How the West Was Won is a very intriguing movie. Perhaps the most appropriate term to use in describing this star-studded epic would be sprawling, both in how it was shot and in how grand the story was. The film follows a single family over the span of decades as they move out west. Through them we get a look at westward migration, frontier life, the Erie Canal, the Gold Rush, the Civil War, the rise of the railroads (and resulting conflict with Native Americans), and eventually end it with the western setting and situation that audiences no doubt recognized at the time of this film’s screening – the great train robbery. By the end we have traveled with the Prescott family from the east coast (New York) all the way to the west coast (California). Stars that pack this film include James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne, Lee J. Cobb, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and even Robert Preston – whose other film, The Music Man, I recently reviewed.
Some weeks ago I watched the monumental Cleopatra, a film that directly competed with How the West Was Won at the Academy Awards. Both received Best Picture nominations. When I first saw Cleopatra, I completely understood why the Academy would reward it with wins for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume. In fact I found myself thinking “well duh” as my jaw remained on the floor from the amazing scenery provided by that film.
Now that I have seen How the West Was Won, however, I feel a little less certain. Of course I still think Cleopatra’s wins in the aforementioned categories was deserved, but man…the Academy had their work cut out for them on this one because HtWWW is not only a very big movie, but from a technical standpoint it matches up very well. It is a gorgeous movie.
The most intriguing aspect of this film, in my opinion, is the cinematography. In the usual TCM intro to this film, Ben Mankiewicz mentioned the decision to use three cameras in this film to shoot each scene in order to make the shots particularly wide and holy CRAP are they wide. In fact, most of the film is shot in wide shots (though perhaps the term “wide shots” doesn’t do the film justice – more like mile-long shots) where the background and scenery overwhelmed the individual characters.
On one hand, I found this to be a bit distracting and made it harder to engage with the characters since it was hard to make out their faces. I could probably count on one hand how many somewhat “close-up” shots there were. I am usually a proponent for letting viewers take in the scenery, but I also still think there ought to be moments of intimacy with the characters where we can focus on their facial emotions. Even Cleopatra had more close-ups.
Now on the other hand, I completely understand that the decision was made to highlight the landscape and make it seem larger-than-life and, by comparison, those brave souls traveling into the west tiny. Plus it give viewers a better view of the landscape and scenery, which is one of my favorite parts of the film. It was stunning – absolutely breathtaking in its scope. Also some of the tracking shots, as well as those sky-line shots over the mountain ranges and plains (and later over city streets as we cut to modern-day imagery) were absolutely stunning.
Also it is true that the film makes its characters less important than what is happening in the background. The story is centered on a single family, and it is through this family that we get to see and experience the much larger picture of 19th century westward expansion. The characters themselves are only a cog in the machine of manifest destiny, and their story is only a vessel for us to view the time period that they are, in fact, a part of.
To summarize – I thoroughly enjoyed this film. The writing was solid (not phenomenal, but good), the art direction is amazing, the cinematography is interesting (whether that is good or bad depends on the viewer), the music is great, and the acting is good. Also there are a good number of action sequences throughout the film to keep viewers interested for the almost three-hour long runtime. I’ll recommend it, but it’s not a film you need to run out and see immediately.
P.S. Looking on Google Images of stills from the film – perhaps this is a movie whose wide-shots would be better viewed in a theater. Maybe there ought to be a re-release of this bad-boy in cinemas eventually. I’d see it again, and maybe my rating would change.