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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Large Frame Format > How The West Was Won (1962/MGM/Warner Blu-ray)

How The West Was Won (1962/MGM/Warner Blu-ray)

 

Picture: B+     Sound: B+     Extras: B     Film: B-

 

 

When widescreen filmmaking took hold in the 1950s, it was both a big boost and final hurrah for the Western.  By then, key Westerns had been made in the earlier part of the decade like Broken Arrow, High Noon, Winchester 73 and Johnny Guitar.  Cinerama was a three-camera format that projected a single image and revolutionized the film industry, finally reaching even TV as it transforms into HDTV.  After some very successful select subjects, a few epic feature films were attempted in the format and the few attempted that used the three-camera machine to shoot the film were co-produced by MGM.  Their 1962 hit How The West Was Won was the peak of this production and of widescreen Westerns.

 

Boasting four directors and an epic journey into the forging of The United States (no matter how inaccurate) the film wanted to be a modern Birth of a Nation (1915) though no one dares to make that connection and this is the studio that made Gone With The Wind (1939) so the film has five sub-stories tied into the larger epic presented and in its time was a winner.  Unless you can see it in its grandest presentation, it is hard to appreciate that its visuals are as important as its script, as that can be weak.  It also has an all-star cast that is a plus telling the tale through several generations of family; one Ron Howard screened before shooting his 70mm epic Far & Away in 1992.

 

Running 162 minutes, the film has an uneven narrative and being shot in two large-frame formats, it is a bright, colorful cinematic experience that does (sometimes in unintentionally funny ways) try to put you in the picture to feel the experience as if you were out in the wild, untamed west.  The ambition, energy and spirit of doing that is one of the reasons why the film holds up as well as it does today and other films (like Cinerama Corporation’s 1971 production The Last Valley in Todd-AO 70mm) would duplicate.  Lawrence of Arabia would upstage the film, but it had advantages over even that David Lean classic in the even wider frame and all-out sprawling scenery.  Yes, it was from a Classical Hollywood system at a new peak of ambition.

 

To give you an idea of the star power and how it helped this film, the cast includes no less than James Stewart, John Wayne, Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Agnes Moorehead, Raymond Massey, Thelma Ritter, Russ Tamblyn, Harry Morgan, Andy Devine, Walter Brennan, uncredited turns by Harry Dean Stanton, Cliff Osmond, Lee Van Cleef, Karl Swenson and narration by Spencer Tracy.  All looking and even sounding as good as they ever have or ever would in their careers.

 

All that makes this a must-own film, but for years, it never really could be seen in a way that was the equal of the best film prints.  Turner Entertainment and people who love the film outside of that entity did what they could to save and preserve the film, with a real dye-transfer Technicolor print surviving in the hands of a private collector!  Warner Bros. owns the Turner films and that includes all MGM’s to 1985, so they decided to fix the film up with digital technology.  The idea was to eliminate the lines that happen from the overlap of the three projects going at once.

 

For the most part they succeeded from what we can see here, though a competing system called Cinemiracle found a way to project without the lines showing, but the Cinerama people bought it out and never upgraded.  Because shooting in 3 cameras was so expensive, MGM and company shot in both the 35mm 6-perferation times three Cinerama system (the best-looking shots) and MGM Camera 65/Ultra Panavision 70mm.  Films like the 1962 Mutiny On The Bounty (also MGM) and Battle Of The Bulge (1965) were shot totally in the later, often dubbed “Cinerama with one lens” and both have already been issued in HD-DVD, as these links will show:

 

Mutiny On The Bounty

http://www.fulvuedrive-in.com/review/4786/Mutiny+On+The+Bounty+(1962/HD

 

Battle Of The Bulge

http://www.fulvuedrive-in.com/review/5415/The+Battle+Of+The+Bulge+(1965/HD

 

 

On those you can read more about MGM Camera 65/Ultra Panavision 70mm and both are coming to Blu-ray if they are not already there.  In any event, that means the material the version on this new Blu-ray offers would/could include 70mm without lines, 70mm reduction material with lines from the Cinerama shoot, three strips of 6-perferation 35mm to make the widescreen image and that could be anything from any surviving camera negative, to dupe materials, to surviving prints in all formats and some regular 70mm reissue prints were also made.  The result is a decent approximation of how this would play and only Blu-ray can finally deliver an idea of how great this is on film.

 

Two 1080p widescreen digital High Definition versions are included here at the widest 2.89 X 1 aspect ratio.  Blu One has a straight widescreen version with solid straight bars at the top and bottom of the image, but Blu Two has what would first seem like a novelty version in Smilebox shape that is what it would look like when projected on the curved Cinerama screen.  We had seen similar (but limited) such footage before when Fox restored The King & I (on DVD and hopefully soon on Blu-ray) in prints that would take advantage of the curved screen.  Cinerama was maybe even more curved, but did not need a curved print.  It would just project that in how the format was set up.  It should be noted that the screen was made of strips and was not a solid screen, or too much light would have reflected back at the audience and they would not have been able to see anything.

 

Both look really good, though even this HD format has its limits, but I have to admit as odd as this sounds, the Smilebox version actually shows more of the depth, fidelity, detail and definition of the film and for those who can curve their screens at home, will likely find this truer to the original experience.  Either way, Warner has included both options and saved this film nicely.  Color is very good and Technicolor could dye-transfer each strip, then you would see it interlocked into one image, but some prints were EastmanColor/MetroColor and many such prints have since faded away forever.  However, between the 6-perf of the 35mm and anamorphic wide frame on 70mm of the MGM Camera 65/Ultra Panavision 70mm shooting, the color is on a higher level here than it would be if just a regular 35mm shoot and that makes so many of these shots in both widescreen versions demo material.

 

The sound has been upgraded to a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, while the 35mm reduction prints had 4-track magnetic stereo, 70mm reissue prints 6-channel magnetic stereo (in the Todd-AO configuration where 5 of the speakers were behind the screen) and Cinerama presentation in 7-track sound.  The sound is towards the front except when it kicks in, which is not all the time, while the narration and voices can sound more compressed than they should for a film even its age.  Alfred Newman’s score is a plus and sounds as good as anything in this upgraded mix.  Hope I get to compare it to a 7-channel actual Cinerama presentation some day soon.

 

Extras include a booklet built into the Blu-ray case similar to what Warner did with their Blu-ray and HD-DVD editions of Bonnie & Clyde, plus Blu One includes the original theatrical trailer, extensive audio commentary track (including Filmmaker David Strohmaier, Director of Cinerama Inc. John Sittig, Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Music Historian John Burlington and Stuntman Loren Adams) and a terrific, outstanding, must-see documentary Cinerama Adventure (2002) by Strohmaier about the rise and fall of the format that is long overdue for release on home video.  The only thing missing is a featurette about how this film was saved and fixed, but Warner could mix that in with the other MGM Cinerama feature The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm (also 1962) when they get around to giving that film the same treatment they gave this.  Until then, How The West Was Won is a great back catalog release that is a must-see for any serious Blu-ray collection.

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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