How the West Was Won DVD: Review By Brian Gallagher

It is a truly timeless film that can now be seen in all its 2.89:1 wondrous glory, thanks to this astounding new edition.
  • Feature
  • Picture
  • Sound
  • Extras
  • Replay Value
A simply astonishing film that one can finally enjoy at home the way it was originally meant to be seen, with some wonderful goodies in the package and a great doc*mentary on the Cinerama process.
The film is kind of hard to follow because of its grandure. That's about it.
My mother and stepfather have a DVD collection that rivals my own, maybe even surpasses it. I'll never know, though, since she won't put her collection on one of the many DVD sites where you can organize your collection. The good thing about their collection, is they pretty much stick to the classics. One of the classics they have that I've always meant to watch during a visit home was How the West Was Won, but I never did. I'm glad I didn't, actually, and got to see it for the first time in the way it was originally meant to be seen and it is just amazing.

OK, here's a little history lesson. This film was only one of two narrative feature-length films to be filmed in the Cinerama format. To those in Los Angeles, that's where the CineramaDome at the Arclight gets its name, and, with its huge curved screen, it's one of only three places in the world that can still display the Cinerama format. What's so special about this format, you may ask? Simple. Three friggin cameras! Yes, they shot this film using a special rig that had three cameras all aligned in a curved arc and each camera catches a different part of film, which was filmed with the utmost synchronicity, of course.. When it was displayed, yes, there were three projectors all playing each reel in sync with each other on the huge, curved, Cinerama screen to give one of the most panoramic displays you'll ever see on film, in a 2.89:1 aspect ratio that was, and still is today, simply unheard of. Of course, this was as difficult as it sounds and, despite How the West Was Won's enormous success (3 Oscars, the highest-grossing film of the year), it was too complicated for all involved and the process was abandoned after this film. Naturally, every theater couldn't be rigged up for the Cinerama format, so after its initial exhibitions, the three reels were mashed into one 2.35:1 aspect ratio print which created "join lines" where the two outer screens would meet the middle screen. Thankfully, after undergoing a six-year laborious process, the fine folks at Warner Home Video have managed to restore this classic to its original 2.89:1 aspect ratio in this magnificent Ultimate Collectors Edition, and this is a landmark piece of cinema that shouldn't be missed.

Look on the back of any one of your DVD's on your shelf and you'll likely find, in the tech specs section, the film either displayed in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio or perhaps the 2.35:1 aspect ratio for films of a much larger scale and scope. You just simply won't find anything close to the 2.89:1 aspect ratio they deliver here and the astounding visual panorama's we're treated to here almost make this set buy-worthy on its own. With its glorious vistas and immaculate landscapes, How the West Was Won is probably the closest thing you'll get to an IMAX experience in the comfort of your own home. And if that wasn't enough for you, this film's three-hour epic story is filled with an ensemble cast that would probably still today be considered the biggest ensemble cast in film history AND three amazing directors.

We're treated to a simply star-studded cast that, for its time, would make Ocean's Eleven today look like an episode of The Love Boat. John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Karl Malden, Henry Fonda, George Peppard, Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Debbie Reynolds, Carolyn Jones, Carroll Baker, Harry Morgan, Russ Tamblyn, Walter Brennan, Thelma Ritter and Agnes Moorehead all star in this incredible film, that is also narrated by Spencer Tracy and might have even been the first "event" film in history. They all star in this sweeping epic that follows one family over 50 years (from 1839 to 1889) as they try to forge their own path through the new American West. It's like watching a cinematic All-Star game, with the whole film just simply filled to the brim with greatness, all bringing their unique talents to this monstrous film and it is simply a marvel to behold, especially in this brand new restored format.

The film has five parts to it (the film is even broken up into two discs, ending where the theatrical film's intermission takes place) and those segments are directed by three All-Stars on the other side of the camera: Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall, all directing off the script by James R. Webb, who deservedly won one of the film's Oscar's for his screenplay (the film's Sound and Editing picked up the other two gold men). My only beef with this film is that this three-hour story can be a tad difficult to follow, with this huge cast and 50-year timeframe. Still, while this had to be the most ambitious project in Hollywood history at the time (maybe still to this day), the elegant writing and superb direction are even more amazing when you take into account the technical problems this format caused, which also makes these acting performances even more amazing. With this three-camera format, the actors couldn't even look at their fellow actors when performing dialogue, because if they looked right at them, when the three reels were played side-by-side, it would appear that they aren't actually looking at their castmates, so they would have to deliver their lines while looking just to the right or left of the actor, so that the finished film would actually show them engaged in something natural. That might not seem like a big deal now, but this is decades before blue-screen and CGI and the process was insanely irritating for both the cast and crew, from what I've learned. The fact that this was pulled off so enormously well, despite this limitations, is nothing short of greatness and a true testament to all involved and their dedication to the film.

How the West Was Won is a true marvel of cinema, to which the filmmakers of today owe great debts of gratitude to, since this film essentially ushered in the widescreen format that was dialed down to the 2.35:1 ratio after this film was so difficult to produce. Now that we can all see this film in the marvelously epic way it was made, any movie freak or movie fan alike truly owes it to themselves to see this masterpiece.

If you want to learn more about the restoration process of this classic film, you can to read my full interview with Warner Home Video executive George Feltenstein, who spearheaded the effort of this amazing restoration.
Aside from some commentaries and a Trailer, we only get one other feature here, but it sure is a doozy. The third disc contains just this one thing along, Cinerama Adventure, a 2002 doc*mentary that chronicles the birth and death of this Cinerama process. The whole inception of this process is quite intriguing, as it has its roots in Vitarama, which started out being commissioned to the military to be used as a gunnery training device, which is quite amazing. This is a full-length doc*mentary at just over an hour and a half, and it delves into a vast amount of wonderful stories about the making of these various early Cinerama films, which were all mainly doc*mentaries or nature films, much akin to a number of non-theatrical films you can see on IMAX. Most of these stories are quite amazing, but I'm rather surprised that they didn't really have more on, you know, How the West Was Won on this doc*mentary. Some of these stories are a bit unnecessary and are just weird stories about these movies no one has really heard of. Don't get me wrong, there is some great stuff about this format, but it seemed like they were pushing the films more than the format, which is the opposite of what I was expecting. We only get How the West Was Won stuff in the last 15 minutes or so of this doc and when they do, it talks about how frustrating that these directors and actors became with the process itself. All in all, it's a very effective doc*mentary, but I think they stretched it a little too long to make it a feature-length doc*mentary. It's still a great historical look at one of the landmark technical innovations in film history that was far too ahead of its time and sadly is not still seen today.
This is one of the most unique-looking films you'll likely ever see. While the viewing area is a bit smaller than we're used to, they were able to restore this classic film to its magnificent 2.89:1 aspect ratio with the latest technology. They were also able to get rid of the "join lines" - which was a result of turning the compressing all three separate Cinerama reels into one 2.35:1 aspect ratio print - that marred previous releases and this film looks absolutely stunning, folks. The also restored and remastered the print and this can finally be seen in your home the way it was meant to be seen... without having to have three movie screens and three projectors in your house. This is truly a landmark achievement in home video, folks, and even if you're a fan of this film, you really haven't seen it until you've seen this new edition.
They remastered the Oscar-winning sound elements from the original Cinerama prints as well and the film and its glorious score can be heard in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
They score yet again with the packaging here and we get a number of goodies besides this three-disc set. A thick sheath holds the three separate pull-outs, one of which holds the three discs and the other two are full of other goodies. One of the pull-outs contains two replica books, one a 36-Page Souvenir Book, which gives a great deal of insight into the film, its stars and the Cinerama process as well along with a slew of photos from the set. The other book is a 20-Page Reproduction of the Original General Release Pressbook, which is pretty cool to thumb through, just, if nothing else, to see how they promoted movies back in the day. The other pull-out has 10 Collectable Color Photo Cards and 10 Black-and-White Photo Cards of Behind-the-Scenes Shots. This is another wonderful Ultimate Collectors Edition release here with tons of great collectibles inside.
If you're a film buff of any sort of caliber, this How the West Was Won Ultimate Collectors Edition absolutely NEEDS to be a part of your collection. It is a truly timeless film that can now be seen in all its 2.89:1 wondrous glory, thanks to this astounding new edition.

Do you like this review?

Comments (2)

  1. Brian Gallagher

    Agreed, sir. This new edition is mindblowing!

    Peace in. Gallagher out!

    7 years agoby @gallagherFlag

  2. Raoul Duke

    An absolute masterpiece.

    7 years agoby @raoulduke33Flag