An Epic Western Dynasty
"How the West Was Won" is a big movie in every sense of the word, from the screenplay which spans various generations of the same family, the endless list of stars who played both big and small roles, the 4 directors who filmed various chapters of the story and the use of "Cinerama" everything about "How the West Was Won" is big. But big does not always mean better and whilst "How the West Was Won" is impressive in many ways it has one massive problem and that is with so many characters played by so many well known actors almost all of them end up as 2 dimensional figures which we never really get to know.
In a way it is disappointing because for a movie which boasts a cast that includes John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark to name but a few it never really feels like these actors get to develop their characters, appearing and disappearing having lent their face to a few scenes. And it's a shame as with the screenplay covering various generations and so many big stars "How the West Was Won" actually feels not only too short but also something more suited to a TV mini-series which would have been able to build the characters more.
Where do you start to describe the storyline other than it is a look at several generations of the same family which at the same time shows how the west changed. It starts by introducing us to the Prescott's and also Linus Rawlings, a mountain man, who ends up falling for Eve Prescott and over the space of the movie we watch as they end up having children, who end up going to war and in particular his son Linus who then following the war becomes a Marshall. At the same time we have Eve's sister's story who ends up as a show girl with a gambler who won and lost fortunes many times over who eventually in her old age employs her nephew Linus to help manage her land. To be honest it's almost impossible to describe the storyline to "How the West Was Won" because it is epic and generational, taking in so many aspects of the changing west from the war through to the rail roads and the establishment of proper towns.
And here is the thing "How the West Was Won" is fascinating because via this one family we do watch how the west changed and in doing so it manages to link up what you have seen in various other westerns establishing a time line so that you can understand it all. It cleverly brings in recognizable names so when in a later part you hear mention of Doc Holliday having died you can get a real sense of where that chapter, that episode is in the history of the west. As such the idea of this epic tale of the west is brilliant and could have been a stunning movie, except in a way it is too epic for just one movie.
The trouble is that with it covering such a huge time period and one which basically splits into to two story's that of Eve and her sons and then that of Lilith who hooks up with a gambler it introduces so many characters all of which have a big name actor attached to them. But so few characters end up being more than 2 dimensional as the majority get so little screen time. So whilst we may wait with anticipation to see John Wayne as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, Eli Wallach as Charlie Gant or Harry Morgan as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant when they do appear it's with a sense of disappointment because it's all too fleeting. It means that whilst George Peppard and Debbie Reynolds get time to establish their characters and to some extent Carroll Baker all the other actors end up little more than big name faces in minor roles.
Despite this annoyance over the thin-ness of characters you have to say that with 4 directors and the use of "Cinerama" "How the West Was Won" is a treat for your eyes. I wish I could have watched the movie how it was originally intended on a giant curved screen but even so the use on 3 cameras to create this wrap around image still works when watching the DVD. It gives the image a greater depth, an almost 3 dimensional feel as if you are deeper within the scene than you get from normal camera techniques and it feels like you are moving through a scene rather than just an observer. It's a strange feeling to start with but it ends up making "How the West Was Won" a stunning visual treat especially in various action scenes which come to life.
What this all boils down to is that the idea behind "How the West Was Won", this epic tale of the changing face of the west told through several generations of one family is a great one except it doesn't quite work in the confines of one movie. With the need to have so many characters it never feels like you get to know them, making them little more than just 2 dimensional cardboard characters which is all the more annoying with so many big Hollywood stars playing these various characters. But watching "How the West Was Won" is an experience especially with the use of Cinerama making it feel like you are actually in the scene with the action wrapping around you.