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How the West Was Won (film)

How the West Was Won
File:Poster - How the West Was Won.jpg
Directed by John Ford
Henry Hathaway
George Marshall
Produced by Bernard Smith
Written by James R. Webb
Starring Carroll Baker
Walter Brennan
Lee J. Cobb
Andy Devine
Henry Fonda
Carolyn Jones
Karl Malden
Agnes Moorhead
Harry Morgan
Gregory Peck
George Peppard
Robert Preston
Debbie Reynolds
Thelma Ritter
James Stewart
Eli Wallach
John Wayne
Richard Widmark
Narrated by Spencer Tracy
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Milton Krasner
Charles Lang, Jr.
Joseph LaShelle
Edited by Harold F. Kress
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • February 20, 1963 (1963-02-20) (U.S.)
Running time
162 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $14,483,000[1][2][3]
Box office $50,000,000[3]

How the West Was Won is a 1963 American Metrocolor epic-Western film.[4] The picture was one of the last "old-fashioned" epic films made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to enjoy great success. Set between 1839 and 1889, it follows four generations of a family (starting as the Prescotts) as they move ever westward, from western New York state to the Pacific Ocean. The picture was filmed in the curved-screen three-projector Cinerama process.

The all-star cast includes (in alphabetical order) Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. The film is narrated by Spencer Tracy.

The score was listed at #25 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores. It also gained unanimous widespread critical acclaim, and a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes


The Rivers (1839)

File:Westwon trailer rivers.png
The settlers' raft is caught in rapids.

Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) and his family set out west for the frontier via the Erie Canal, the “west” at this time being the Illinois country. On the journey, they meet mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) who is traveling east to Pittsburgh to trade his furs. He and Zebulon's daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) are attracted to each other, but Linus is not ready to settle down.

Linus stops at an isolated trading post run by a murderous clan of river pirates headed by "Alabama Colonel" Hawkins (Walter Brennan). Linus is betrayed when he accompanies seductive Dora Hawkins (Brigid Bazlen) into a cave to see a "varmint". She stabs him in the back and he falls into a deep hole. He is not seriously wounded, and is able to rescue the Prescott party from a similar fate. The bushwhacking thieves (Lee Van Cleef plays one), including Dora, are dispatched with rough frontier justice.

After Zebulon prays to God for their lost loved ones and commends to Him the thieves' souls "whether You want 'em or not", the settlers continue down the river, but their raft is caught in rapids and Zebulon and his wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) drown. Linus, finding that he cannot live without Eve, reappears and marries her. She insists on homesteading at the spot where her parents died.

Directed by Henry Hathaway.

The Plains (1851)

File:Westwon trailer plains.png
The wagon train is attacked by Cheyenne Indians.

Eve's sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) chooses to go to St. Louis, where she finds work performing in a dance hall. She attracts the attention of professional gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). After overhearing that she has just inherited a California gold mine, and to avoid paying his debts to another gambler (John Larch), Cleve joins the wagon train taking her there. He and wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) court her along the way, but she rejects them both, much to the dismay of her new friend and fellow traveler Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter), who is searching for a husband.

Surviving an attack by Cheyenne Indians, Lilith and Cleve arrive at the mine, only to find that it is worthless. Cleve leaves. Lilith returns to work in a dance hall in a camp town, living out of a covered wagon. Morgan finds her and again proposes marriage unromantically. She tells him, "Not now, not ever."

Later, Lilith is singing in the music salon of a riverboat. By chance, Cleve is a passenger. When he hears Lilith's voice, he leaves the poker table (and a winning hand) to propose to her. He tells her of the opportunities waiting in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. She accepts his proposal.

Directed by Henry Hathaway.

The Civil War (1861–1865)

Linus Rawlings joins the Union army as a captain in the American Civil War. Despite Eve's wishes, their son Zeb (George Peppard) eagerly enlists as well, looking for glory and an escape from farming. Corporal Peterson (Andy Devine) assures them the conflict will not last very long. The bloody Battle of Shiloh shows Zeb that war is nothing like he imagined and, unknown to him, his father dies there. Zeb encounters a similarly disillusioned Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who suggests deserting.

By chance, they overhear a private conversation between Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) and William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne). The rebel realizes he has the opportunity to rid the South of two of its greatest enemies and tries to shoot them, leaving Zeb no choice but to kill him with the bayonet from his shattered musket. Afterward, Zeb rejoins the army.

When the war finally ends, he returns home as a lieutenant, only to find his mother has died. She had lost the will to live after learning that Linus had been killed. Zeb gives his share of the family farm to his brother, who is content to be a farmer, and leaves in search of a more interesting life.

Directed by John Ford.

The Railroad (1868)

File:Westwon trailer railroad.png
The construction of railroad.

Following the daring riders from the Pony Express and the construction of the transcontinental telegraph line in the late 1860s, two ferociously competing railroad lines, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, one building westward and the other eastward, open up new territory to eager settlers.

Zeb becomes a lieutenant in the U.S. cavalry, trying to maintain peace with the Indians with the help of grizzled buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of Linus. When ruthless railroad man Mike King (Richard Widmark) violates a treaty by building on Indian territory, the Arapaho Indians retaliate by stampeding buffalo through his camp, killing many, including women and children. Disgusted, Zeb resigns and heads to Arizona.

Directed by George Marshall.

The Outlaws (1889)

File:Westwon trailer outlaws.png
The desperadoes who want to rob the train.

In San Francisco, widowed Lilith auctions off her possessions (she and Cleve had made and spent several fortunes) to pay her debts. She travels to Arizona, inviting Zeb and his family to oversee her remaining asset, a ranch.

Zeb (now a marshal), his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones), and their children meet Lilith at Gold City's train station. However, Zeb also runs into an old enemy there, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). Zeb had killed Gant's brother in a gunfight. When Gant makes veiled threats against Zeb and his family, Zeb turns to his friend and Gold City's marshal, Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb), but Gant is not wanted for anything in that territory, so there is little Ramsey can do.

Zeb decides he has to act rather than wait for Gant to make good his threat someday. Suspecting Gant of planning to rob an unusually large gold shipment being transported by train, he prepares an ambush with Ramsey's reluctant help. Gant and his entire gang (one member played by Harry Dean Stanton) are killed in the shootout and resulting train wreck. In the end, Lilith and the Rawlings family travel to their new home.

A short epilogue shows modern Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1960s, including the famous four-level downtown freeway interchange and Golden Gate Bridge.

Directed by Henry Hathaway.


The film marked then sixty-six-year-old Raymond Massey's last appearance as Abraham Lincoln, a role that he had previously played on stage (Abe Lincoln in Illinois and the stage adaptation of John Brown's Body), on screen (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and on television (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, and two more productions of Abe Lincoln in Illinois).


How the West Was Won was one of only two dramatic feature films (the other being The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) made using the three-strip Cinerama process. Although the picture quality when projected onto curved screens in theatres was stunning, attempts to convert the movie to a smaller screen suffer from that process's technical shortcomings. When seen in letterbox format the actors' faces are nearly indistinguishable in long shots.

File:Westwon trailer Fonda.png
Henry Fonda as a buffalo hunter

John Ford complained about having to dress such huge sets since Cinerama photographed a much wider view than the standard single camera process to which Hollywood directors had become accustomed. Director Henry Hathaway was quoted as saying, "That damned Cinerama. Do you know a waist-shot is as close as you can get with that thing?"

A portion of the film's profits were meant to go to St John's Hospital. This led Irene Dunne and others to persuade the movie's stars to take less than their usual fees. However, the hospital later sued for a share of the film's profits.[5]

An even more difficult problem was that the film had to be shot with the actors artificially positioned out of dramatic and emotional frame, and out of synchronization with one another. Only when the three-print Cinerama process was projected upon a Cinerama screen would the positions and emotions of the actors synchronize, such as normal eye-contact or emotional harmony between actors in a dramatic sequence. Because of the nature of Cinerama, if film were shown in flat screen projection it would appear as if the actors were not making eye contact, at all.

One brief scene of Mexican soldiers was generously sourced by John Wayne from the 1960 version of The Alamo, which he starred in, produced, and directed.

Stuntman Bob Morgan, husband of Yvonne De Carlo, was seriously injured and lost a leg during a break in filming a gunfight on a moving train while filming "The Outlaws" portion. Chains holding logs on a flat-bed car broke, crushing Morgan as he crouched beside them.[6]

The film would later inspire an ABC television series of the same name.


The music for the film was composed and conducted by Alfred Newman. The soundtrack album was originally released by MGM Records. Dimitri Tiomkin, well known for scores to western films, was the first composer approached to compose the music for the film. However, Tiomkin became unavailable as a result of eye surgery, and Newman was hired as a replacement.

The score is widely considered to be one of Newman's best, and appears on the AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores list. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, losing to Tom Jones.


Box office performance

How the West Was Won was a massive commercial success. Produced on a then large budget of $15 million, it grossed $46,500,000 at the North American box office,[7] making it the second highest grossing film of 1963. The film grossed $50 million worldwide.[3]


The film won three Academy Awards for:[8][9]

It was also nominated for:


File:Westwon trailer Stewart.png
James Stewart as frontiersman Linus Rawlings

Crest Digital was given the task of restoring the original Cinerama negative for How the West Was Won in 2000 and built their own authentic Cinerama screening room in order to complete the process.[10] There have also been efforts, led by HP,[11] to combine the three image portions and make the Cinerama image look more acceptable on a flat screen. This has finally been accomplished on the latest DVD and Blu-ray Disc release. The lines at which the three Cinerama panels joined were formerly glaringly visible (as seen in the stills reproduced on this page), but this has been largely corrected on the Warner Bros. DVD and Blu-ray Disc, although the joins can still be seen in places, especially against bright backgrounds. The restoration also corrects some of the geometric distortions inherent in the process; for instance, in the final shot, the Golden Gate Bridge appears to curve in perspective as the camera flies underneath it, whereas in the Cinerama version, it breaks into three straight sections at different angles.

The Blu-ray Disc also contains a "SmileBox" version, simulating the curved screen effect.

Even though the aspect ratio of Cinerama was 2.59:1, Warner's new BD and DVD releases of the film offer an aspect ratio of 2.89:1, incorporating image information on both sides that was never meant to be seen when projected. The BD-exclusive SmileBox alternative has the intentional cropping intact.

In 2006 digital restoration of the film was done by Warner Bros. motion Picture imaging. The digital pictures were frame by frame digitally restored at Prasad Corporation to remove dirt, tears, scratches and other damage. The film was restored to its original look.[12] The restored Warner Bros. release has been shown on television since October 2008, on the Encore Westerns channel.[13][14] [15]

See also


  1. ^ Sheldon Hall, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History Wayne State University Press, 2010 p 164
  2. ^ Andrea LeVasseur, Allmovie. "How the West was Won – Synopsis". 
  3. ^ a b c "How the West was Won (1962) – Box office / business". 
  4. ^ Variety film review; November 7, 1962, page 6.
  5. ^ Illness Will Force Decision on 'Hush': Picture May Be Called Off; Loretta Young Refuses Lead Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 07 Aug 1964: C10.
  6. ^ "How the West Was Won". Retrieved 2014-05-14. 
  7. ^ Box Office Information for How the West Was Won. The Numbers. Retrieved September 2, 2013.
  8. ^ "The 36th Academy Awards (1964) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  9. ^ "NY Times: How the West Was Won". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-25. 
  10. ^ "Cinerama Dome Moves Forward". Retrieved 2014-05-14. 
  11. ^ HP Labs – Movie makeover: HP and Warner Bros. give old movies new life
  12. ^ From Grain to Pixel: The Archival Life of Film in Transition, note 189, By Giovanna Fossati
  13. ^ economictimes, Strategic alliance for creation of digital intermediaries, Dec 17, 2007
  14. ^, Warner bros., Prasad Corp form strategic alliance, December 17, 2007, Bollywood Trade News Network
  15. ^, Digital Film Restoration

External links