With movie ticket sales slipping due to the ever-increasing multitude of home entertainment options, the studios and exhibitors are turning again to promoting "event" presentations of films, in large-form IMAX, the refined 3D process, or both. It's a throwback to the days when TV was young and "widescreen" was the gimmick designed to draw audiences into theatres. The ultimate widescreen process was Cinerama, with its three synchronized cameras, three synchronized projectors, and immersive curved screen. Though Cinerama produced a number of travelogue adventure films later emulated by IMAX, only two narrative features were shot in full Cinerama: 1962's The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won.
Both delivered spectacle, but the latter delivered big with breathtaking location work and an all-star cast that included James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach, among many others. The concept was inspired by a series of articles in Life Magazine that described American westward expansion. Likewise, the film illustrates selected aspects of the taming of the frontier and the establishment of American cities. Three directors shared the helming duties for five chapters spanning 1838 to 1889: Henry Hathaway ("The Rivers", "The Plains" and "The Outlaws"), John Ford ("The Civil War"), and George Marshall ("The Railroad").
The Cinerama frame delivers impressive epic sweep, a breadth and depth of image. The narrative breadth sacrifices character depth, but the picture includes four spectacular action sequences: a fight between Stewart's mountain man Linus Rawlings and river pirates (including Walter Brennan), a Cheyenne attack on the caravan led by wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston), a buffalo stampede, and a climactic train robbery pitting outlaw Charley Gant (Wallach) against lawmen Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) and Lew Ramsay (Lee J. Cobb). The fun of waiting for each star to pop up isn't always rewarded with a satisfying characterization, but Fonda does the most impressive work, believably embodying the simple isolation of buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart.
So in what sense was the west won? According to the narration read by Spencer Tracy, it was "won from nature and from primitive man." Though it pre-dates political correctness, How the West Was Won intriguingly betrays an uneasy balance between pride of accomplishment in what was won and shame for what was lost, and how (the natives are exploited by business interests in "The Railroad"). The film's final images show modern structures (skyscapes, bridges and highways) where once the land was natural open range, and though the tone is optimistic and patriotic, it's not difficult to feel a wistfulness for the trade we've made in the great American adventure.
Warner's special edition of How the West Was Won breathes remarkable new life into a film that's known for its presentation as much as anything else. Previous home video editions have highlighted the limitations of putting Cinerama onto a television. The whole point of Cinerama, after all, was to provide an experience that could not be replicated at home. While that remains true, Warner's new Blu-ray and DVD discs do everything possible to make the experience of the film a special one.
That process begins with an astonishing new transfer presented in two different and satisfying ways. To begin with, the freshly-scrubbed crystal clarity of the print is peerless among films of this vintage. Cinerama was the IMAX of its time, and the improved resolution and remarkable depth (in comparison to the average 1962 film) shine in this presentation. More importantly, the seams and misalignments once an unfortunate byproduct of the coordinated three-camera, three-projector process have been digitally corrected. Though the seams are sometimes faintly discernable when one "panel" is a bit darker than another, anyone who's seen this film before will be surprised at how effectively and, well, seamlessly, the three images are married. A robust Dolby TrueHD surround track takes advantage of Cinerama's own surround sound process, providing an unusually immersive experience for a vintage film.
The Blu-ray set's second disc includes a very interesting bonus feature: a "Smilebox" process transfer that digitally stretches the image to replicate the wraparound Cinerama theatrical experience. I'll admit to skepticism about this feature, but in sampling it, I was surprised to discover that it does (at least on a widescreen TV) fairly effectively trick the eye into seeing the film with a "wraparound" effect (Cinerama having been designed to replicate our way of seeing with peripheral vision). In this version, the widescreen frame bows in the center so that the top of the frame resembles a smile and the bottom a frown, simulating the curvature of a Cinerama screen. Pretty interesting.
The version of the film presented here is the full Roadshow version, complete with "Overture," "Intermission" music, "Entr'Acte" and "Exit" music. (On Blu-ray, one can enjoy the entire film uninterrupted; on DVD, viewers can change discs at the break in the film.) Warner also supplies two significant bonus features. The first is a commentary by filmmaker David Strohmaier (Cinerama Adventure), director of Cinerama, Inc. John Sittig, film historian Rudy Behlmer, music historian Jon Burlingame and stuntman Loren Janes (whose name is unfortunately misspelled on the packaging). Film buffs will not be disappointed by this thorough and fact-packed commentary. It's very nicely put together, with Burlingame providing a focus on the use of folk music and original scoring and the others sharing observations on the Cinerama process and the film's production (like the hardship on the cast, who had to learn how to act without making eye contact with their fellow actors due to the alignment of Cinerama's three "eyes").
Also included is Strohmaier's feature-length documentary Cinerama Adventure (1:36:54), which I won't hesitate to call the definitive doc on the subject of the historic film process. Strohmaier honors the many pioneers, from inventors to technicians to impresarios, that made Cinerama a fast-burning sensation. "Adventure" is not hyperbole: in film-history terms, this is pretty remarkable stuff, and the anecdotes can be quite literally adventurous (as when the hungover Cinerama crew boarded a camera-equipped plane and went on an early morning run into an active volcano, above which the engines cut out). Among the many participants are Michael Todd, Jr., producer A.C. Lyles, composer David Raksin, director and Cinerama fan Joe Dante, and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Leonard Maltin. The documentary also includes a section on How the West Was Won, including comments by Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, Russ Tamblyn, Claude Johnson, and and stuntmen Bob Morgan and Janes.
Also included is the film's Theatrical Trailer (3:02).
Fans of classic movies will thrill to this set, in any of its several editions: on 2-Disc Blu-Ray, 3-Disc DVD, or in an Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD package. The Blu-Ray comes in a booklet-style package with 40 pages of rare material and behind the scenes photos. The lion's share of the booklet reprints material from the pressbook and original deluxe program sold at the concession stand, but there's also a description of the digital technology used to produce the transfers.
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