The all-star cast includes (in alphabetical order) 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, and Richard Widmark. The film is narrated by Spencer Tracy.
The film begins with narration by Spencer Tracy as the aerial-borne camera sweeps over the Rocky Mountains. "This land has a name today," says Tracy in the opening lines of the film, "and is marked on maps."
We then move into "The Rivers" sequence (considerably to the east of the Rockies).
We see mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) making his way by horse and waterway through the mountains. He confers with a group of Indians. We then move to Zebulon Prescott and his family.
Prescott (Karl Malden) and his family set out west for the frontier via the Erie Canal, the "West", at this time, being the Ohio River country, at the southern edge of Illinois. Along the journey, they meet Rawlings, who is traveling east, to Pittsburgh, to trade his furs. Rawlings and Zebulon's daughter, Eve (Carroll Baker) are attracted to each other, but Linus is not ready to settle down.
Linus Rawlings stops at an isolated trading post, run by a murderous clan of river pirates, headed by "Alabama Colonel" Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan). Linus is betrayed when he accompanies seductive Dora Hawkins (Brigid Bazlen), into a cave, modeled after the real outlaw haunt, of Cave-In-Rock State Park, to see a "varmint". Dora Hawkins stabs him in the back and Rawlings falls into a deep hole. He is not seriously wounded, and is able to rescue the Prescott party from a similar fate. The bushwhacking thieves (Lee Van Cleef plays one), including Dora, are dispatched, being killed in an attack by Rawlings, in a form of rough, frontier justice. Brennan's death is particularly memorable.
After Zebulon prays to God for their lost loved ones and commends to Him the thieves' souls "whether You want 'em or not", the settlers continue down the river, but their raft is caught in rapids and Zebulon and his wife Rebecca, (Agnes Moorehead) drown. Linus, finding that he cannot live without Eve, reappears and marries her. She insists on homesteading, at the spot where her parents died.
Directed by Henry Hathaway.
Eve's sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) chooses to go to St. Louis, where she finds work performing in a dance hall. She attracts the attention of professional gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). After overhearing that she has just inherited a California gold mine, and to avoid paying his debts to another gambler (John Larch), Cleve joins the wagon train taking her there. He and wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) court her along the way, but she rejects them both, much to the dismay of her new friend and fellow traveler Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter), who is searching for a husband.
Surviving an attack by Cheyenne Indians, Lilith and Cleve arrive at the mine, only to find that it is worthless. Cleve leaves. Lilith returns to work in a dance hall in a camp town, living out of a covered wagon. Morgan finds her and again proposes marriage unromantically. She tells him, "Not now, not ever."
Later, Lilith is singing in the music salon of a riverboat. By chance, Cleve is a passenger. When he hears Lilith's voice, he leaves the poker table (and a winning hand) to propose to her. He tells her of the opportunities waiting in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. She accepts his proposal.
Directed by Henry Hathaway.
Linus Rawlings joins the Union army as a captain in the American Civil War. Despite Eve's wishes, their son Zeb (George Peppard) eagerly enlists as well, looking for glory and an escape from farming. Corporal Peterson (Andy Devine) assures them the conflict will not last very long. The bloody Battle of Shiloh shows Zeb that war is nothing like he imagined and, unknown to him, his father dies there. Zeb encounters a similarly disillusioned Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who suggests deserting.
By chance, they overhear a private conversation between Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) and William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne). The rebel realizes he has the opportunity to rid the South of two of its greatest enemies and tries to shoot them, leaving Zeb no choice but to kill him with the bayonet from his shattered musket. Afterward, Zeb rejoins the army.
When the war finally ends, Zeb returns home as a lieutenant, only to find his mother has died. She had lost the will to live after learning that Linus had been killed. Zeb gives his share of the family farm to his brother, who is content to be a farmer, and leaves in search of a more interesting life.
Directed by John Ford.
Following the daring riders from the Pony Express and the construction of the transcontinental telegraph line in the late 1860s, two ferociously competing railroad lines, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, one building westward and the other eastward, open up new territory to eager settlers.
Zeb becomes a lieutenant in the U.S. cavalry, trying to maintain peace with the Indians with the help of grizzled buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of Linus. When ruthless railroad man Mike King (Richard Widmark) violates a treaty by building on Indian territory, the Arapaho Indians retaliate by stampeding buffalo through his camp, killing many, including women and children. Disgusted, Zeb resigns and heads to Arizona.
A subplot with Hope Lange as Jethro Stuart's daughter, named Julie, leading to a love triangle between Zeb and Mike King with Julie marrying and later leaving Zeb was deleted.
Directed by George Marshall.
In San Francisco, widowed Lilith auctions off her possessions (she and Cleve had made and spent several fortunes) to pay her debts. She travels to Arizona, inviting Zeb and his family to oversee her remaining asset, a ranch.
Zeb (now a marshal), his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones), and their children meet Lilith at Gold City's train station. However, Zeb also runs into an old enemy there, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). Zeb had killed Gant's brother in a gunfight. When Gant makes veiled threats against Zeb and his family, Zeb turns to his friend and Gold City's marshal, Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb), but Gant is not wanted for anything in that territory, so there is little Ramsey can do.
Zeb decides he has to act rather than wait for Gant to make good his threat someday. Suspecting Gant of planning to rob an unusually large gold shipment being transported by train, he prepares an ambush with Ramsey's reluctant help. Gant and his entire gang (one member played by Harry Dean Stanton) are killed in the shootout and resulting train wreck. In the end, Lilith and the Rawlings family travel to their new home.
Directed by Henry Hathaway.
A short epilogue shows modern Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1960s, including the four-level downtown freeway interchange and Golden Gate Bridge.
Directed by Henry Hathaway.
The film marked then sixty-six-year-old Raymond Massey's last appearance as Abraham Lincoln, a role that he had previously played on stage (Abe Lincoln in Illinois and the stage adaptation of John Brown's Body), on screen (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and on television (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, and two more productions of Abe Lincoln in Illinois).
How the West Was Won was one of only two dramatic feature films (the other being The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) made using the three-strip Cinerama process. Although the picture quality when projected onto curved screens in theatres was stunning, attempts to convert the movie to a smaller screen suffer from that process's technical shortcomings. When seen in letterbox format the actors' faces are nearly indistinguishable in long shots.
John Ford complained about having to dress such huge sets, since Cinerama photographed a much wider view than the standard single camera process Hollywood directors were used to. Director Henry Hathaway was quoted as saying, "That damned Cinerama. Do you know a waist-shot is as close as you can get with that thing?"
A portion of the film's profits were meant to go to St John's Hospital. This led Irene Dunne and others to persuade the movie's stars to take less than their usual fees. However, the hospital later sued for a share of the film's profits.
A more difficult problem was that the film had to be shot with the actors artificially positioned out of dramatic and emotional frame, and out of synchronization with one another. Only when the three-print Cinerama process was projected upon a Cinerama screen did the positions and emotions of the actors synchronize—such as normal eye-contact or emotional harmony between actors in a dramatic sequence. Because of the nature of Cinerama, if the film were shown in flat screen projection it would appear as if the actors made no eye contact, at all. One brief scene of Mexican soldiers was generously sourced by John Wayne from the 1960 version of The Alamo, which he starred in, produced, and directed.
Stuntman Bob Morgan, husband of Yvonne De Carlo, was seriously injured and lost a leg during a break in filming a gunfight on a moving train while filming "The Outlaws" portion. Chains holding logs on a flat-bed car broke, crushing Morgan as he crouched beside them.
In a scene in which George Peppard's character reminisces about his late father, Peppard improvised by doing an imitation of James Stewart's voice. Director John Ford initially objected, but Peppard felt it was important in such a long, sprawling film to remind the audience which character his father was supposed to be.
The film later inspired an ABC television series of the same name.
The music for the film was composed and conducted by Alfred Newman. The soundtrack album was originally released by MGM Records. Dimitri Tiomkin, well known for scores to western films, was the first composer approached to compose the music for the film. However, Tiomkin became unavailable as a result of eye surgery, and Newman was hired as a replacement.
The score is widely considered to be one of Newman's best, and appears on the AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores list. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, losing to Tom Jones.
Debbie Reynolds sings three songs in the film: "Raise A Ruckus Tonight" starting a party around the camp fire, "What Was Your Name In The States?", and "A Home in the Meadow" to the tune of "Greensleeves", with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Her rendition is heard by Cleve (Gregory Peck), who is so moved he proposes marriage. This scene ends The Plains segment.
Surprisingly for such an American film, How the West Was Won had its World Premiere in the United Kingdom at London's Casino Cinerama Theatre on November 2, 1962. The film ran at the Casino for 123 weeks, ending in April 1965.
How the West Was Won was a massive commercial success. Produced on a then large budget of $15 million, it grossed $46,500,000 at the North American box office, making it the second highest-grossing film of 1963. The film grossed $50 million worldwide.
The film won three Academy Awards for:Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen (James R. Webb)
Best Film Editing
Best Sound (Franklin Milton)
It was also nominated for:Best Picture
Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Color (George Davis, William Ferrari, Addison Hehr, Henry Grace, Don Greenwood, Jr., Jack Mills)
Best Cinematography, Color
Best Costume Design, Color
Best Music, Score – Substantially Original (Alfred Newman and Ken Darby)
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – #25
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Western Film
Nominated Epic Film
In 2000, MGM gave Crest Digital the task of restoring the original Cinerama negative for How the West Was Won. As part of the process, they built their own authentic Cinerama screening room. There have also been efforts, led by HP, to combine the three image portions to make the Cinerama image look more acceptable on a flat screen. This has finally been accomplished on the latest DVD and Blu-ray Disc release. Previously, the lines where the three Cinerama panels joined were glaringly visible (as seen in the stills on this page), but this has been largely corrected on the Warner Bros. DVD and Blu-ray Disc—though the joins remain visible in places, especially against bright backgrounds.
The restoration also corrects some of the geometric distortions inherent in the process. For instance, in the final shot, the Golden Gate Bridge appears to curve in perspective as the camera flies underneath it, whereas in the Cinerama version, it breaks into three straight sections at different angles.
The Blu-ray Disc also contains a "SmileBox" version, simulating the curved screen effect.
Even though the aspect ratio of Cinerama was 2.59:1, Warner's new BD and DVD releases of the film offer an aspect ratio of 2.89:1, incorporating image information on both sides that was never meant to be seen when projected. The BD-exclusive SmileBox alternative has the intentional cropping intact.
In 2006, Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging performed digital restoration on How the West Was Won. They digitally restored the film frame by frame at Prasad Corporation to remove dirt, tears, scratches, and other damage—restoring the original look. The restored Warner Bros. release has been shown on television since October 2008, on the Encore Westerns channel.Gold Key: How the West Was Won (July 1963)