1960s, 2/4, John Ford, Review, Western

How the West Was Won

How the West Was Won (1962) - IMDb

#59 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

This is a product of a studio trying to make huge spectacle with MGM using the Cinerama process to create what Abel Gance did in 1927 with his Napoleon epic, essentially using a tryptic of full frames to create an ultra-wide view. It has three directors (including John Ford, the reason I’m watching this), a couple of dozen major actors, several of whom could have been considered real stars at the time of the release, and it purports to tell the story in the title, an expansive epic of a grand story. Well…it would have been nice if James Webb, the writer, had found a way to actually tell, you know, an epic story. Instead what we get are five interrelated stories over the course of decades that just happen to involve members of the same family with the gauzy idea of telling the audience how the west was won. It’s a thin reed on which to hang all of this production design and action, and I don’t think it really works.

What’s really missing from the film is a grand sense of conflict. When characters go through one episode and start another, years, even decades, have passed and the conflict that determined the previous episode gets completely forgotten in favor of another. The initial trek Westward from New York, complete with a fight against some bad people who take advantage of travelers in the wilderness as well as some rapids on the river, gives way to a wagon train Westward with news of ownership of a gold mine, which gives way to a vignette at Shiloh during the Civil War, which gives way to a telling of the building of the Intercontinental Railroad (in particular the conflict with a local Arapahoe tribe), which gives way to the stopping of a train robbery from an antagonistic character introduced at the 140-minute mark. There’s no strong element running through all of these things to tie them all together. The fact that members of the same family are seeing these things is simply not enough. There’s no thematic idea beyond the barest of ideas that none of these individual episodes seem to want to take advantage of.

The first episode, centered around the Prescott family led by Zebulon (Karl Malden) leaving the East to find life in the West in 1839, feels like a middling to bad episode of a weekly Western television series. Full of action beats with little to no concern for anything like a story, it follows James Stewart’s Linus Rawlings, a mountain man, who crosses paths with he Prescotts, falls in love with Eve (Carroll Baker), and then goes on his separate way up river while they go down river. He’s attacked, survives, and then goes down river where…the same people who attacked him up river have gotten far enough down river to set up a new camp to entrap the Prescotts who are going down river. Then there’s a big fight, they separate again, the Prescotts get into the rapids where the two eldest members of the family die, leaving Eve to reunite with Linus to start a farm where they buried Zeb. Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds), vows to continue West to find life in a city where she can purchase fine things. The constant ups and downs with little character work make this probably the least of the five segments, helped not at all by Stewart being 30 years too old for the part.

The second episode follows Lilith, having set herself up in St. Louis as a cabaret dancer, who receives word that she has inherited a gold mine out in California. Into this comes Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), a gambler who attaches himself to Lilith with the idea of taking half of her claim by marrying her. They all get in on a wagon train led by Roger Morgan (Robert Preston), and a bit of a love triangle develops with Debbie Reynolds getting her own musical number in the middle of a forest. There’s a Cheyenne attack (probably the best use of movement and the hefty Cinerama camera in the film), and Lilith gets to California to discover that the mine is empty. She has nothing, so Cleve leaves her. Roger begs her to marry him, but she refuses because she hates the idea of a country life. And then…Lilith and Cleve meet again on a steamer and they instantly fall in love again and get married. Lilith falling again for Cleve was…odd, but that Cheyenne attack was something else. Spectacle is really where this movie is best.

The third segment follows Eve’s son Zeb (George Peppard) who goes into the Union army to fight. This very much feels like a John Ford film, and it’s no coincidence because it’s the one segment he filmed. The nostalgia for a life left behind, particularly around Eve, followed by the clear-eyed view of the horrors of war represented by the aftermath on the first night at Shiloh, are all Ford. It really elevates when Zeb meets a Confederate deserter (Russ Tamblyn), and they bond over the idea that the war isn’t their fight. It’s made even better when they happen across Generals Grant (Harry Morgan) and Sherman (John Wayne) and the camaraderie falls apart as the deserter sees his chance to take out Grant, and Zeb must protect him. Then the piece goes too far, skipping ahead three years for Zeb to go back home to say goodbye once again before he heads further West. Without what amounts to an extended coda to the story at hand, it’s a very good little piece of men in the fog of war. With it, it’s just a bit too much.

The fourth segment, which recalls Ford’s much better The Iron Horse, about the laying of a railroad through Arapahoe country. Zeb has signed up again with the army and is part of a cavalry detachment that is defending the railroad from any Indian attack. The representative of the railroad, Mike King (Richard Widmark), is a heavy-handed tyrant who decides to cut a couple of days off of his schedule by cutting into Arapahoe country in violation of the US treaty with the Indian nation. Zeb has to get the help of an old friend of his father’s, Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), to help translate and keep the peace. The peace is, of course, not upheld, and the Indians attack with a buffalo stampede, creating the ending for Zeb’s involvement before he heads further West.

The final segment ends up feeling almost like a joke as an ending to this picture. Lilith moves from San Francisco to Arizona after the death of her husband to meet up with her nephew Zeb and his family. Zeb is a marshal, and when he picks up Lilith, the noted outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) gets off the same train. There’s a bunch of personal history between Gant and Zeb that gets explained in great detail, and it’s almost an insult that this is how our finale to our grand epic plays out. An epic’s finale is a culmination of events, people, and ideas into something grand. Introducing a new character as the big bad feels like the final episode in a television series that thinks its coming back next season.

I just couldn’t get into the film as a whole because it’s simply too broken up. The fig leaf of characters being shared across the stories is simply not enough, especially when we have to get exposition dumps about what has happened to them since the last episode, effectively making them new characters. I think one large story, maybe having Gant be the grandson of the man who tried to kill the Prescotts in the first episode as a start, would have been a much better way to do this. The culmination of a generations’ long conflict between two families that has spanned the breadth of America during its great expansion. Instead, we just get five episodes.

The overall strength of the film, though, is the spectacle. I do not want it to feel like I hated this movie. I was frustrated by it pretty consistently, but I also got a really good sequence about every half hour. From the rapids to the Cheyenne attack to the buffalo charge and finally to the train robbery, there are a handful of real standout sequences that make full advantage of the wide scope visuals. Those visuals work significantly less well inside, which is probably why so much of it is set outside.

Ford made the best overall segment in The Civil War, leaving more mundane work to be had between his co-directors Henry Hathaway (The Rivers, The Plains, The Outlaws) and George Marshall (The Railroad), though they get all of the spectacle while Ford reused footage from other movies for his battle sequences. Overall, though, How the West Was Won is a frustrating experience that simply cannot use its spectacle to elevate the actual story.

Rating: 2/4

3 thoughts on “How the West Was Won”

  1. I never have found a single book or movie that captures this multi-generational story idea entirely well (John Rutherfurd does fine work in his books ‘London’ and ‘Sarum’ with similar ideas and scope.)

    This movie has always left me ‘meh’. It’s lack of strong narrative focus hurts it, you can’t get invested in anyone or anything. It’s a writing failure, pure and simple.

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    1. To make it work, the generations all need to be facing the same or thematically similar problems. I feel like the taming of the West is the right kind of theme to tackle for this kind of multi-generational work, but in order to make the plot mechanics work you probably have to up the plot conveniences.

      So, you either have a story that beggars belief because the same two families keep butting heads over decades and across a nation, or you break it up so much that the plot mechanics make more sense but don’t allow for the kind of time to invest in anyone.

      It also doesn’t help here that most of the individual sequences just aren’t all that good on their own.

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