Movie of the Week 64
How the West was Won 1962 drama action
All those Hollywood legends in one exciting film. This movie tells a thrilling, colorful American history lesson -- from the 1840s, when the frontier was still the Ohio River Valley, to about 1885 - not so long a time, but long enough for three generations. The territory of the Western expansion depicted in the film is massive; stretching from the 85th Meridian to Meridian 125 (San Francisco). The storytelling is done with five distinct episodes, but there is a common thread. The narrative is formed around one family, the Prescott's, who set out on a journey West in 1839, with one of more Prescott in each episode. The movie gets off to a slow start with some corny dialogue and singing, but picks up steam when mountain man, Jimmy Stewart, arrives with a canoe full of beaver hides. When the film is good, it’s very good: a violent battle with river pirates, riding a flimsy log raft in class 4 rapids, Cheyenne attack on a wagon train, buffalo stampede and train robbery, each of them are good enough to be a highlight in separate movies. Nothing looks fake – the horses are magnificent and the buffalo herd is thundering and massive. Made decades before CGI, the action scenes will be hard for any Western fan to dislike. The Civil War was rather glossed over, and is the weakest link of the movie. The war scenes were thankfully short, and I was pleased to get back to the western expansion.
Many reviewers have noted the excellent soundtrack. I like the fun song and dance numbers which really showcased the amazing talent of Debbie Reynolds, playing the effervescent Lilith Prescott. If any of the stars could be said to be THE star of the film it would have to be Debbie Reynolds’ and it really is her character’s story. She's in the film almost throughout including the final chapter where, as a widow, she goes to live with her nephew George Peppard and his family in Arizona. The film is not without humor. In the funniest scene, Lilith Prescott is being wooed by the wagon train master, Roger Morgan. He gives a textbook example of how not to propose marriage; “Why with hips like yours, having children would be as easy as rolling off a log”. Lilith is shocked at being sized up like livestock, and quips a witty reply in return with a definitive, “no thanks.” Besides she already had taken a fancy to Cleve, a charming rogue played by Gregory Peck.
The movie has enough visual impact to please a modern audience, as well as many moving and powerful scenes. The film lingers in my mind, in a good way. Wide-screen DVD copies are now finally up to high standards, and worth the modest price. Just be sure to pick up the Special Edition Blu-ray release. The Blu-ray upgrade is a vast improvement over the older VHS and DVDs. The division into Cinerama three panels is gone and the surround sound is very impressive.
Is HWWW the American Western apotheosis? Some movie reviewers think so. I hesitate to agree because I have not seen all the Western movies. The newfangled Cinerama wide-screen plus the All-Star cast and ambitious scope certainly lifts HWWW into the top ranks of the old school Westerns made in the now extinct Hollywood Studio system and Hays Code era. Another slant on vintage Westerns is offered by “Deadwood” writer, David Milch, “I always thought they [Westerns] had more to do with what the Hays Office would allow than with what really happened on the American frontier. The more I came to read about the West, the more I realized how little what we called Westerns had to do with the West and how much they had to do with the vision of European Jews in the movie business who made a fortune selling a sanitized idea of American history back to America.”
All the glowing reviews of HWWW invariably end with the phrase, “HWWW really is a case of they don't make them like they used to.” I have to agree because by the end of the 1960’s the Hollywood studio system collapsed and the Hays Code was torpedoed by the US Supreme Court. The movie industry environment that birthed HWWW is long gone. So here we are in the 2020’s and the Hays Code has been replaced with the equally draconian Woke-PC Code. Western movies are still being made, but much fewer in number and with a due respect for feelings (wo, wo, wo feeeeeelings). HWWW is an unapologetic celebration of Western expansionism and, true to its production date, is unashamedly pro-White, as such; the film would never get made today. That said, I steadfastly maintain there exists common ground between HWWW and the most modern Western movie: A good man with a gun will solve the horrors and inequities plaguing his fellow citizens, and certain positive values will inevitably triumph. That is the American Way of the almighty Box Office.
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Written by Ben Clark. Copyright 2016-2023. All rights reserved.