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How The West Was Won (1962) - Illustrated Reference

Updated on August 31, 2016

How the West Was Won was directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall and premiered on 1st November 1962. It stars James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Raymond Massey, Robert Preston, Lee J. Cobb, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Eli Wallach and Russ Tamblyn. Screenplay by James R. Webb. Music by Alfred Newman. 162 mins.

Life in the Old West viewed through the experiences of the Prescott family over several generations. It begins with the family, led by Zebulon Prescott, journeying westward via the Erie Canal where they meet mountain man Linus Rawlings and than continuing over the prairies, suffering through the Civil War, encountering Indians and a buffalo stampede, help build the railroads and bring law and order to the frontier.

The inspiration for this film came about after Life magazine featured a 7-part series of photo essays titled How the West Was Won in April to May 1959. MGM wanted to make the biggest western of them all and on the largest and widest screen possible at the time.

James Stewart (1909-1997) / Linus Rawlings

Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, James Stewart has been Oscar nominated 5 times and won a Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Carroll Baker (1931-) / Eve Prescott

Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Carroll Baker was Oscar and BAFTA nominated for Best Actress in Baby Doll (1956). Films include – The Big Country (1958), The Carpetbaggers (1964), Harlow (1965) and Kindergarten Cop (1990)

Gregory Peck (1916-2003) / Cleve Van Valen

Born in La Jolla California, Gregory Peck has been Oscar nominated 5 times and won a Best Actor Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Debbie Reynolds (1932-) / Lilith Prescott

Born in El Paso, Texas, Debbie Reynolds received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Films include – Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Hit the Deck (1955), The Tender Trap (1955) and The Mating Game (1959).

George Peppard (1928-1994) / Zeb Rawlings

Born in Detroit, Michigan, George Peppard's films include – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Carpetbaggers (1964), Operation Crossbow (1965) The Blue Max (1966) and Damnation Alley (1977) played Hannibal Smith in hit TV series The A Team (1983-1987)

Henry Fonda (1905-1982) / Jethro Stuart

Born in Grand Island, Nebraska, Henry Fonda was Oscar nominated Best Actor for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), 12 Angry Men (1957) and won for On Golden Pond (1981).

John Wayne (1907-1979) / General Sherman

Born in Winterset, Iowa, John Wayne was Oscar nominated Best Actor for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and won for True Grit (1969).

Richard Widmark (1914-2008) / Mike King

Born in Sunrise Township, Minnesota, Richard Widmark was Oscar nominated Best Supporting Actor for Kiss of Death (1947).

Raymond Massey (1896-1983) / Abraham Lincoln

Born in Toronto, Canada, Raymond Massey was Oscar nominated Best Actor for his role as Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Played Dr. Gillespie in TV series Dr. Kildare (1961-1966).

Robert Preston (1918-1987) / Roger Morgan

Born in Newton Highlands, Massachussetts, Robert Preston was Oscar nominated Best Supporting Actor for Victor Victoria (1982). Films include – Beau Geste (1939), Reap the Wild Wind (1942), The Music Man (1962) and The Last Starfighter (1984).

Karl Malden (1912-2009) / Zebulon Prescott

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Karl Malden was Oscar nominated Best Supporting Actor for A Streetcar Named Desire and won a Best Actor Oscar for On the Waterfront. Films include One Eyed Jacks (1961), Nevada Smith (1966), Patton (1970) and Meteor (1979). TV series The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977)

Agnes Moorehead (1900-1974) / Rebecca Prescott

Born in Clinton, Massachussetts, Agnes Moorehead has been nominated for 4 Supporting Actress Oscars they are – The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. Played the witch Endora on Bewitched (1964-1972).

Carolyn Jones (1930-1983) / Julie Rawlings

Born in Amarillo, Texas, Carolyn Jones received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for The Bachelor Party (1957). Films include – House of Wax (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Baby Face Nelson (1957) and King Creole (1958), played Morticia Addams in The Addams Family (1964-1966).

Lee J. Cobb (1911-1976) / Marshal Lou Ramsey

Born in New York City, Lee J. Cobb was nominated for 2 Best Supporting Actor Oscars – On the Waterfront (1954) and The Brothers Karamazov (1958). Other films include – 12 Angry Men (1957), Our Man Flint (1966), Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) played Judge Henry Garth in TV series The Virginian (1962-1966).

Harry Morgan (1915-2011) / General Ulysses S. Grant

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Harry Morgan’s films include – The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), High Noon (1952), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), The Shootist (1976) and Dragnet (1987) played Officer Bill Gannon in TV series Dragnet 1967 (1967-1970) and Colonel Sherman T. Potter in MASH (1974-1983).

Walter Brennan (1894-1974) / Jeb Hawkins

Born in Swampscott, Massachussetts, Walter Brennan received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Sergeant York (1941) and won 3 Supporting Actor Oscars for Come and Get It (1936), Kentucky (1938) and The Westerner (1940).

Eli Wallach (1915-) / Charlie Gant

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Eli Wallach received an Honorary Award at the Oscars in 2010, he was 95. His films include – Baby Doll (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Tough Guys (1986) and The Godfather Part III (1990).

Russ Tamblyn (1934-) / Confederate deserter

Born in Los Angeles, California, Russ Tamblyn received an Oscar nomination Best Supporting Actor for Peyton Place (1957). His films include – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Tom Thumb (1958), West Side Story (1961), The Haunting (1963) and The War of the Gargantuas (1968).

Three directors worked on five segments of the film –

The Rivers (1830’s) Directed by Henry Hathaway and featuring James Stewart, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee Van Cleef and Brigid Bazlen.

The Plains (1850’s) Directed by Henry Hathaway and featuring Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Robert Preston and Thelma Ritter.

The Civil War (1861-1865) Directed by John Ford and featuring George Peppard, Carroll Baker, Raymond Massey, Russ Tamblyn, Andy Devine, Harry Morgan and John Wayne.

The Railroad (1868) Directed by George Marshall and featuring George Peppard, Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark.

The Outlaws (1880’s) Directed by Henry Hathaway and featuring George Peppard, Carolyn Jones, Debbie Reynolds, Lee J. Cobb and Eli Wallach.

Spencer Tracy is the films narrator.

Gary Cooper was the first choice for the role of mountain man Linus Rawlings but died before filming began. James Stewart was cast instead.

Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Audrey Hepburn were among the actors approached to star in the film but for various reasons couldn’t do it.

John Wayne spent just five days filming his segment of the film.

Unusually this celebration of the Old American West had its world premiere in London, England.

A TV series loosely based on the film appeared in the late seventies, How the West Was Won (1978-1979) starred James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner.

The film was advertised as featuring 24 stars, 875 horses, 350 Indians, 1,200 buffalo and over 12,000 extras which was most likely studio hype, this isn’t The Ten Commandments. But it was one of the biggest westerns ever.

How the West Was Won was filmed in the 3-strip Cinerama process, in which three synchronised cameras are used for filming, one camera pointing slightly left, the other slightly right and the middle camera dead centre. At specially equipped theatres three projectors beam the images onto a giant curved screen producing an immersive almost 3D experience and without the need for glasses.

However the Cinerama process wasn’t successful and full of problems for the filmmakers, there was only one sweet spot dead centre where the image wasn’t distorted. Actors in a scene talking to each other would have to stare at carefully positioned cue points to give the impression they were looking at each other. Zooming was impossible, close ups forget it, the most noticeable problem were the dividing lines between the three screens which were sometimes very visible and distracting, especially when the film was later shown flat on conventional screens and on TV appearances.

The Blu-ray of How the West Was Won remastered by Crest Digital is one of the best examples of film restoration yet seen. The image though very wide and small on the average home theatre display looks immaculate, very little grain visible, glorious colours shine through and most amazing of all the dividing lines are barely visible. The Blu-ray edition also includes a curved Smilebox edition of the film which simulates the original Cinerama theatre presentation.

The very first Cinerama film was This is Cinerama (1952), which was basically a 2 hour demo of the 3-strip Cinerama process, locations around the world are used and most famously the three cameras locked onto a rollercoaster, the film was a massive success. Only one other movie with a story line was filmed in 3-Strip Cinerama and that was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm also released in 1962.

Stuntman Bob Morgan was seriously injured when a sequence on a moving train went horribly wrong, the chains holding down heavy logs on the shaking train broke and the loose logs crushed Morgan who was crouching next to them. One of his legs had to be amputated.

Veteran Hollywood composer Alfred Newman (1900-1970) scored the movie, creating one of the greatest western themes in film history. Newman has scored over 200 movies and has been Oscar nominated 45 times winning 9 Oscars, more than any other film composer.

How the West Was Won was nominated for 8 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Music Score (Alfred Newman), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume and winning for Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound.

The film was chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1997.

Closing Narration: The West that was won by its pioneers, settlers, adventurers is long gone now. Yet it is theirs forever, for they left tracks in history that will never be eroded by wind or rain - never plowed under by tractors, never buried in the compost of events. Out of the hard simplicity of their lives, out of their vitality, their hopes and sorrows grew legends of courage and pride to inspire their children and their children's children.

From soil enriched by their blood, out of their fever to explore and build came lakes where once were burning deserts - came the goods of the earth; mines and wheat fields, orchards and great lumber mills. All the sinews of a growing country. Out of their rude settlements, their trading posts came cities to rank among the great ones of the world. All the heritage of a people free to dream, free to act, free to mold their own destiny.

The Critics Wrote-

"Everything in this latest feature on the king-size Cinerama screen is a dutiful duplication of something you've already seen in anywhere from one to a thousand Western movies in the past 60 years. It should be called "How the West Was Done—to Death." (New York Times)

"Blockbuster supreme, a magnificent and exciting spectacle which must inevitably dwarf the earnings of the travelogs in the three-screen process. It would be hard to imagine a subject which lends itself more strikingly to the wide-screen process than this yarn of the pioneers who opened the American West... the three directors between them have turned in some memorable sequences." (Variety)

"Blockbuster epic about three generations of western pioneers isn't same experience on TV it was on Cinerama screen, but great cast, first-rate photography and lovely Alfred Newman score still make it top entertainment." (Leonard Maltin)

"Although How the West Was Won makes it apparent that actors, directors and technicians have much to learn before Cinerama is fully effective, it is an important and significant step forward and an engrossing and entertaining film." (Films in Review)

"One can only have wished that more concern had been given to the storyline and the credibility of performances, the make-up used for Miss Baker and Miss Reynolds as they age is laughable." (Parish & Pitts)


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    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Jools, Flora thank you for the kind words and comments, it is greatly appreciated.

      Jools, I took about 100 screenshots and picked about 20 for the hub. It wasn't easy they all looked great thanks to the very wide carefully worked out composition and the fact the cameras didn't move much during the film. I liked the posters and lobby cards too so I had to balance things out a bit.

      Flora, I'm glad you liked the hub, so many great actors and I knew many were favourites of yours. It's not the best western but it is one of the biggest and widest and starriest. And I love Newman's music score, I bought the soundtrack.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      This is wonderful. Great information and beautiful pictures.

      I didn't know a stunt man's leg had to be amputated. Interesting that only one other film was filmed in cinerama. Oh, dear! I've lost track of the number of times I have seen this movie. It is a great example of a western I have seen because of the stars that are in it. You know the ones I mean :)

      Thanks for the background on this film.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Steve, amazing hub of one of my favourite movies - and it's like an ensemble movie with 3 or 4 different ensembles going on in the one film. Your photos are amazing again, the buffalo one is breathtaking and the one of the cowboys crossing the ridge with the mountains in the background. I wish I had a widescreen TV so that I could get full benefit from seeing it again. Excellent hub, voted up,etc,etc

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Hi Bruce, thanks for the comments, anecdotes, kind words, votes and info, very much appreciated amigo.

      A cast with 14 wins and 59 Oscar nominations between them? Wow that is amazing. And add music maestro Alfred Newman's 45 nominations to that, whoa!

      I should cut down on the all star movie hubs, the cast listing and info takes forever. If you noticed the selected filmographies are shorter and missing on the really famous stars, I mean everyone knows their films what's the point of listing them? Oscar wins and noms are fascinating so I left them in.

      I was thinking of adding the real names of some of these actors too just for a laugh but that's too much info. Maybe next time.

      As with my other movie hubs you won't find most of these photos anywhere on the internet, they were snapped by yours truly, hey maybe I should watermark them? ;)

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      After reading your hub I began to think about all the great actors, actresses and directors behind this I went and did some Oscar research(I know I need some help with this number craze I 17 of the actors/actresses were Oscar nominated performers and 2 of the directors were Oscar nominated directors. The 19 people won a total of 14 Oscars and were nominated for a total of 59 Oscar nominations during there you can add in additional 5 Honorary Oscars picked up as well....I do not think there has ever been a movie with more Oscar people in it....I am excluding movies like That's Entertainment....heck they could have had some practice Oscar ceremonies during breaks in that thought out of my mind.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      I have grown to appreciate this movie more as I get older. After hearing your glowing recommendation(either another hub or an e-mial) of HTWWW on Blu-Ray, I went out and bought a copy myself...simply outstanding...a demo worthy disk for my entertainment system. It is such great quality that the movie sucked my wife into...what was supposed to be a 1 minute demo turned into an entire night of watching HTWWW...even more impressive was the fact that she really does not like westerns.

      What a cast that is in this is like playing a huge trivia game as the stars keep showing is simple a fun movie to watch. I wish that I could have seen this movie in Cinerama. During the holidays I saw a movie in a domed ceiling theater...I think HTWWW would be awesome in that theater...can you arrange that for

      Great photos(I know you are tired of hearing that but they always impress me with their quality), great information, and great writing on your part. Voting up and awesome....job well done, my friend.