Thursday, 30 December 2010

Movie Review: How The West Was Won (1962)

A well-intentioned flag-waving epic that falls flat and inadvertently heralds the end of the old-fashioned western.  How The West Was Won has all the sophistication of an amateur high school play, with a script devoid of any texture, intelligence or depth. All the characters spout their lines as if they know that they are playing a part in the grand scheme of unfolding history, resulting in an endless succession of overly-dramatic, theatrical, wooden, and sometimes sadly comical scenes.

A series of sketches chronicling the history of America over about 60 years in the heart of the 1800's, How The West Was Won generally follows the adventures of the Prescott family. After tangling with bandits and being saved by mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart), Ma and Pa Prescott are killed in a rafting accident making their way west. Their down-to-earth daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) marries Linus and establishes a homestead at the site where her parents died. The other daughter, free spirited singer / dancer Lily (Debbie Reynolds), continues west, joins a wagon trail to California, and marries compulsive gambler Cleve Van Halen (Gregory Peck).  Lily and Cleve settle in San Francisco where they make and lose many fortunes.

The Civil Wat erupts, Eve's son Zeb (George Peppard) joins the Union army, and is at the right place at the right time to save the life of General Grant. After the war Zeb stays in the army, and attempts to keep the peace between the expanding rail companies and the native tribes whose land is being taken over. Disillusioned with the treatment of the natives, Zeb eventually becomes a Marshall, helping to bring law and order to the wild land.

The elderly but still sparkly Lily finally decides to settle down, and joins her nephew Zeb's growing family.  But Zeb has one last outlaw to bring to justice, and in the climax of the film, he prevents a train heist and kills the bandit Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) and his gang.

In How The West Was Won the good guys are all-good, the bad guys are all-bad, and good always triumphs over bad.  The film presents a most naive, sugar-coated and earnest view of the old world.

The all-star cast is a deception.  John Wayne's role is a cameo, Henry Fonda's participation not much more.  Gregory Peck and James Stewart play their parts with little conviction and an ever-present smirk.  Debbie Reynolds and George Peppard have the most prominent roles, and they are far from capable of holding the film together.  John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall directed the various segments, further preventing any coherent vision from permeating through the movie.

How The West Was Won does achieve some reasonable highlights: the Civil War scenes of sequential canons firing are impressive; also memorable are the natives unleashing a buffalo stampede against the rail companies.  The stunt work during the final train heist also deserves recognition.

But overall, How The West Was Won fails to resonate, and has a ghastly ending that suddenly jumps to the present and trumpets American freeways, interchanges and concrete jungles as the most prominent signs of triumph.  The times have indeed changed.

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