Thursday 30 December 2010

Movie Review: How The West Was Won (1962)

A well-intentioned flag-waving epic, How The West Was Won unfortunately falls flat. The film has all the narrative sophistication and character depth of an amateur high school play, with a script devoid of texture and intelligence. All the characters spout their lines convinced 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 War erupts, Eve's son Zeb (George Peppard) joins the Unionists and has a serendipitous encounter with 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 seized. Disillusioned, Zeb eventually becomes a Marshall, helping to bring law and order to the wild land, and eventually tangling with bandit Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach).

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. Despite the sophomoric storytelling, some reasonable highlights do emerge: the Civil War scenes are impressively staged and the unleashing of a buffalo stampede as a weapon against the rail companies is memorable. The stunt work during the final train heist also deserves recognition.

The all-star cast includes a few walk-on roles for the likes of John Wayne and Henry Fonda. 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, preventing any coherent vision from permeating through the movie.

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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