Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How the West Was Won

Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall and written by James R. Webb, How the West Was Won is a five-part story about the life of a family told through four generations in the development and migration of the American west. Narrated by Spencer Tracy, the film is a mixture of the epic films of mid-20th Century mixed in with the broad canvas of the western. Starring Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. How the West Was Won is a majestic yet sprawling film from John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall.

The film is a five-part series that tells the story about one family in the course of fifty years that would shape the American west through various periods in American history. All of which plays into the lives of a few people in the family known as the Prescotts where they travel on the Erie Canal to find a new home where two sisters would later take different paths in the second act. One goes to California to claim a piece of land she’s inherited with a gambler while the other settles into farm life with a trapper she fell for during her family’s journey in the river. The story then moves into the 1860s where the son of these women becomes part of the Civil War and later a cavalryman dealing with the changing times and the arrival of the railroad until he would meet his aunt for the very first time in the final part of the story.

It’s all part of James R. Webb’s extraordinary story about a family living in a period where the American west is discovered as they also endure the many changes in those fifty years as it’s told by Spencer Tracy as his narration only fill in moments about what has happening in America instead of the story about the Prescotts. All of which is separated in five parts with the first part being about the Prescotts at the Erie Canal and the treacherous journey they take where one of the daughters in Eve (Carroll Baker) falls for a trapper named Linus (James Stewart). The second part is about Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and her journey through the prairies where she and a gambler named Cleve (Gregory Peck) go to the west to get some land she’s inherited. The third part is about Eve’s son Zeb (George Peppard) and his encounter with the Civil War as he becomes a key player in the fourth and fifth part where he deals with the railroad where he meets an old friend of his father in Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda).

It would play into this family’s encounter with history and how times are often changing in the West as they deal with the chaos of the Civil War, conflict with the Native Americans over the railroad, and also criminals and bandits over cattle and such. Notably as Zeb in the film’s third act realizes the horrors of war and the greed that comes into play involving the railroad as he definitely carries a sense of pride and honor that his father and uncle would carry in their lives. Even in the fifth and final part where he meets his aunt Lilith for the very first time while having to deal with a criminal named Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) who has a grudge with Zeb.

The film’s direction is definitely vast in not just its composition but also in the way it wanted to tell a story about the development of the American west. Shot in the curved-three screen projector that was known as Cinerama, the film has this truly grand scale to capture not just the landscape of the American west but also the moments that shaped that world in the span of five decades. Under the vision of three filmmakers, with transitional scenes helmed by Richard Thorpe, the film does have this sense of unification in the filmmaking while each director does bring in their own ideas to the story to add that sense of epic storytelling. The Civil War segment is helmed by John Ford as it features not just some extravagant battle scenes but also some intimate moments where Zeb encounters the horror of war while meeting a Confederate drifter (Russ Tamblyn) as it’s a very telling piece to display Zeb’s sense of loss and his desire to find himself in an ever-changing world.

The railroad segment is helmed by George Marshall as it displays a lot of dramatic tension and some very intense scenes involving a buffalo stampede which would play to Zeb’s resolve over the conflict between the railroad company and a tribe of Native Americans. The rest of the film is helmed by Henry Hathaway who maintains the same sweeping vision like his other filmmakers as he also creates his own ideas that includes some intense moments involving the Prescotts in the rapids as well as other suspenseful moments such as Gant’s attempted train robbery. All of which plays to the grand spectacle of the west as the overall results is a very sensational yet engaging film about a family living in the changing times of the American west.

Cinematographers William H. Daniels, Milton Krasner, Charles Lang Jr., and Joseph LaSelle do fantastic work with the film‘s very colorful and vast cinematography to capture the vast beauty of the different landscapes in the American west along with some amazing shots set at night and the interiors to display some of the film‘s vibrant look. Editor Harold F. Kress does brilliant work with the editing in not just bringing some energy to some of the shootouts and battle scenes but also going for a methodical approach to some of the film‘s dramatic moments. Art directors George W. Davis, William Ferrari, and Addison Hehr, along with set decorators Henry Grace, Don Greenwood Jr., and Jack Mills, do excellent work with the set pieces from the look of the rafts in the first segment to the farms and buildings made during the film‘s duration and how it would evolve over time.

Costume designers Walter Plunkett and Ron Talsky do terrific work with the costumes from the showgirl costumes that Lilith wear in the second segment along with her dresses to some of the more low-key costumes most of the characters wear in their journey. The special visual effects work of A. Arnold Gillespe and Robert R. Hoag do nice work with the visual effects for the scenes set in the river rapids despite the fact that it sort of looks fake given the primitive technology that was used at the time. Sound editor Van Allen James does superb work with the sound to capture the extravagance of some of the gunfights and battles along with more intimate moments in some of the film‘s locations. The film’s music by Alec Newman is wonderful for its array of themes from broad and sweeping to more serene yet somber in their orchestral arrangements while the soundtrack also includes lots of traditional folk and country songs some of which are actually sung by Debbie Reynolds.

The film’s cast is phenomenal as it features some small but notable appearances from Lee Van Cleef as a river pirate, Harry Dean Stanton as a member of Gant’s gang, Raymond Massey in a brief scene as Abraham Lincoln, Harry Morgan as General Ulysses S. Grant, Russ Tamblyn as a Confederate deserter that Zeb meets, Carolyn Jones as Zeb’s wife Julie in the fifth segment, Thelma Ritter as Lilith’s traveling companion Agatha Clegg, and John Wayne in a small yet amazing performance as General William Tecumseh Sherman who gives a great monologue about not giving up the Civil War. Other noteworthy and memorable performances include Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead as Lilith and Eve’s parents in the first segment, Walter Brennan and Brigid Balzen as a couple of river pirates, Robert Preston as a wagon master who tries to win Lilith’s heart, and Lee J. Cobb as a marshal who reluctantly helps Zeb to battle Gant.

Eli Wallach is excellent as the smarmy criminal Charlie Gant who is eager to cause trouble for Zeb Prescott while Richard Widmark is terrific as an immoral railroad baron who is more concerned with making money with the railroad no matter what the cost is. Henry Fonda is great in a small but memorable role as Linus’ old friend Jethro Stuart as a man who helps Zeb out over the conflict between the railroad and a Native American tribe as he would also help Zeb find his way in life. Gregory Peck is superb as the gambler Cleve Van Valen who is smitten by Lilith as he hopes to do whatever it takes to make her a proud woman. James Stewart is brilliant as the trapper Linus Rawlings who helps out the Prescotts in navigating the river while dealing with river pirates as he falls for Eve.

George Peppard is wonderful as Zeb as a man who has the same sense of pride and honor like his father Linus while dealing with the chaos in the changing times he encounters. Carroll Baker is amazing as Eve Prescott as a woman who falls for Linus as she deals with the dangers of the river. Finally, there’s Debbie Reynolds in a remarkable performance as Lilith Prescott as a woman who is very tough as well as talented as she is someone trying to define herself as a woman while finding a good man in Cleve as she later helps Zeb’s wife in the way Zeb is when it comes to action.

How the West Was Won is a sensational film from John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall. Thanks to its sprawling vision, engaging story about a family encountering historical moments in the course of five decades, and a brilliant ensemble cast. The film is definitely an epic-western that has to be seen in a big screen or a big TV to display its vast images. It’s also a film that explores the life of a family and how they manage to define themselves in the American west no matter how troubling it is. In the end, How the West Was Won is an incredible film from the trio of John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall.

© thevoid99 2013

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