Should James Cameron require any suggestions on how to structure a family saga featuring exclusion, rebellion, adolescence, revenge and racism without relying on repetitive action beats he could do worse than check out this towering epic. There’s a seamlessness to the screenplay that allows the director to move quickly along, drama and conflict that initially tear a family apart in the end bringing it back together.
The story charts the romance of Texan rancher Bick (Rock Hudson) to socialite Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), their marital conflict as she exerts her personality in a male-dominated world, her battle with Bick’s older sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) for control of the household, and the infatuation of ranch hand Jett (James Dean) with Leslie.
First child Jordan (Dennis Hopper), pushed unwillingly into masculine pursuits by Bick, bucks his father’s long-term plan by determining to become a doctor. Second child Judy rebels against the extravagant lifestyle and opts, along with husband Dace, for a small spread, the cattleman’s version of a mom-and-pop operation. Third offspring Luz the Second (Carroll Baker) romances the older Jett, now an oil millionaire, and Bick’s business rival.
Racism and exclusion form the core of the picture. Leslie is shocked to discover her father’s employees living in abject poverty, that he will not countenance the cost of improving living conditions, partly on racist grounds, partly on the American principle that it’s every man for himself, a race in which losers are left behind like sores to fester. Jordan marrying a Mexican brings these issues to the fore, especially when his grand heritage cannot protect her from humiliating racism. Bick and Leslie bicker, fall out, make up, are exploited by their children, who can always find one or the other to take their side in any dispute.
Sure there are some terrific lines but the best scenes are simply visually dramatic. Luz, furious at Leslie encroaching on her territory, lames her rival’s favorite horse by riding it with spurs digging into its flesh. A huge crowd welcomes home a white World War Two hero, a handful of people the Mexican equivalent, only when the train pulls away do we see the draped coffin. The introverted by now incoherent Jett unable to summon up the words to complete his proposal to Luz the Second. Terrified four-year-old Jordan atop a horse, not being able, or willing, to ride the worst sin in Bick’s world.
Bick, restraining himself from launching into a fistfight with Jett in the wine cellar of the oil man’s opulent hotel, throws an item at racks of bottles, only to see it topple back, the camera remaining on Bick’s face as we hear the successive toppling of rack upon rack upon rack. Jett, all the wealth he could ever want, wakens from drunken slumber to an empty banqueting room, guests long departed.
A tiny house, as grand as it is, sits in the distance on a massive plain. The passing of time is delineated in relation to horsepower. We are introduced to Bick staring out of a train window watching horses which almost match the speed of the train. Then it is a plane which outruns a car. Finally, when speed, as a demonstration of inherent power, is no longer of the essence the family, in a car, is happy to be overtaken by a speedster.
The power of wealth, the power of power, its corrosive impact on those sharing in what it can bestow, the damage inflicted on those who get in the way, is the other great theme, spelled out not in dogma or speeches but in human cost. And no matter how powerful, someone is always bigger. The dominant Texan cattleman is easily overtaken in the wealth stakes by the oilman, whose political donations ensure tax exemption.
The vindictive Luz gains revenge on her brother by bequeathing Jett a small parcel of land, just enough to prevent the cattleman from owning everything as far as the eye can see and far beyond, just enough to cause irritation.
And this is before we come to the performances. It’s hard to choose between the three principals. Elizabeth Taylor (The Comedians, 1967), fiery, humane, loving, submitting unwillingly to the superior male, arguing her corner, fighting for the rights of others, brings a superbly complex character to brilliant life. But Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) , in a less showy part, is just as good, conflicted, stubborn, initially shy, forced to take on inherited stances, only at the end standing up against what he formerly believed. And you can hardly take your eyes off James Dean, hiding behind a Stetson or a bottle of whisky, inarticulate, lost, greedy, infatuated.
John Huston used to aver that in any given scene the camera did all the work, that with three or four people to choose from, all on screen at the one time, the strongest performer would attract audience attention. Here, that attention constantly flickered from Taylor to Hudson to Dean, as, almost without exerting an acting muscle, they battled for screen dominance.
Taylor was ignored come Oscar time, but Hudson and Dean split the vote allowing Yul Brynner to sneak in, Mercedes McCambridge nominated in the supporting category, Stevens winning his second Oscar. The supporting cast had tremendous depth: Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969), Mercedes McCambridge (99 Women, 1969), Sal Mineo (Escape from Zahrain, 1962), Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), Jane Withers (Captain Newman M.D., 1963) and Chill Wills (The Alamo, 1960). Fred Guiol (Shane, 1953) and Ivan Moffat (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) adapted the Edna Ferber bestseller.
I saw this on the big screen in a 4K restoration which means it’s probably heading for streaming and/or DVD but if your local arthouse chances to program this any effort to see it will be well worthwhile.
As is by now traditional (well, it’s the second full year) this isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a chart of the films viewed the most times over full calendar year of January 2022 – December 2022.
Jessica(1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge. The film had debuted at No 30 in the previous year’s chart so showed remarkable staying power.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Sergio Leone’s masterpiece now acclaimed as the greatest western ever made. Top class cast – Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Jason Robards – and one of the greatest scores ever written courtesy of Ennio Morricone.
The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret sparkles as author reinventing herself by writing a sex novel.
Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall as German spy outwitting the British during World War One.
Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Fellini-esque musical with abundant nudity as writer-director-star Anthony Newley tries to unravel the meaning of life.
Father Stu (2022). Under-rated biopic with Mark Wahlberg as unlikely priest.
Blonde(2022). Andrew Dominik’s controversial reimagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe with Ana de Armas
For a Few Dollars More(1965).Sergio Leone re-teams with Clint Eastwood in the second in the spaghetti western trilogy with Lee Van Cleef as a rival bounty hunter.
A Place for Lovers(1968). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in Vittorio De Sica doomed romance.
Fade In(1968). Burt Reynolds disowned this romance filmed against the backdrop of making the Terence Stamp western Blue but it’s better than he thinks.
The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role. Top film for 2021, so demonstrating the ongoing popularity of films based on the author’s works.
The Sisters (1969). Complicated menage a trois that borders on the semi-incestuous starring Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg.
Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt. Another film with legs – it was No 3 in the 2021 annual chart.
Water Gate Bridge / Battle at Lake Changjin II (2022). Another epic, non-stop action from the Chinese point-of-view in a sequel to one of the most famous battles of the Korean War.
Harlow (1965). Carroll Baker as the blonde bombshell who rocketed to fame in 1930s Hollywood.
Baby Love (1969). Morality tale as orphaned Linda Hayden tries to fit into an upper-class London household.
Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchockian thriller set in the South of France with adulterous Jean Seberg suspected of killing her lover.
Secret Ceremony (1968). Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in atmospheric Joseph Losey drama.
Lady in Cement (1969). Gangster’s moll Raquel Welch steals the show in Frank Sinatra’s second outing as private eye Tony Rome.
Subterfuge (1968). Suzanna Leigh steals the show as a sadistic henchwoman trying to prevent Gene Barry uncovering a mole in M.I.5.
P.J. / New Face in Hell (1967). George Peppard taken to the cleaners as down-on-his luck private eye.
The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar. This was No 6 last year.
The Gray Man (2022). Spectacular Netflix misfire with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans as rival assassins and Ana de Armas adding some spice.
The Brotherhood (1968). Martin Ritt Mafia drama sees siblings Kirk Douglas and Alex Cord falling out.
Some Girls Do (1969). Richard Johnson returns as Bulldog Drummond battling archvillains Daliah Lavi and Beba Loncar.
Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier treats racist patient Bobby Darin. Very unusual imagery.
The Double Man (1967). C.I.A. operative Yul Brynner battles Russian espionage in Switzerland with Britt Ekland providing the glamor.
Operation Mincemeat (2022). Re-telling of “The Man Who Never Was” World War Two plot that duped Hitler over Sicilian invasion plans.
Orgy for the Dead (1965). Bizarre cult horror tale where most of the female characters appear to be auditioning for a nudie film.
Texas Across the River (1966). Alain Delon acts against type in Dean Martin comedy western.
These days fact-based magazine articles commonly spark movies – The Fast and the Furious (2001) was inspired by a piece in Vibe, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) started life in Esquire – but it was rare in the 1960s (see Note below).
However, a series of seven lengthy historical articles in the multi-million-selling Life magazine in 1959 about the Wild West, extensively illustrated with material from the time, captured the attention of the nation. Bing Crosby acquired the rights, not as a potential movie, but for a double album recorded in July 1959 on a new label Project Records set up specifically for the purpose – two months after the series ended – and a proposed television special.
When the latter proved too expensive, the rights were sold to MGM which then linked up in a four-film pact with Cinerama to create the first dramatic picture in that format, the three-screen concept that had taken the public by storm in 1952 with This Is Cinerama. Since then, Cinerama had focused exclusively on travelogs and coined $115 million in grosses from just 47 theaters, including $9 million in seven years at the Hollywood theater in Los Angeles. Eight years in its sole London location had yielded $9.4 million gross from a quartet of pictures, Cinerama Holiday (1955) leading the way with (including reissue) a 120-week run, followed by 101 weeks of Seven Wonders of the World (1956), 86 for This Is Cinerama and 80 weeks for South Seas Adventure (1958).
Box office was supplemented with rentals of the projection equipment. But the novelty had worn off, lack of product denting consumer and industry interest, many of the theaters set up for the project returning the equipment, so that by the time of this venture there were only 15 U.S. theaters still showing Cinerama. The company went from surviving primarily on equipment royalties to becoming a producer-distributor-exhibitor. Ambitiously, the company believed it could generate $5,000 a week profit for each theater, and, assuming growth to 60 houses, that could bring in $15 million a year.
Crosby initially remained involved – crooning songs to connect various episodes – but that idea was soon abandoned. Director Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960), claimed he came up with the movie’s structure. “The original concept was mine,” he said, “The first step in the winning of the West was the opening of the canal, then came the covered wagon, next the Civil War which opened up Missouri and the mid-West then the railroads, and finally the West was won when the Law conquered it instead of the outlaw gangs; which was the theme I worked out for the picture.
“So I conceived the whole idea and then got writers to work on the five episodes. Each episode was about a song originally. Then I travelled all over the country to find locations.”
For once this was a genuine all-star cast headed up by actors with more than a passing acquaintance with the western: John Wayne (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962), Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), James Stewart (Winchester ’73, 1950), Richard Widmark (The Alamo, 1960) and Henry Fonda (Fort Apache, 1948) with Spencer Tracy (Broken Lance, 1954) as narrator plus George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) in his first western.
The two strongest female roles were given to actresses playing against type, Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, 1956), who normally essayed sexpots, as a homely pioneer and Debbie Reynolds (The Tender Trap, 1955), more at home in musicals and comedies, as her tough sister. The impressive supporting cast included Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Walter Brennan, Robert Preston, Carolyn Jones and Karl Malden.
Glenn Ford and Burt Lancaster were unavailable. Frank Sinatra entered initial negotiations but ultimately turned it down. Gary Cooper, also initially considered, died before the film got underway.
Initially under the title of The Winning of the West screenwriter James R. Webb (The Big Country, 1958) was entrusted with knocking the unwieldy non-fiction story into a coherent fictional narrative. In effect, it was an original screenplay at a time when Hollywood was turning its back on bestsellers, “the pre-sold theory less compelling.” His first draft accommodated various montages covering the journey from the Pilgrim Fathers to the building of the Erie Canal and the Civil War and it was only in subsequent drafts that the tale of Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) emerged with surprising focus on female pioneers.
Webb’s initial ending had involved a father-son conflict, presumably a fall-out between the Rawlings played by James Stewart and George Peppard, but that was rejected in order not to finish on a “note of bitterness” out of keeping with the spirit of the movie. Although he did not receive a credit, John Gay (The Happy Thieves, 1961) also contributed to the screenplay.
Given the film’s episodic structure it is amazing how well the various sequences fit together and the narrative thrust maintained. The story covers a 50-year stretch beginning in 1839 with the river sequence bringing together James Stewart and Carroll Baker. After Stewart is bushwhacked by river pirates, he marries Baker and they set up a homestead. The next section pairs singer Debbie Reynolds with gambler Gregory Peck whose wagon train is attacked by Indians on the way to San Francisco. Later, Stewart and son George Peppard enlist in the Civil War (featuring John Wayne as an unkempt General Sherman).
Stewart dies at the Battle of Shiloh. Peppard joins the cavalry and later as a marshal in Arizona meets Reynolds and prevents a robbery that results in a spectacular train wreck. It took a superb piece of screenwriting to pull the elements together, ensure the characters had just cause to meet and to create solid pace with a high drama and action quotient.
The undertaking was too much for one director. Initially, it was expected five would be required but this was truncated to three – John Ford (The Searchers, 1956), Henry Hathaway and George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) although Hathaway carried the biggest share of the burden and Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe, 1952) handled some transitional historical sequences.
The directors broke new ground, technically. The Cinerama camera was actually three cameras in one, each set at a 48 degree to the next and when projected provided a 146-degree angle view. Each panel had its own vanishing point so the camera could, uniquely, see down both sides of a building.
But there were drawbacks. The cumbersome cameras required peculiar skills to achieve common shots. Directors lay on top of the camera to judge what a close-up looked like. Sets were built to take account of the way dimensions appeared through the lens, camera remaining static to prevent distortion. When projected, the picture was twice the size of 65mm and before the invention of the single-camera lens led to vertical lines running down the screen. Trees were built into compositions to hide these lines.
“You couldn’t move the camera much,” recalled Hathaway, “or the picture would distort. You have to shove everything right up to the camera. Actors worked two- and three-feet away from the camera. The opening dolly down the street to the wharf was the first time it had ever been done.
He added, “Over 50 per cent of the stuff on the train was made on the stage (i.e. a studio set) and 60 per cent of the stuff coming down the rapids. I never took a principal up north to the river, the principals never worked off the stage. We never photographed the scenes with transparencies in three cameras with Cinerama – we photographed them with one camera in 70mm and then split the negative.
“I wouldn’t shoot close-ups in Cinerama – I shot the close-ups in 70(mm) and then separated the negative because in Cinerama it distorted their arms. When (George) Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told he used only 70mm and split it all. So from then on they never used the three cameras again. Now they’re actually shooting it in 35(mm).”
Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19.
After a year spent in pre-production, an eight-month schedule due to start on May 28, 1961, and a completion date of Xmas 1961, MGM anticipated a 1962 launch, Independence Day pencilled in for the world premiere. The original $7 million budget mushroomed to $12 million and then to £14.4 million, $1 million of that ascribed to adverse weather conditions, hardly surprising given the extent of the location work. A total of $2.2 million went on the 10 stars and 13 co-stars, virtually talent on the cheap given the salaries many could command, transport cost $1 million and the same again in props including an 1840 vintage Erie canal boat.
Rain and overcast skies added $145,000 to the cost of shooting the rapids sequence in Oregon and another $218,000 was required when early snowfall scuppered one location and required traveling 1,000 miles distant. Nearly 13,000 extras were involved as well as 875 horses, 1,200 buffalo, 50 oxen and 160 mules. Thousands of period props were dispersed among the 77 sets. Over 2,000 pairs of period shoes and 1500 pairs of moccasins were fashioned as well as 107 wagons, many designed to break on cue.
Virtually 90 per cent of the picture was shot on location to satisfy Cinerama customers accustomed to seeing new vistas and to bring alive the illustrations from the original Life magazine articles. Backdrops included Ohio River Valley, Monument Valley, Cave-in-Rock State Park, Colorado Rockies, Black Hills of Dakota, Custer State Park and Mackenzie River in Oregon.
The picture, including narration, took over a year to make. Cinerama sensation was achieved by shooting the rapids, runaway locomotive, buffalo stampede, Indian attack, Civil War battle and cattle drive. Motion was central to Cinerama so journeys were undertaken by raft, wagon, pony express, railroad and boat, anything that could get up a head of steam.
Initially, too, the production team had been adamant – “rigid plans for running time will be met” – that the movie would clock in at 150-155 minutes (final running time was 165 minutes) and there was some doubt, at least initially, on the value of going down the roadshow route in the United States. Roadshow was definitely set for Europe, a 15-minute intermission being included in those prints, for a continent where both roadshow and westerns were more popular than in the States.
Big screen westerns in particular in Europe had not been affected by the advent of the small-screen variety. Some films received substantial boosts abroad. “The Magnificent Seven and Cimarron (both 1960) took giants steps forward once they made the transatlantic crossing.” British distributors also reported “striking” success with The Last Sunset (1961) and One-Eyed Jacks (1962) which had toiled to make a similar impression in the U.S.
In the end the decision was made to hold back the release in the U.S. in favor of another Cinerama project The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, which had begun shooting later and ultimately cost $6 million, double its original budget. Rather than bunch up the release of both pictures, MGM opted to kick off its Cinerama U.S. launch with Grimm in 1962 and shifted How the West Was Won to the following year. MGM adopted the anticipation approach, holding the world premiere in London on November 1, 1962, and unleashing the picture in roadshow in Europe.
A record advance of $500,000 was banked for the London showing at the 1,155-seat Casino Cinerama (prices $1.20-$2.15) on roadshow separate performance release. Before the advertising campaign even began in October, a full month prior to the world premiere, over 62,000 reservations had been made via group bookings. Critics were enamored and audiences riveted. The cinema made “unusually large profits” and after two years had grossed $2.25 million from 1722 showings.
Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960) was hired to compose the music, but an eye condition prevented his participation though he later sued for $2.63 million after claiming he was fired before the assignment began. Alfred Newman (Nevada Smith, 1966) wrote the thundering score but uniquely for the time MGM shared the publishing rights with Bing Crosby. In the U.S. Bantam printed half a million copies of a paperback tie-in, sales of the soundtrack were huge and there was a massive rush to become involved by retailers and museums with educational establishments an easy target.
Audience response was overwhelming, a million customers in the first month, two million by the first 10 weeks at just 36 houses, some of which had only been showing it for half that time. But it failed to hit ambitious targets – predictions that it would regularly run for three years in some situations “based on the star roster and the fact the pic offers more natural U.S. vistas than anything yet done on the screen” proving wildly over-optimistic. Still, it had enjoyed 80 roadshow engagements including eight months at the Cinerama in New York and grossed $2.3 million in 92 weeks in L.A, $1.14 million after 88 weeks in Minneapolis and $1.5 million after one week fewer in Denver.
By 1965, as it began a general release 35mm roll-out with 3,000 bookings already taken, it had already passed the $9 million mark in rentals including a limited number of showcase breaks the previous year.
Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it won for screenplay, sound and editing. The movie became MGM’s biggest hit after Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur. In my recent book The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade I placed it twelfth on the chart of the decade’s top box office films.
It provided a popularity fillip for most of the big stars involved, none more so than James Stewart who, prior to shooting, had been on the verge of retirement. Box office appeal diminishing, work on his next picture Take Her, She’sMine postponed by the Actor’s Strike, after the death of his father he had “quietly begun to make plans to get out of his Fox contract, retire, and move his family out of Beverly Hills.” He had spent $500,000 on a 1,100-acre ranch and was already well set to quit acting having accumulated a large real estate portfolio in addition to oil well investments.
NOTE: Robert J. Landry (“Magazines a Prime Screen Source,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 11) pointed to Cosmopolitan as the original publication vehicle for To Catch a Thief (1955) by David Dodge in 1951 and Fannie Hurst’s Back Street (1932), serialized over six months from September 1930. Frank Rooney’s The Cyclist’s Raid – later filmed as The Wild One (1953) – first appeared in Harpers magazine. Movies as varied as Edna Ferber’s Ice Palace (1960) and The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, later filmed as Cape Fear (1962), were initially published in Ladies Home Journal. The Saturday EveningPost published Alan Le May’s The Avenging Texan, renamed The Searchers (1956), and Donald Hamilton’s Ambush at Blanco Canyon, renamed The Big Country (1958) as well as Christopher Landon’s Escape in the Desert which was picturized under the more imaginative Ice Cold in Alex (1958).
SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade (McFarland, 2022) p168-170; Marc Eliot, James Stewart A Biography (Aurum Press, paperback, 2007) p350-351; Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19; Sir Christopher Frayling, How the West Was Won, Cinema Retro, Vol 8, Issue 22, p25-29; Greg Kimble, “How the West Was Won – in Cinerama,” in70mm.com, October 1983; “Reisini Envisions Cinerama Leaving Travelog for Fiction Pix,” Variety, December 14, 1960, p17; “Metro in 4-Film Deal with Cinerama,” Variety, March 1, 1961, p22; “Cinerama Action Awaits Plot Tales,” Variety, March 8, 1961, p10; “Fat Bankroll for How West Was Won,” Variety, May 24, 1961, p3; “Return to Original Scripts,” Variety, June 28, 1961, p5;“MGM-Cinerama Set 3-Hour Limit For West Was Won,” Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Hoss Operas in O’Seas Gallop,” Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Coin Potential As To Cinerama,” Variety, September 20, 1961, p15; “Changing Economics on Cinerama,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p13; “Bantam’s 22 Paperback Tie-Ups in Hollywood,” Variety, October 25, 1961, p22; “How West Was Won for July 4 Premiere,” Box Office, December 11, 1961, p14; “Crosby Enterprises Holds West Cinerama Songs,” Variety, January 24, 1962, p1; “Grimm First in U.S. for Cinerama but Abroad West Gets Priority,” Variety, April 4, 1962, p13; “Cinerama Fiscalities,” Variety, April 11, 1962, p3; “Cinerama Story Pair Burst Budgets,” Variety, May 16, 1962, p3; “Tiomkin’s $2,630,000 Suit Vs MGM et al,” Variety, June 27, 1962, p39; “Hathaway a Pioneer,” Variety, July 25, 1962, p12; “Bernard Smith Clarifies Fiscal Facts,” Variety, August 8, 1962, p3; Review, Variety, November 7, 1962, p6; “London Critics Rave Over West,” Variety, November 7, 1962, p19; “Brilliant World Premiere in London for West,” Box Office, November 12, 1962, p12; “West in Cinerama the Big Ace,” Variety, November 14, 1962, p16; Feature Reviews, Box Office, November 26, 1962; Bosley Crowther, “Western Cliches; How West Was Won Opens in New York,” New York Times, March 28, 1963; “Big Book Aid for West,” Box Office, April 1, 1963, pA3; “West Was Won Seen By 2,000,000 in 10 Weeks,” Box Office, June 3, 1963, p15; “How West Was Won for 19 Showcase Theaters,” Box Office, June 15, 1964, pE1; “West End,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p27; “How West Was Won Ends Roadshowing,” December 9, 1964, p16; “3,000 Bookings Expected for How the West Was Won,” Box Office, May 3, 1965.
I’ve got Alfred Newman’s toe-tapping theme music in my head. In fact, every time I think of this music I get an earworm full of it. Not that I’m complaining. The score – almost a greatest hits of spiritual and traditional songs – is one of the best things about it. But then you’re struggling to find anything that isn’t good about it. But, for some reason, this western never seems to be given its due among the very best westerns.
Not only is it a rip-roaring picture featuring the all-star cast to end all-star casts it’s a very satisfying drama to boot and it follows an arc that goes from enterprise to consequence, pretty much the definition of all exploration.
Given it covers virtually a half-century – from 1839 to 1889 – and could easily have been a sprawling mess dotted by cameos, it is astonishingly clever in knowing when to drop characters and when to take them up again, and there’s very little of the maudlin. For every pioneer there’s a predator or hustler whether river pirates, gamblers or outlaws and even a country as big as the United States can’t get any peace with itself, the Civil War coming plumb in the middle of the narrative.
Some enterprising character has built the Erie Canal, making it much easier for families to head west by river. Mountain man fur trader Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) on meeting prospective pioneers the Prescotts has a hankering after the young Eve (Carroll Baker) but as a self-confessed sinner and valuing his freedom has no intention of settling down. But he is bushwhacked by river pirates headed by Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) and left for dead, but after saving the Prescotts from the gang changes his mind about settling down and sets up a homesteading with Eve.
We have already been introduced to Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) who has attracted the attention of huckster Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) and they meet again in St Louis where she is a music hall turn and widow. Her physical attraction pales in comparison with the fact she has inherited a gold mine. He follows her, unwelcome, in a wagon train which survives attack by Cheyenne, but still she resists him, not falling for him until a third meeting on a riverboat.
Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) wants to follow his father to fight in the Civil War. Linus dies there, but there’s no great drama about it, he’s just another casualty, and the death is in the passing. In probably the only section that feels squeezed in, following the Battle of Shiloh a disillusioned Zeb saves General Sherman (John Wayne) and Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) from an assassin.
Returning home to find Eve dead, Zeb hands over his share of the farm to his brother and heads west to join the U.S. Cavalry at a time when the Army is required to keep the peace with Native Americans enraged by railroad expansion. Zeb links up with buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), who appeared at the beginning as a friend of his father.
Eve, a widow again, meets up in Arizona with family man and lawman Zeb who uncovers a plot by outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) to hijack a train. Zeb turns rancher once again, looking after her farm.
But the drama is peppered throughout by the kind of vivid action required of the Cinerama format, all such sections filmed from the audience point-of-view. So the Prescotts are caught in thundering rapids, there’s a wagon train attack and buffalo stampede, and a speeding train heading to spectacular wreck. There’s plenty other conflict and not so many winsome moments.
Interestingly, in the first half it’s the women who drive the narrative, Eve taming Linus, Lilith constantly fending off Cleve. And there’s no shortage of exposing the weaknesses and greed of the explorers, the railroad barons and buffalo hunters and outlaws, and few of the characters are aloof from some version of that greed, whether it be to own land or a gold mine or even in an incipient version of the rampaging buffalo hunters to pick off enough to make a healthy living.
And here’s the kicker. Virtually all the all-star cast play against type. John Wayne (Circus World, 1964) reveals tremendous insecurity, Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is an unscrupulous though charming renegade, the otherwise sassy Debbie Reynolds (My Six Loves, 1963) is as dumb as they come to fall for him, and for all the glimpses of the aw-shucks persona James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) plays a much meaner hard-drinking hard-whoring version of his mean cowboy. Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is an innocent not her usual temptress while George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966) who usually depends on charm gets no opportunity to use it. .
Also worth mentioning: Henry Fonda (Madigan, 1968), Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968), Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family, 1964-1966), Eli Wallach (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Richard Widmark (Madigan), Karl Malden (Nevada Smith, 1966) and Robert Preston (The Music Man, 1962).
Though John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) had a hand in directing the picture, it was a small one (the short Civil War episode), and virtually all the credit belongs to Henry Hathaway (Circus World) who helmed three of the five sections with George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) taking up the slack for the railroad section.
And though you might balk at the idea of trying to cover such a lengthy period, there’s no doubting the skill of screenwriter James R. Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) to mesh together so many strands, bring so many characters alive and write such good dialog. Bear in mind this was based on a series of non-fiction articles in Life magazine, not a novel, so events not characters had been to the forefront. Webb populated this with interesting people and built an excellent structure.
I’m still tapping my toe as I write this and I was tapping my toe big-style to be able to see this courtesy of the Bradford Widescreen Weekend on the giant Cinerama screen with an old print where the vertical lines occasionally showed up. Superlatives are superfluous.
Harlow presents such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse that I was astonished to discover that it was not entirely truthful where the title character was concerned.
Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true). But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.
The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.
No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before rescued by agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she geta a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.
However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother Jean (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather Marino (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for studio chief Everett (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.
But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City.
Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script based on the book by Arthur Landau and Irving Shulman.
In the title role Carroll Baker (Sylvia) has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966) excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Raf Vallone (Nevada Smith, 1966) is the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast that also includes Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), Peter Lawford (Sylvia), Leslie Nielsen (Beau Geste, 1966), Martin Balsam (Seven Days in May, 1964) and Mike Connors (Stagecoach, 1966).
Except that virtually none of the movie is true, I would have given it four stars for its portrayal of Hollywood but I have come to expect that biopics, while moving facts around for dramatic purposes, are required to be good more faithful to their subjects than this.
David Lean spent months in Jordan capturing his vision of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. Seth Holt was granted no such luxury, a few weeks at Shepperton Studios in England to make this British-German co-production.
It is a surprisingly tight and effective drama made on a low budget excepting whatever fee induced Hollywood star Carroll Baker to join. Five men trapped on an oil pipeline maintenance unit drive each other to distraction. Loud Scot Ian Bannen constantly needles stiff upper-class Denholm Elliott while overbearing German boss Peter Van Eyck cheats at poker. The arrival of steely-eyed German Hansjorg Felmy alters the status quo as he refuses in his own quiet way to knuckle down to authority.
There is a wonderful psychological battle going on between Bannen and Elliott. Extremely envious of the number of letters Elliott receives, Bannen offers a month’s pay for just one. When the offer is accepted, Elliott cannot stop fretting about what he might have given away and what secrets it revealed about himself.
The arrival of Carroll Baker upsets the equilibrium further as the men attempt to win her affections. While apparently promiscuous, she is steelier than the lot of them, and tensions climb high when she begins to spread around her favors. Interestingly, she does no wooing but waits for men to come to her.
Given the budget restraints, or possibly because of them, it is surprisingly well directed. Two scenes stand out in directorial terms. In one featuring Bannen and Elliott, the Scot is only partly visible behind a piece of furniture but his dialogue continues even when out of sight. In the other, one of Baker’s suitors finds her door locked and as she is about to reply a hand appears (not in aggressive fashion) to cover her mouth, indicating she already has chosen her bedmate. Naturally, this can only lead to a grim end.
The cast of male unknowns are uniformly good but Baker steals the show as you would expect. Given the times, there was no nudity, but the overt sexuality certainly skirted the bounds of what passed as decency and Baker is alluring however little or much she wears. But her sexuality takes second place to her individuality. Her independence will not be surrendered to a man. Despite the budget restrictions it stands up very well.