Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
Having conquered two-thirds of the Epic Slog (that is, the sequence in this series of Ben-Hur, How the West was Won, and Doctor Zhivago, a combined nine-and-a-half hours of screen time between them), I can say definitively that, while I didn’t like two thirds of the musicals in this set either, at least they were quick.
How the West Was Won is an epic narrative feature that borders on documentary. Spencer Tracy provices the voiceover narration that gives the whole thing the feel of an educational program you’d watch in school on the topic of The Development of the American West. It spans four generations and a sprawling enough scope that even the very most famous people don’t show up for more than half an hour or so. Speaking of famous people, pretty much everyone is in this movie: Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, the list goes on… John Wayne has a credited role that’s barely more than a cameo.
The epochs covered in this film are generally defined by how we moved West: first by the Erie Canal (where “West” is about Illinois), then by covered wagon trains westward from Missouri, then a brief break for the Civil War, then becoming entrenched in the West as the transcontinental railroad is built, and lastly actual civilization, as evidenced by bureaucracy: towns with sheriffs and warrants instead of lawlessness and sharpshooting to solve problems. Woven through these eras is the Prescott family. Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) are young women barely in their 20s or so when their family takes the Erie Canal to strike out west; in the last segment, Eve’s grandson is a marshal and has young kids of his own.
It’s not a bad movie, but since the scope is so large and the narration addresses the big developments of each era rather than not any kind of specific character development, it starts to feel like a big-budget Discovery channel special on The American West. A guy narrates, you see some stock footage of Westward Expansion, and actors act out what it was like in a given situation. Except, the stock footage is not stock (and is pretty impressive in its own right) and the actors are the #1 A-list actors of the era. It’s hard to feel compelled too much by any little snippet, since the individual characters don’t come back enough times or last long enough to work up to any kind of real impact. And while there’s a certain impact in seeing the epic scale– across an entire country and four generations– it’s not joined seamlessly enough to feel like a single story.
There are two strikes against emotional investment in this movie to start with: first, and this is not the fault of the movie, just the misfortune of the time period, there is one scene towards the beginning with some really awful special effects. The family accidentally goes over an apparently never-ending series of rapids in their log raft, resulting in the near-total destruction of the raft and the loss of some very significant lives. But the action itself is a really bad staged version of them on a raft with a film of the river in the background, like you see in scenes where people are supposed to be driving cars and the background moves independently of what the driver’s doing with the wheel. It’s cut with scenes of the actual raft and actual people going over some of the rapids, but the technology just wasn’t there to have a camera on the raft itself. I haven’t been holding any kind of special effects against these movies, but this was so bad it ruined the whole segment.
The second major barrier to getting invested in any of these individual scenarios is that every time something bad happens, we see the bad thing and then skip straight to when everything’s fine. They get through the rapids, which was a very traumatic event for the characters, but we jump straight from the river to everyone standing on dry land with a camp already set up. We skip right over the part where the daughter that gets thrown overboard gets back to the group, or them getting to shore, or feeling any kind of relief that they got through it. Later, a group of Native Americans attacks a settlement (with good reason, since they were completely lied to about the impact the railroad would have on the area) and it’s a legitimately gripping scene where they stampede a herd of buffalo through the camp, there’s about two seconds of people picking themselves up afterward before it jumps to another unrelated scene of people being totally fine. Not showing us the immediate aftermath of traumatic events excises the opportunity for catharsis, and without the promise of catharsis, real emotional investment can’t get a foothold.
On a brief tangent: I hadn’t seen a movie with Jimmy Stewart since I’ve been an adult and can recognize things, and watching this made me even more amused in retrospect at the impersonation of him by a member of the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast (my apologies to the excellent imitator/satirist, since I have no idea who it was).
Even briefer tangent: this was originally filmed in Cinerama, a process using three cameras and then three separate projectors to show the movie in one heck of a widescreen spectacle. I don’t know enough about film to say more than that, but it sure sounds neat.
Not Particularly Recommended. It’s not bad, but there are better uses for your three hours.