’s General Grant. Side note: Spencer Tracy was cast as Grant, but bowed out due to health. He became the film’s narrator, a role he is better suited for than original choice Bing Crosby.
  • When quoting Linus, George Peppard does his Jimmy Stewart impression. John Ford hated it, but since re-takes with Cinerama cameras were expensive, this take made the final cut.
  • Appropriate that Henry Fonda plays an old friend of James Stewart’s, since the two were close in real-life.
  • I assume this film utilized every buffalo in existence for the stampede sequence. Another very impressive scene to see on a big screen.
  • It took two hours but we finally get a shot of Monument Valley. No western is complete without a trip to the Arizona-Utah border.
  • Very odd seeing Debbie Reynolds and Carroll Baker in old age makeup. For what it’s worth, they both aged better in real life.
  • “The Outlaws” is the most character driven of the segments, but still packs a punch with its train shoot-out finale. I just feel bad for stuntman Bob Morgan, who was severely injured during the scene’s production.
  • The epilogue includes some beautiful shots of modern-day (1962) Los Angeles and San Francisco. Another point in favor of Cinerama being used for non-narrative travelogues.


  • While “How the West Was Won” was successful in its day, studios were wary of doing more narrative films with expensive, cumbersome Cinerama cameras. Later Cinerama films – including “2001: A Space Odyssey” – were actually filmed in standard flat widescreen formats and projected on Cinerama’s curved screens.
  • “How the West Was Won” inspired the 1977 TV miniseries of the same name with Eva Marie Saint and James Arness. This spun-off into a weekly series that ran for two seasons on ABC.
  • It was a screening of “How the West Was Won” that convinced Sergio Leone to cast Eli Wallach as “The Ugly” in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.
  • Most of the film’s legacy has been how many times the title is referenced throughout our culture. But it does give me a chance to reference the 1994 Olsen Twins movie “How the West Was Fun”!

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