How the West Was Won is a dazzling, sprawling epic that never lets up. These are the vicious birthing pains of our great nation, from the good times to the hard times as told to perfection by some of the era’s finest performers and filmmakers.
How the West Was Won (1962, Blu-ray)
Directors: John Ford (segment "The Civil War") Henry Hathaway (segments "The Rivers", "The Plains" and "The Outlaws") George Marshall (segment "The Railroad") Richard Thorpe (uncredited) (transit
Producers: Bernard Smith
Writers: James R. Webb (written by) (suggested by the series "How the West Was Won" in LIFE magazine) John Gay uncredited
Features: * Smilebox Version * Commentary * Documentary * Trailer * Collectible Booklet
Carroll Baker ... Eve Prescott Rawlings
Lee J. Cobb ... Marshal Lou Ramsey
Henry Fonda ... Jethro Stuart
Carolyn Jones ... Julie Rawlings
Karl Malden ... Zebulon Prescott
Gregory Peck ... Cleve Van Valen
George Peppard ... Zeb Rawlings
Robert Preston ... Roger Morgan
Debbie Reynolds ... Lilith 'Lily' Prescott
James Stewart ... Linus Rawlings
Eli Wallach ... Charlie Gant
John Wayne ... Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
Spencer Tracy ... Narrator
How the West Was Won Blu-Ray Review
Hollywood just doesn’t make movies like "How the West Was Won" anymore. Sure, Hollywood throws down millions of high-concept projects like "The Dark Knight," but even with today’s best modern technologies, like polarized 3-D and digital IMAX 3-D, nothing quite reaches the epic magnitude of this classic western epic.
Using three different directors, four cinematographers and a ground breaking new film format called ‘Cinerama,’ which takes three different projectors to project three pieces of simultaneously shot film and bonds them into one giant presentation, "How the West Was Won" isn’t only epic storytelling, but grandly epic filmmaking. It’s not just a film, but an experience.
Personally, before this disc arrived at my house, I’d only seen clips from this film, incorporated into a ‘Cinerama’ presentation at Disney World. I was probably in my teens at the time. Westerns of this type have never really appealed to me. I’ve always found the performances of this era to be flat and stagy, the costumes look cheap and the general mood is far too spirited for reality. But "How the West Was Won" bucked those trends creating enough atmosphere for at least three pictures and while the film runs a tad long, it’s packed with visual wonder and excitement. And rightfully so, as the film incorporates three different directors, all of which bring their own unique vision and flair to the project.
The film, based on a series of short stories from LIFE magazine, tells the story of four different generations of the Prescott family as they head west looking for a new home and new life. Each generation has its own struggles from the Gold Rush, to Native American attacks to Civil War, building the railroad and beyond. This is a story about the ‘American Dream,’ long before we knew what that was, or what that meant.
The cast is brimming with cinema legends from John Wayne to James Stewart. There’s hardly a character in this film that doesn’t have a great actor attached to them. It’s so rare these days to even get two or three major performers in one movie, let alone a dozen or more. Could you see Tom Cruise starring in a film alongside Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Leonardo Dicaprio, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro? Such star power is almost entirely unheard of these days.
"How the West Was Won" is a dazzling, sprawling epic that never lets up. These are the vicious birthing pains of our great nation, from the good times to the hard times as told to perfection by some of the era’s finest performers, cinematographers and directors. I somehow doubt we’ll ever see such a grand project ever again, not with things the way they are in today’s Hollywood system. "How the West Was Won" remains a true cinema icon of it’s own--a great piece movie making history.
Film Report Card:
Entertainment Value: A-
Film Value: A
Wow! Warner has truly outdone themselves with this release. There are two versions of this classic tale contained in this two-disc set. The first disc features the film reformatted for widescreen. The result is a 1080p, 2.89:1 presentation, using the VC-1 codec. The second disc contains the ‘Smilebox’ version, specifically designed for this release. This version is formatted in 1080p, filling a 16x9 aspect ratio, again using the VC-1 codec. Both discs are encoded on BD50 discs.
I’ll get to what ‘Smilebox’ is in a minute. Right now, I’ll focus on the look of the two transfers, which are both utterly stunning. I’ve never seen a film on Blu-ray with as much depth and detail as this transfer sports. It’s truly breathtaking, and rightfully so as three cameras were used to capture one image. Colors are vibrant and strong. Digital compression issues are nonexistent. Some slight film grain and dust appears on the transfer, but both are hardly distracting. This is a pristine, reference release--one for the books. My only real minor gripe is that the divide between the three cameras is fairly noticeable at times. It seems like a little tinkering could have fixed this issue. I also noted some color differences between the three cameras, most notably on the left-hand camera, which appeared darker than the other two cameras.
Now on to the ‘Smilebox’ presentation. ‘Smilebox’ is an attempt to recreate the original three-dimensional look of ‘Cinerama.’ As stated in my review, ‘Cinerama’ is the process of taking three separate cameras and bonding them together for one flawless image, projected on three screens by three projectors. The result is a truly enveloping presentation. ‘Smilebox’ attempts to recreate this presentation by taking the image and warping it slightly so that is wraps around the frame. Below is a sample of what that looks like:
This presentation truly feels three-dimensional, with stark images almost popping out of the screen entirely. I was amazed by how well this version of the film looked. It really does capture the style of the original ‘Cinerama’ format and was my preferred way to view the film. Kudos to Warner for engineering this new technique for this release. Hopefully we will see more films like this in the future.
Warner provides a surprisingly strong Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix for fans to enjoy. I wasn’t really expecting much from this mix since the film is well over 40 years old, but Warner has done a remarkable job giving fans an equally engaging three-dimensional experience with this mix. Several effects as well as the film’s powerful score are evenly balanced between front and rear surrounds, adding to the ‘Smilebox’ presentation. Dialogue is somewhat frosty and flat though, likely due to the era. Still, this is easily one of the finer audio presentations I’ve heard for a film that was undoubtedly recorded in stereo or mono.
Warner serves up a dazzling batch of extras well worth your time.
• Commentary -- Featuring filmmaker David Strohmaier, director of Cinerama, Inc. John Sittig, film historian Rudy Behlmer, music historian Jon Burlingame and stuntman Loren James, this track is brimming with information, most of which relates back to the ‘Cinerama’ technique. Sadly fans don’t get to hear from many key cast and crew members who are still alive, but what is presented here is well worth a listen.
• Documentary: ‘Cinerama Adventure’ -- Running nearly 100 minutes, this documentary mostly covers the origins of the ‘Cinerama’ technique with several key players discussing the difficulty of the process and how it evolved. While a bit technical at times, this documentary is sure to ignite film geeks and historians.
• Collectable Book -- The actual production of "How the West Was Won" is mostly covered in this 44-page book. There are mounds of trivia and insights into the shooting of this film, making this book a fine compliment to these video features.
• The ‘Smilebox’ Version -- This is my preferred way to view the film. The ‘Smilebox’ version replicates the three-dimensional experience of ‘Cinerama.’
This is billed as the "book edition" title. This means that the box is designed to look like a storybook. The collectible 44 page book is woven into the case and is placed in between the two discs. While I like the overall design of the book, I couldn't help but be frustrated by how much it stands out against regular Blu-ray discs. Why wasn't the book at least cut to the same shape of Blu-ray discs? Rather, it's about as tall as a DVD case. While this version is certainly better than Warner’s other "book edition" titles, it still doesn’t quite work. The design needs to be more consistent with regular Blu-ray titles in order to work. Now it just stands out because it bigger and bulkier than regular Blu-ray cases.
"How the West Was Won" harkens back to a cinematic era of hope where a new film format could attract three visionary directors, a great screenwriter and hordes of A-list stars all willing to appear in the film for the greater good of cinema. This was patriotism at its best. If only Hollywood could return to this flavor of filmmaking once more. The Blu-ray is hands-down, the best way to watch this film on home video. Pop in the ‘Smilebox’ version and be prepared to be wowed by a truly stunning presentation.
Blu-ray Report Card:
HD Content: A
On Blu-ray: September 9, 2008.
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----R. L. Shaffer