How the West was Won (1962)

(On Cable TV, February 2018) Even fifty-five years later, How the West was Won remains a singular viewing experience. One of the few narrative movies developed for the three-projector surround “Cinemax” process, it’s a western with an ambitious narrative scope (follow the development of the American west through four stories spanning generations of a family) and an impressive technical polish. From the first few moments spent flying over mountainous landscapes, the quality of the picture is breathtaking (especially given the 2012 digital restoration of the film)—on a modern HD display, the flattened widescreen film looks crisp and colourful like few others of the period. Moments later, as we get away from the landscapes and nearer to characters, we get to see the flip side of the film’s technical imitations when presented on a dingle screen: Almost all of the action is centred in the middle third and the camera never gets closer to the characters than waist-up middle shots. Any lateral movement makes the fisheye lensing of the film blatant, and the impact is jarring enough to remind us that we are, after all, watching a technical novelty. Fortunately, the film is suited well to mid-size fragmented viewing: Each of the four narratives runs between 30 and 45 minutes, allowing for breaks. Thematically, the film does have a few hurdles to overcome: The opening narration mentions “taking back the land from nature and primitive people,” setting up both the film’s very American manifest destiny narrative and a repellent treatment of native-American characters. Fortunately, the film avoids some of the worst excesses of the genre: while “the Indians” are treated as the enemy in one of the film’s signature action sequences, Native American are treated more kindly in other segments featuring white character willing to deal fairly with them (and the terrible consequences of breaking those promises). Each segment is generally enjoyable, all building up to a closing action sequences. The first, “The Rivers,” features an older James Stewart as a likable river runner encountering settlers and features a satisfying revenge arc. “The Plains” culminates in an attack on a settlers’ convoy. “The Civil War” is just about what you expect, while “The Railroad” builds to an astonishing stampede and “The Outlaws” features a wide-screen train robbery sequence. Not everything is likable, though. For a film that features a middle segment set on a Civil War battleground, nothing is said of slavery. Manifest Destiny is taken as holy writ, all the way to 1962’s highways. But for a piece of white-American propaganda, How the West Was Won is perhaps more nuanced that it could have been. The treatment of Native Americans isn’t as one-sided as it could have been, and the film seldom shies away from the harsh conditions that settlers endured, from bandit attacks to meaningless war conscription to children seeing their parents die in a buffalo stampede. Still, I suspect that most viewers won’t remember the details of the plot as much as the flattened Cinerama experience. I never thought I’d say it, but here goes: If you have one of those otherwise-useless curved TV screen, How the West Was Won seems like the one movie taking advantage of that format.

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