How the West Was Won


How the West Was Won

Critics Consensus

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Total Count: 20


Audience Score

User Ratings: 9,768
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How the West Was Won Photos

Movie Info

Filmed in panoramic Cinerama, this star-studded, epic Western adventure is a true cinematic classic. Three legendary directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall) combine their skills to tell the story of three families and their travels from the Erie Canal to California between 1839 and 1889. Spencer Tracy narrates the film, which cost an estimated $15 million to complete. Westward expansion shows scenes of the Indian's sorrow, the white man's greed, river pirates, outlaws, lawmen, and life and death on the Western plains. Dozens of marquee names worked with over 12,000 extras, 630 horses, hundreds of horse drawn wagons, and a stampede of 2,000 buffalo. The human cost of the concept of Manifest Destiny is revealed in all its colorful and violent glory. How the West Was Won garnered three Oscars, for screenplay, film editing, and sound production.

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Debbie Reynolds
as Lilith Prescott
George Peppard
as Zeb Rawlings
Carroll Baker
as Eve Prescott
James Stewart
as Linus Rawlings
Gregory Peck
as Cleve Van Valen
Richard Widmark
as Mike King
Henry Fonda
as Jethro Stuart
Robert Preston
as Roger Morgan
Karl Malden
as Zebulon Prescott
Thelma Ritter
as Agatha Clegg
Carolyn Jones
as Julie Rawlings
Agnes Moorehead
as Rebecca Prescott
Eli Wallach
as Charlie Gant
John Wayne
as General Sherman
Lee J. Cobb
as Lou Ramsey
Brigid Bazlen
as Dora Hawkins
Walter Brennan
as Col. Hawkins
David Brian
as Attorney
Andy Devine
as Cpl. Peterson
Raymond Massey
as Abraham Lincoln
Harry Morgan
as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
Mickey Shaughnessy
as Deputy Marshall
Russ Tamblyn
as Reb Soldier
Tudor Owen
as Scotsman
Barry Harvey
as His Son
Jamie Ross
as His Son
Kim Charney
as Sam Prescott
Bryan Russell
as Zeke Prescott
Claude Johnson
as Jeremiah Rawlings
Jerry Holmes
as Railroad Clerk
Rodolfo Acosta
as Desperado
Ken Curtis
as Union Soldier
Clinton Sundberg
as Hylan Seabury
Walter Burke
as Gambler
Joe Sawyer
as Ship's Officer
John Larch
as Grimes
Jack Pennick
as Cpl. Murphy
Craig Duncan
as James Marshall
Gil Perkins
as Henchman
Paul Bryar
as Auctioneer's assistant
Kem Curtis
as Ben, Union Corporal
Walter Reed
as Union Soldier
Carleton Young
as Union Soldier
Karl Swenson
as Train conductor
Jack Lambert
as Gant henchman
Christopher Dark
as Poker player
Gene Roth
as Riverboat poker player
William Henry
as Staff Officer
Ken Dibbs
as Blacksmith
Red Perkins
as Union Soldier
Roy Jenson
as Henchman
Victor Romito
as Henchman
Rodopho (Rudy) Acosta
as Gant gang member
Harvey Parry
as Henchman
Harry Monty
as Uncredited
Beulah Archuletta
as Indian woman
Spencer Tracy
as Narrator
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Critic Reviews for How the West Was Won

All Critics (20) | Top Critics (3)

Audience Reviews for How the West Was Won

  • Oct 18, 2013
    It is a broad definition of the West as it includes quite a long period in Ohio but it is a good epic. The imagery is vivid and the acting memorable. Perhaps not for the First Nations but America was far from sympathetic in that era.
    John B Super Reviewer
  • Sep 09, 2012
    I recall viewing this film as a child and wondering why I could only see the actors' noses and ears speaking to one another. Later it was shown in full widescreen and I realised that the previous TV screenings had been victim to the barbaric and now thankfully extinct practice of "pan & scan". The picture, like all widescreen movies shown on TV until quite recently, had been cropped to accommodate the TV screen. The movies which suffered most from this philistine ritual were the lavish Hollywood productions of the fifties and sixties. Casts of thousands were often reduced to no more than ten centurions and half of Liz Taylor's face. Ironically widescreen was originally developed to combat the growing popularity of the domestic television set. "How the West was Won" was filmed in that widest of formats, Cinerama, and was the only real success of the format, discounting the various travelogue documentaries. This was to be an epic undertaking on a scale never before witnessed in the western genre. By celebrating the conquering of the West, Hollywood was acknowledging the factors which ultimately led to it's own foundation. While it brashly celebrates the American pioneer spirit, the film avoids a rose-tinted view of events. It's a movie which isn't afraid to acknowledge that while the taming of the West is a story of hard toil and ingenuity it's also a tragic tale of deceit and broken promises. Spencer Tracy narrates a storyline which is broken into five segments. Strangely, given the reputation of it's director, John Ford's "The Civil War" is the weakest. Ford evidently viewed the Cinerama process as no more than a gimmick and makes little effort to compose his shots in a manner which exploits the distinctive shape of the frame. The most exciting segment is George Marshall's "The Railroad", featuring a chilling performance from Richard Widmark as a railroad foreman who cheats an Indian tribe out of their land. There's a thrilling scene involving a buffalo stampede which must have been some experience in a theater fitted with a Cinerama screen. Compare it to a similar sequence in this year's dire "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and see how far Hollywood spectacle has sunk. No amount of CG can compare with the sight of a herd of live buffalo running rampage across the screen. Marshall is one of Hollywood's forgotten men, known for helming action scenes for other directors. He's responsible for no less a set-piece than the famed chariot race in "Ben Hur". Henry Hathaway takes on the remaining three segments, "The Rivers", The Plains" and "The Outlaws". His westerns were usually more intimate tales and here he focuses on the journey of two generations of a pioneering family. Of the three directors, it's Hathaway who uses Cinerama to it's best advantage. His shots are beautifully composed, exploiting the unique sense of depth the format was renowned for. I know it's a cliche but you really could hang any of these shots on your wall. This is a light film for the most part but a must see for fans of good old Hollywood extravagance. I recommend the Blu-ray which features a second disc employing the "Smilebox" technique. This replicates the curved screen of Cinerama and makes for one of the most impressive sights you're likely to see on a HDTV.
    The Movie W Super Reviewer
  • Jun 09, 2012
    Not be mistaken for the Led Zeppelin concert album, nor some movie called "How Weed Won the West". You'd think that it would go without saying that this film shouldn't be mistaken for the latter, but you'd be surprised how much I've happened across that film that doesn't even have a Wikipedia article while looking up this film. Still, it remains quite possibly the only thing with a title similar to that of this film that's more obscure than the TV show from the '70s, and that thing can only be found on DVD in Europe. Poor Bruce Boxleitner just can't catch a break, because if "Tron" didn't launch him into stardom, then lord knows that show wasn't going; but at least he's doing better than Richard Kiley, whoever that is, and I'm not just saying that because he's dead, because his career can only get more notice from here. I guess from the standpoint of having a cast of known performers, that show was anything but faithful, because this film is stuffed with then-big stars, seeing as how that was apparently what you did for most every epic back in the early to mid '60s. I guess I can't blame people for that, because they were stars for a reason, that is because they knew how to carry a film, even if they weren't the only thing that made the film good. Most female stars, on the other hand, couldn't act to save they're lives, so they were only famous for being attractive in a kind of starlette way that has dated so phenomenally, it's unreal (I'd still consider Marilyn Monroe's kind of starlette look hot, though), yet they're acting was never the only flaw in a film from back then, and while the bad actresses are actually rather lacking in this film, if they were here, they would still certainly not be the only issue in this film. The film wastes no time in slipping up on a fairly amateur level, with the first segment being riddled with repetition and absurd melodrama attached to an already structurally unbuyable romantic subplot. Still, the flaws only begin there, with others spilling right on in quite quickly upon the first of many painfully jarring segment transitions that repel you so far out of the film that it takes a little while to lock back in. Still, even when you do get a grip on the film again, you're still knocked back by flaws that are actually consistent between segments. While some romantic subplots are considerably more believable than others, just about every bit of romance - of which, there's more than you think -, as well as some other dramatic aspects, is swimming with melodrama, some of which is dismissable and some of which is downright painful. Another flaw that I earlier stated to have been unveiled within the first segment is repetition, as the film will often plague itself with familiar material, some of which is also found scattered all throughout each segment as yet another overly consistent aspect (Seriously, how many men are gonna propose to women they hardly know?), thus creating a blow to steam, intensified by the occasional piece of rushing, which can serve as a component to the film's ever so occasional, yet still rather overbearing matter-of-fact approach to some of the more history focused moments in the film. Indeed, the film is a sprawling mess of clunky dramatic aspects and repetition, and yet, the west isn't the only thing won in this film, as you would be rather hard pressed to find yourself ultimately won over by the film. Trust me, what I just said isn't as cheesy as this film gets to be, yet the picture, with all of its faults, really keeps you going, and does so with the help of, well, some pretty good tunes. The original songs are pretty top-notch, reflecting the tones and themes of the picture and standing as an absoulte joy to hear, even if they're only to be found at the intermission and bookends of the film. Music more prevalent and just as memorable is the score work of Alfred Newman, who may not be knocking things out of the park like he did with something like a then-later-to-arrive "The Greatest Story Ever Told", yet is still delivering on a sweeping, lively score that really sets the tone of the film, while making it an engrossing experience to hear. What makes it an engrossing experience for the eyes is the work of the myriad of cinematographers, all of whom deliver quite the number of then-innovative and now-still remarkably brilliant concepts of dizzingly elaborate and immerisve camera staging that gives the film the scope and transportive value needed to help sell the worldly dynamicity within this perhaps too heavily layered story structure, as well as enhance the thrills of some pretty fantastic action sequences, especially the train climax, which is nothing if not nothing seen then or hardly anything seen nowadays. This is a sweeping production for worthy subject matter that may go hurt by the spotty script, yet is generally well-structured and thoroughly charming, as well as entertaining. For this credit not only goes out the writers and directors, but also the star-studded cast of classic charismas. There is the ever so occasional performance that's not all that up to par... and I they're all delivered by the actresses, yet on the whole, every Joe Schmo and lady of the screen brings charisma to the screen, as well as some chemistry that may be hurt by the melodrama and some far-fetched choices in pairing, yet pulls through, more than it runs thin. This massive cast is merely one of the many key aspects to this film's pulling through all of its spottiness and fall-flat moments and ultimately coming off as, well, winning. In conclusion, the film faces jarring transitions between segments, yet still much consistency in melodrama and repetition, as well as degree of rushing and too much of a matter-of-fact tone on occasion, yet the film still "wins" you over, powered by worthy, sweeping subject matter, complimented by a lively score and stellar cinematography, as well as thorough charm, powered by across-the-board charismatic performances among the colorful all-star cast, thus leaving "How the West Was Won" to stand strong as a grandly entertaining and generally compelling classic piece of a collaborative epic. 3/5 - Good
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • May 29, 2011
    Watching any movie filmed in panoramic Cinerama on the small screen represents a major compromise, however the blu ray helps make up for that fact with its' incredible picture. The film itself is a major feat, perhaps overly ambitious, in that it tackles too much and never lets you have a relationship with the characters. Still, you have to admire the awesome cast and visuals. Note to Wayne fans- his part as General Sherman is a very small role.
    Jeffrey M Super Reviewer

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