The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, April 21, 2014

How the West Was Won

In the age of the epics -- the 1950s and 1960s -- some just stand above the rest. It's the stories, the cast, the scope. I don't love 1962's How the West Was Won but as far as epics go, there are very few in its neighborhood. There are obvious flaws, but when it works, it works in a big way. An impressive all-star cast, a story about the development of the American west and a shooting technique that is must-see. That's a winning formula.

A 162-minute film is broken up into five separate segments, the story following the Prescott-Rawlings family as it moves west and settles between the 1840s and the 1880s. It was directed by three different directors and covers a ton of ground. And away we go!

1. The Rivers (directed by Henry Hathaway): It's the 1840s, and the Prescott family, led by patriarch Zebulon (Karl Malden), is moving west and looking for a new life. In Zebulon's family is two daughters, Eve (Carroll Baker), looking for a new life in the west, and Lillith (Debbie Reynolds), wanting to stay in the far-more civilized East. In their dangerous travels on the rivers, they also meet Linus Rawlings (James Stewart), a mountain man with a canoe full of pelts.
Also starring: Lee Van Cleef, Walter Brennan, Agnes Moorehead, Brigid Bazlen.

2. The Plains (directed by Hathaway): Having worked for years on her own as a singer and dancer, Lillith Prescott (Reynolds) has just inherited a gold mine in the wake of the California gold rush. She heads west on a wagon train led by trail driver Richard Morgan (Robert Preston) with a gold-seeking gambler, Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), also along too. 
Also starring: Thelma Ritter.

3. The Civil War (directed by John Ford): The war between the states in its early months, young Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) leaves home with the blessing of his mother, Eve, to join the Ohio volunteers in the fighting. Like so many others, he thinks the war will be full of glory and be over quickly. Zeb finds out how very wrong he is at the bloody battle of Shiloh.
Also starring: John Wayne (as General Sherman), Russ Tamblyn (as a Confederate deserter), Harry Morgan (as General Grant), Andy Devine, Ken Curtis, Raymond Massey (as Abraham Lincoln).

4. The Railroad (directed by George Marshall): In the years following the Civil War, railroad companies race across the U.S. to link the two coasts. Now in the cavalry, Zeb Rawlings (Peppard) finds himself balancing out what his duty requires of him with what he knows is right, the railroad, including brutal supervisor Mike King (Richard Widmark), pushing the Arapahoes to their limit.
Also starring: Henry Fonda as Jethro Stuart, a former mountain man.

5. The Outlaws (directed by Hathaway): Having left the cavalry behind, Zeb Rawlings is now a family man with two kids, now trying to leave his profession as a lawman behind. He receives a letter from his aunt, Lillith (Reynolds), and readies the family to move. As they travel though, Zeb runs into Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach), a notorious outlaw gunning for Zeb.
Also starring: Lee J. Cobb, Carolyn Jones.

This is a movie that's simply put, BIG. It was filmed in Cinerama, three cameras filming each scene and then splicing the action together. The result? An immense look at the expansion of the west. Shots look like panoramic paintings, putting a whole new scope on the growth and development of the American west. It is a beautiful movie. Certain sequences especially stand out -- the camera on a raft trying to survive river rapids, an Indian attack on a wagon train, a stampeding buffalo herd trampling a railroad camp, a runaway train during an attempted robbery -- over the course of the movie, but visually there just isn't a weak spot. I love composer Alfred Newman's score -- listen to an extended sample HERE -- as it gives a moving background to the story. Countless gorgeous filming locations, providing a great backdrop while also transitioning from segment to segment.

It had been years since I watched this movie straight through in one sitting before my recent revisit of this 1962 epic. As you compare the five separate segments, I don't think it's really in question which one is the strongest. It's John Ford's Civil War segment, doing in 20 minutes what entire movies couldn't do in bringing the Civil War to life. Quick, dark, visually striking and unsettling, it is a gem of a sequence, especially Peppard meeting Tamblyn's Confederate deserter after the battle. The second strongest segment for me is the opening 'Rivers' with Stewart, Baker, Reynolds and Malden all leaving a positive impression. All five segments could be stretched out to a feature length film on their own, but these two especially stand out. They get their message across in a quick window and in both cases left me wanting more. Kudos to Ford and Hathaway for their work here.

What struck me more on the rewatch was the other three segments. They are by no means bad segments, but they're just not as good as the other two. I've always thought the weakest was the Plains segment, things feeling too rushed in general. The same qualifies for the Railroad and Outlaws portions. By the time you take away the Entr'Acte, intermission, and Finale music, we're looking at a movie with five segments covered in about 150 minutes (give or take). None of these three are given a chance to breathe to the point they feel downright rushed. As for some other positives? I loved the transitional scenes -- narrated by Spencer Tracy, directed in uncredited fashion by Richard Thorpe --  that set things up, explaining how America has changed, how its people change. These quick montages provide the heart of the movie, almost like a documentary in some ways. Like any movie that tries to accomplish so much, there's good and bad. The positives -- especially the Civil War middle -- is enough to outweigh the negatives thankfully.

One of my biggest worries in reviewing this 1962 epic was that the cast is too big. There's no way I was gonna be able to get all those names tagged with a 200-character limit. Who stands out? Stewart i excellent as Linus Rawlings, Fonda is good in a quick part as Jethro Stuart, and Baker is very strong too. The best parts though are Debbie Reynolds as Lillith and George Peppard as Zeb, the two hearts of the family. One or both is in every segment, the audience seeing them age, learn and adapt as America grows with them. Their scenes together in the Outlaws portion ring especially true. However you cut it though, just an impressive cast from top to bottom, one of the best ever assembled for a Hollywood film.

A doozy of a movie for what it's trying to accomplish. It falls short at times, but this is a movie worth watching for what it represents alone. This is a throwback film, a true epic that strives to be something great. If it doesn't live up those high hopes, so be it. The effort is admirable, a fascinating story of America growing up over an extremely turbulent portion of its history. Oh, and Debbie Reynolds singing A Home in the Meadow (listen HERE) is a truly beautiful song, a fitting one for the movie.

How the West Was Won (1962): ***/****


  1. It was hilarious seeing these hot young blonds going crazy over elderly James Stewart.

  2. The age difference was a little extreme among Stewart, Reynolds and Baker! I figured it must have been that Jimmy Stewart drawl.