To start with a random thought: Warner Home Video's new DVDs of How The West Was Won can be taken as proof that there are more, or louder, Cinerama fans out there than there are Leo McCarey fans. After all, Leo McCarey fans have been clamoring for years for decent domestic discs of the likes of Ruggles of Red Gap and Make Way For Tomorrow, and they've been rewarded with bupkis. Surely some kind of very passionate lobbying had to do with the meticulous restoration and elaborate releases of what is, when you come right down to it, a cinematic white elephant.
Which isn't to say I don't like How The West Was Won. Hell, I love it. Kitsch on such a grandiose scale is genuinely irresistible, and the the way the film's all-star cast so familiarly embody the cliches that its script is a conveyer-belt for is merely one of the film's particular charms. But more than anything else, West is defined by Cinerama, the ultra-widescreen film format that was essentially a more refined version of Abel Gance's triptych technology (see his 1924 Napoleon); that is, scenes are shot with three cameras, with the resultant images melded into one. Cinerama was designed for projection on a gigantic curved screen, so as to engulf the viewer. The format's "elongated depth perspective," writes Tag Gallagher, "befitted travelogue epics and rollercoaster rides." Indeed, among the highlights of 1952's This Is Cinerama were a you-are-there rollercoaster sequence and some breathtaking aerial footage of the Rockies.
For the dramatic filmmaker, working in Cinerama was a form of bondage. The director wasn't the auteur—the format was. You can infer this while watching in the version of the film retoggled for Cinemascope, but you get the most vivid sense of it watching the "Smilebox" presentation of West, which is only available in the Blu-ray version of the film, and which presents the film in a simulation of Cinerama's curved screen. There are a lot of long, static takes whenever there's a group of people talking. In scenes involving two or more characters facing each other, there's standard shot/reverse shot cutting, but the characters are almost always centered in a way that looks forced, as with Debbie Reynolds here:
The process looks as "natural" as it ever will in POV shots in action sequences such as this one, a treacherous white-water encounter.
Hmm. Perhaps Cinerama would have been an ideal format for the all-subjective film as posited by Robert Montgomery's The Lady In The Lake.
West has three credited directors: George Marshall, Henry Hathaway, and John Ford. Ford most likely came on board because one of Cinerama's main backers and boosters was his old friend Merian C. Cooper. Tag Gallagher writes of Ford's contribution: "Everything is said; and with such formidable elegance and concision that the neighboring episodes of 'The Civil War' (behemoths by[...] Hathaway and [...}Marshall) seem like so much bad disco momentarily ceasing for the St. Matthew Passion's final funereal chorus."
True that, and Ford also composes beautifully for the format. But even he can't escape its pitfalls, as these two sequential shots—yes, the first cuts directly to the second—testify.
Sounds like I'm complaining—and I am! But I don't think it's in any way paradoxical that I find the Blu-ray of West to be one of the coolest things I've seen this year. If you've got the gear, you absolutely should pick it up.
UPDATE: My pal Joseph Failla disagrees with me on the dramatic qualities of West:
I don't think of West as kitsch, and I genuinely enjoy enjoy the many action and period set pieces it throws at you one after another. Admittedly, the episodic nature of the story works against the film as a whole, particuarly since every event is "hosted" by a major Hollywood star (such as explorer Jimmy Stewart, gambler Gregory Peck or General John Wayne). It can feel like several shorter movies strung together, with only Debbie Reynolds' character in common (as she makes her way west, she matures from feisty young girl, to sexy saloon hall music entertainer, to wealthy landowner). I do find her performance in the latter scenes, surrounded by family to be fairly affecting. I don't feel the John Ford directed Civil War centerpiece sequence interrupts the action of the surrounding chapters as much as it gives weight to the spectacle on hand. Watching the Civil War fought in microcosm somehow serves as a reminder to the price paid for settling such a sprawling land.
The glorious last shot flying over the Golden Gate Bridge as Alfred Newman's music soars, is the perfect capper to all that has come before and closes the proceedings on the high note the film has been searching for. This after all is the movie that inspired Ron Howard to make films—seeing such a rush of American history and western iconography presented in Cinerama made an incredible impression on him as a small child he could never forget. His proposed Alamo project was deemed too big for a studio to undertake today and no doubt, West served as a powerful inspiration to what might have been. As there's a streak of Americana and fair play that runs through his work to this day, perhaps the responsibility for those beliefs could be on the vivid memories of viewing this film.
Now, where could George Pal's The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm be hiding?
There's a boisterous discussion of West, Cinerama, Grimm...and flat-screen-TVs and their discontents, ongoing at Dave Kehr's place.