It is hugely ambitious to try and make a film that covers the epoch changing era of the opening of the West. That this film manages to do so to a large extent is quite an achievement, and most deserving of this excellent restoration from cinerama. Few films can boast such a glittering array of mega stars and wonderful support actors. Even the narration was by the venerable Spencer Tracy.
"How the West Was Won"(63) covers four generations of the Prescott family from 1839-1889. The family starts out from New York and head West to the Pacific Ocean. The film is composed of five segments. Three are directed by Henry Hathaway. "The Rivers", "The Plains" and "The Outlaws". John Ford directed "The Civil War" and George Marshall directed "The Railroad".
The film starts with the Prescott family heading West down the rivers led by Karl Malden. They face many dangers from bandits and the treacherous waters of the rivers. They also meet a tough mountain man Linus Rawlings played by Jimmy Stewart. After a terrible accident that kills some of the family, Linus marries Eve Prescott leaving her independently minded sister Lillith, played by Debbie Reynolds to head West on her own.
We head West to the plains where Lillith joins a wagon train and braves the dangers of Indian attacks and the rigours of the journey. She also has to fight off the attentions of Robert Preston the wagon train leader and a raffish gambler Cleve Van Valen played with panache by Gregory Peck. Being high spirited she opts for Peck.
We move to the Civil War at the time of the bloody battle of Shiloh where a shocked young Zebulon Rawlings played by George Peppard has just begun to understand the true horrors of war. During this sequence he kills a deserter about to try and murder the Union Generals Ulysses Simpson Grant and William Tecumsah Sherman. Sherman was played by John Wayne who gave a much better performance than he did as the Centurion in the crucifixion scene of that other epic " The Greatest Story in the World".
We then head to the the railroads at the time when the dream of a railroad across this great continent became a reality. Zeb is now a Lieutenant in the US Cavalry trying to keep peace between the railroad and the Indians, helped by a grizzled old Mountain man Jethro Stuart played by Henry Fonda. When an unscrupulous railroad boss played by Richard Widmark violates a treaty with the Indians, Zeb disgusted heads West to Arizona.
In "The Outlaws" we see Zeb as a sheriff now joined by his Aunt Lillith arrived from San Francisco after the death of Cleve. Zeb has a run in with his old enemy, the outlaw Charlie Grant played by Eli Wallach. We head to a showdown where we hope the Prescott family will find peace in a tamed frontier.
It is a long film covering a wide canvas, and is hard to give a brief synopsis on. Hopefully I have not overcooked it. I think this film demonstrates just how good an epic can be. As the old adage goes. When they are good they are very good and when they are bad they are horrid. This is of the good variety. It is an enjoyable journey through the different phases of the opening up of the great untamed West. Highly recommended.