How the West Was Won (film)

How the West Was Won is a 1962 epic Western film which follows four generations of a family (starting as the Prescotts) as they move ever westward, from western New York state to the Pacific Ocean. Filmed in the Cinerama curving widescreen process, the movie is set between 1839 and 1889.

The all-star cast includes Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. The introductory, intermediate, and closing narration is voiced by Spencer Tracy.

The movie consists of five segments, three directed by Henry Hathaway ("The Rivers", "The Plains" and "The Outlaws"), and one each by John Ford ("The Civil War") and George Marshall ("The Railroad"), with transitional sequences by the uncredited Richard Thorpe. The screenplay was written by John Gay (uncredited) and James R. Webb. Popular western author Louis L'Amour wrote a novelization based on the screenplay.

In 1997, How the West Was Won was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot summary

The Rivers (1830s)

Mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) is returning east to Pittsburgh to trade his furs when he meets a group of settlers led by Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) heading west down the Ohio River to the Illinois country. His daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) and Linus are attracted to each other, but he isn't ready to settle down, and he leaves her.

Linus stops at an isolated trading post run by a murderous clan headed by "Colonel" Hawkins (Walter Brennan). Linus is betrayed when he accompanies pretty Dora Hawkins (Brigid Bazlen) into a cave to see a "varmint". She stabs him in the back and pushes him into a deep hole. Fortunately, Linus is not seriously wounded, and is able to rescue the Prescott party from a similar fate. The bushwhacking thieves (Lee Van Cleef was one), including Dora, are dispatched with rough frontier justice.

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, even though she insists on homesteading at the spot where her parents died.

The Plains (1850s)

Eve's sister Lily (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), Cleve joins the wagon train that will take her there. He and wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) court her along the way, but she turns them both down, much to the dismay of her new friend and fellow traveler Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter).

Surviving an attack by Cheyenne Indians, Lily and Cleve arrive at the mine, only to find that it is now worthless. Cleve leaves. Lily returns to work in a dance hall in a literal "Camp Town", living out of a covered wagon. Morgan finds her and again proposes marriage in a rather unromantic way. She tells him, "No, not ever."

Later, Lily is singing in the music salon of a riverboat. By chance, Cleve is a passenger. When he hears Lily's voice, he leaves the poker table (and a winning hand) to propose to her, telling her of the opportunities waiting in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. She accepts.

The Civil War (1861~1865)

Linus joins the Union army 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 won't last very long. The bloody Battle of Shiloh shows Zeb that war is nothing like he imagined and, unknown to him, his father, Linus, dies there. He encounters a similarly disillusioned Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who suggests deserting, to which Zeb agrees.

However, 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. Afterwards, Zeb rejoins the army.

When the war finally ends, he returns home, 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 and leaves in search of a more interesting life.

The Railroad (1860s)

Following the daring riders from the Pony Express and the construction of the transcontinental telegraph line in the early 1860s, two ferociously competing railroad lines, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, one building west and the other east, 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.

The Outlaws (1880s)

In San Francisco, widowed Lily 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 Lily at Gold City's train station. However, Zeb also runs into an old enemy there, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). When Gant makes veiled threats against 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 show up 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 gang (one member played by Harry Dean Stanton) are killed in a shootout. In the end, Lily and the Rawlings travel to their new home.

Modern Los Angeles (1962)

A short epilogue shows Los Angeles in the early 1960s, with the famous four-level freeway interchange downtown, indicating the growth of the West in 80 years.


Actor Character
Carroll Baker Eve Prescott Rawlings
Lee J. Cobb Marshal Lou Ramsey
Henry Fonda Jethro Stuart
Carolyn Jones Julie Rawlings
Karl Malden Zebulon Prescott
Harry Morgan Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
Gregory Peck Cleve Van Valen
George Peppard Zeb Rawlings
Robert Preston Roger Morgan
Debbie Reynolds Lilith 'Lily' Prescott
James Stewart Linus Rawlings
Eli Wallach Charlie Gant
John Wayne Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
Richard Widmark Mike King
Brigid Bazlen Dora Hawkins
Walter Brennan Col. Jeb Hawkins
Andy Devine Corporal Peterson
Raymond Massey President Abraham Lincoln
Agnes Moorehead Rebecca Prescott
Thelma Ritter Agatha Clegg
Spencer Tracy Narrator

Academy Awards and nominations

The movie won three Academy Awards for:

It was also nominated for:


How the West Was Won is 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 shown on television in a Cinemascope print made from the original three-strip version, the joins between the three frames are clearly and sometimes glaringly visible; when seen in letterbox format the actors' faces are nearly indistinguishable in long shots. There have been efforts to put the three parts of the image together in a better way, and to make the Cinerama image look better on a flat screen, led by HP. The aspect ratio of Cinerama was 2:59:1, although Warner's new DVD release of the film claims the ratio was 2.89:1.

John Ford complained about having to dress such huge sets since Cinerama photographed a much wider view than the standard single camera process to which Hollywood directors had become accustomed.

Stuntman Bob Morgan, husband of Yvonne De Carlo, was severely injured and lost a leg during an accident while filming.

The film would later inspire an ABC television series of the same name.


See also


External links

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