How the West Was Won Remastered for DVD

Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark. Directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall. Aspect ratio: approximately 2.23:1. Dolby Surround. Additional language: French. 150 minutes. 1962. MGM 906292. Not rated. $29.95.

Few motion pictures have framed the lore of the American West with the conviction, sensibility, and embrace of How the West Was Won. For comparable style, one could cite Stagecoach or Shane, but in terms of sheer scope, this epic might have no match at all.

How the West Was Won was produced in Cinerama, which means it was filmed in three 35 mm strips that were projected as panels aligned in a seamless panorama. An earlier release on laserdisc in a 4:3 aspect ratio was anything but seamless. The transitions from panel to panel disrupted the image and simply had to be ignored to enjoy the movie at all.

In this newly remastered, widescreen (though by no means Cinerama) release, the seams remain visible---sometimes prominently so, as when actors or wagons or lowing herds migrate from one panel to the next. The rippling distortion suggests the warp and wiggle of an object as it plunges into water. Mostly, however, the panel transitions are muted, and the eye is beguiled by the DVD's rich palette and sharp image.

But this film also engages the brain. It was for good reason that How the West Was Won captured the 1963 Academy Awards for screenplay, film editing, and sound. For all its historical (and mythological) sweep, it is the passions and tribulations of its characters that propel and ennoble the film and the tale. That said, the interlacing work by three different directors, each of whom presided over one broad chunk of the story, is far from seamless. However, the star-studded cast turns in a bundle of memorable performances. With few exceptions, these are no cameo walk-ons, but portraits of characters who matter to us.

Two details of the film remain disturbing. At the very outset, Spencer Tracy's narrative reminds us that this great land had to be wrested from the grip of nature and "primitive man." That was Hollywood white guys writing in 1962. Interestingly, an informative little booklet inserted in the DVD box refers to the many "native Americans" who took part in the film.

The other blotch is the ending: a wholly unprepared fast-forward to an aerial view of then-modern Los Angeles and the snaking rivers of freeway traffic. In a twinkling, the great Western epic of vision, courage, and romance is lost in a self-aggrandizing glimpse of the civilization that "saved" the continent from primitive man. No doubt that curious segue was visualized as a Cinerama flourish, a sexy spin on the technology that would one day evolve into the Imax experience. But that's like fading from Homer's Odyssey to a finale skyline shot of modern Athens.

At least with DVD, you can end the poem in the magic of its long-ago.