Directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall
November 1, 1962 (United Kingdom) / February 20, 1963 (United States)
The epic story of the settling of the West as told through the eyes of a single family of settlers.
This is an amazing Western spectacle film from a time when Hollywood knew how to make an epic film with a sprawling cast. Just about everybody who was anybody at the time was in this movie. The list of stars that appear is quite long. The sheer number alone would be impressive for any era. I am not sure if you could pull together this number of names today. Stars appear more pretentious these days and want most of the spotlight for themselves. The actors here wanted to turn in a good performance no matter their screen time because it would make them bigger. These people were all top-notch actors of their day and some do very little in their parts.
How The West Was Won is episodic and broken up into five different yet linked segments that are bookended by an opening narration and an epilogue. The opening narration, read by the legendary Spencer Tracy, is spoken as an aerial camera flies over the Rocky Mountains. Tracy reads “This land has a name today and is marked on maps.” Not impressive but it sets the stage.
The Rivers 1839
Directed by Henry Hathaway
- James Stewart-Linus Rawlings
- Carroll Baker-Eve Prescott Rawlings
- Debbie Reynolds-Lilith Prescott van Valen
- Karl Malden-Zebulon Prescott
- Agnes Moorehead-Rebecca Prescott
- Walter Brennan-Col. Jeb Hawkins
- Brigid Bazlen-Dora Hawkins
- Lee Van Cleef-River Pirate (uncredited)
This first story takes place considerably east of the Rockies and stars James Stewart as a mountain man named Linus Rawlings who encounters Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) and his family along the Ohio River which was considered the West at that time and both encounter river pirates.
This is an exciting story involving river pirates headed by “Alabama Colonel” Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) who has been tricking and robbing/killing travelers as they travel. This is perhaps my favorite part of the whole movie as the whole story is based around something so dark. I saw shades of the later made The Hills Have Eyes in this. Not heavy but enough. I could see Wes Craven pulling inspiration in the execution of his story from here.
This portion of the narrative also begins the story of the family upon which the film centers as Zebulon’s daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) and Linus are attracted to each other and eventually settle down not far from the events of in this part of the movie.
Fun fact: the cave used in this part of the film is modeled after a real outlaw haunt which is now a part of Cave-in-Rock State Park.
The Rivers nicely begins the narrative and is a rather exciting tale too! It is well acted and in its short time manages a better romance than I would have thought possible.
The Plains 1851
Directed by Henry Hathaway
- Gregory Peck-Cleve Van Valen
- Robert Preston-Roger Morgan
- Thelma Ritter-Agatha Clegg
- David Brian-Lilith’s attorney
- John Larch-Grimes (uncredited)
- Clinton Sundberg-Hylan Seabury (uncredited)
The Plains focuses on Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) who finds herself performing popular numbers in a St. Louis music hall where she meets professional gambler Cleve Van Valen (the legendary Gregory Peck).
This story is a light piece of fluff where Eve inherits a deed to a California gold mine and Van Valen and Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) who is the wagon master of the wagon train they join try to win her heart. There is an exciting attack by Cheyenne warriors.
I thought Cleve Van Valen was perhaps one of the more ridiculous names created in film and I have never been bothered by a single name in Star Wars. They were trying to beat you over the head with how much of a roguish gentleman he was. Peck was the guy you cast in a role like that, but the name just bothers me.
Robert Preston was one of those great character type actors. He is best known as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man and Centauri in The Last Starfighter, but the man had a long and varied career. One thing you could always count on from him was that he would deliver, and he does that very well here. Being a viable option against a character played by Gregory Peck is not easy but he does it.
Debbie Reynolds as Lilith is not bad. She was good all around but honestly I felt she was a better singer than actress. That is not a cut on her. Her forte was music or lighter films. This was a bit too serious for her but her performance in the end was not terrible.
The Plains is a fine vignette with a trio of great actors. It is a satisfying story with a nice twist towards the end.
The Civil War 1861-1865
Directed by John Ford
- George Peppard-Zeb Rawlings
- Andy Devine-Corporal Peterson
- Harry Morgan-Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
- John Wayne-Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
- Russ Tamblyn-Confederate deserter
- Raymond Massey-President Abraham Lincoln
- Ken Curtis-Cpl. Ben (uncredited)
With the Civil War raging, the Rawlings family patriarch joins the Union Army with his young son Zeb (George Peppard) close behind who soon becomes disillusioned with combat and the war.
This particular story is about one man, Zeb, becoming disillusioned by war. He goes in with a fantasy of what it will be like but when the realities hit it changes him as it does most anyone. I guess this could be considered an antiwar story but with no clear answers. The war is portrayed as necessary but what one must do at times not so much and the line between friend and foe can change abruptly as demonstrated by Zeb befriending and then having to stop the Confederate deserter. John Ford went deep here.
I admit my knowledge of Peppard is limited mostly to the classic 80s action/adventure series The A-Team and 70s cult bomb Damnation Alley. I have yet to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Carpetbaggers nor the television series Banacek (at least not more than a few minutes). These are considered his better works but dang it he was great in his garbage. And he was great as Zeb who was forced to confront reality.
For me one of the more interesting aspects is that John Wayne’s role in this film as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman adds up to little more than a walk on part. His lines could probably fit on a small note card with room to spare and then he is done. Ford and Wayne were good friends, and this was one heckuva favor from such a big star to such a great friend.
Overall, The Civil War is perhaps the more message-oriented portion of the movie. It is a solidly acted, written, and directed story about war.
The Railroad 1868
Directed by George Marshall
- Henry Fonda as Jethro Stuart
- Richard Widmark as Mike King
Zeb has become a lieutenant in the U.S. cavalry and with the help of his father’s old friend Jethro is trying to maintain a peace with the local Arapaho while the two competing railroad lines, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, are opening up new ways in the West.
This story is draws inspiration from the reality of numerous treaty violations. This film was made during a sweet spot between the Westerns of old and the current crop of revisionist Westerns that are downbeat and take shots at the mythology of the genre. While this portion does not wallow in the mythology it certainly does not attempt to take it down. The story tries to and mostly succeeds at being even handed.
I am not sure of the length of each story in this film, but this feels shorter than the rest. Fonda was usually a fine actor (with some exceptions) and his time and part in the film felt all to brief. The story itself felt like the better episode of some Western series.
The Railroad could have been better but is not terrible. It suffers from underuse of a great actor.
The Outlaws 1889
Directed by Henry Hathaway
- Lee J. Cobb as Marshal Lou Ramsey
- Eli Wallach as Charlie Gant
- Carolyn Jones as Julie Rawlings-Zeb’s wife
- Mickey Shaughnessy as Deputy Stover
- Harry Dean Stanton as a member of Gant’s gang (uncredited)
- Jack Lambert as a member of Gant’s gang (uncredited)
Lilith, now a broke widow during the waning days of the Old West, goes to live with her nephew Zeb who is now a marshal, but Zeb must confront one last set of outlaws to protect his family.
This is a straightforward old-style Western about two opposing forces facing off against each other. Plus it has the legendary Eli Wallach in it as the villain! Can you get better than that?
This is a simple good versus evil story about two men on opposite sides of the law with a larger-than-life hatred for one another. No shades of grey. No moral ambiguity. Peppard really shines here as a marshal comfortable in the ways of the past and faced with the realities of the present. He goes up against outlaw nemesis Charlie Gant who at one point he probably would have just shot but with real civilization finally arriving he can no longer do things the old way.
Wallach is as slimy and villainous as he ever was as Gant. He could play amazing threatening villains. The man was one of the true greats. Gant is pure evil with Peppard being dutiful good. At this point Zeb is very paternal in the mold of a John Wayne character.
Zeb and Gant represent the outlaw ways of the old. Deputy Stover is the coming civilization of law and order. Reportedly this story was not originally part of the film but was added on when Henry Hathaway said that they needed to show just HOW the West was won and I must agree. Ending with The Railroad would have made the audience go “That’s it?” The film would have just stopped otherwise.
The Outlaws is the second best of the five. It is a satisfying action story that ends with Zeb and his family driving into the horizon signifying their journey/connection to the future as well as the final dawn of a new age.
Directed by Henry Hathaway
- Narrated by Spencer Tracy
The closing narration goes as follows:
“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 a compost of events. Out of the hard simplicity of their lives, out of their vitality, of 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 be, came lakes where once there were burning deserts – came the goods of the earth; mine 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.”
This is followed by shots of Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and even downtown Los Angeles to show how this country has changed.
In the end this is no revisionist film. It does not try to take apart the mythology of the West or take down this country a notch or two. It embraces the pioneers that moved westward and forged this nation into what it is. You do not see that much anymore. I doubt this film could even get made today and come out in a similar fashion. You are left with a sense of pride by the end.
The film is exciting. While being character driven it does not eschew the excitement and action that other Western films of the time had. There is danger from fellow westward travelers as well as the usual threat from Indians and bandits. You get exciting battles and emotional conflict.
How the West Was Won is surprisingly even given that we have several directors here. That is no easy thing in an anthology film. It is difficult to tell where one director leaves off and the other picks up with the only real cue being that the story advances a few years and to a different location.
The movie is beautiful to look at. As a celebration of a formative point in this country’s history as well as the mythology around it, it treats the scenery as a beautiful painting framing everything lovingly. The environment is as epic feeling as the story that takes place in it. The characters are filmed largely in the vistas
How the West Was Won is a must see for film lovers and Western aficionados. It is a film greater than the sum of its parts which a pretty good in and of themselves. Watch it!