How the West Was Won was an interesting experiment. Three directors, a cavalcade of stars, a new cinematographic process, and a grand sweeping storyline relating several generations of a family trying to make it in the old west.
The story is split into segments, and a director was charged with each. There's nothing earthshattering about the story choices. The approach seems to be a heightened slice-of-life, giving us a glimpse of different obstacles in the lives of settlers.
I found myself wondering about the accuracy of the scenes. Things like piracy seem quite plausible, but I've not heard of it in this context - though I'm hardly an expert and that's not surprising. The bit that got me was not seeing any Chinese working on the railroad. Again, I don't have the authority to say such-and-such a railroad line used any particular sort of workers, but it is true that, aside from the occasional native, it was a very White West.
As for these different parts (for the record, they are referred to as "The Rivers", "The Plains", "The Civil War", "The Railroad", and "The Outlaws"), individually they stand as an exploration of these different aspects of the Old West, but despite the family connections, there's no sense of building toward something larger (as, say, Giant does). The fact they needed Spencer Tracy's narration to piece it together isn't a good sign.
How the West Was Won was shot using the Super Cinerama process, the first feature to get this treatment (and there were very few). Three cameras do the filming at precise angles to get a highly detailed panorama, and likewise three projectors need to be used to see the results. They get great shots, like with the Buffalo stampede (a sequence which seems to exist more for the visuals than anything else). Even some more ordinary scenes benefit greatly from this camera.
There are moments where the camera is treated just like an ordinary camera, and that's a mistake. Standard conversational framing simply doesn't work because the proportions of elements on the screen are skewed so. A greater care must be taken in composition or the subjects get lost. At times, this seems to have been overlooked. I noticed it most in the "outlaws" segment - pay attention, and you'll see what I mean.
The transition to DVD (as surely as to anything but three camera projection) does suffer. We get two vertical lines separating the shots of the three cameras, where we see slight differences in film stock and a change in viewing angle like refraction - remember the experiment where you stick a hold a pencil to pass through the surface of some clear water, and it appears to be bent right at the surface? I'm sure someone will get the bright idea to correct this digitally at some point, but for now, the best way to see the film would be in a properly equipped theater - and how many of those are there?
As an experiment, I'd have to call this inconclusive. The story is not strong enough, the acting is nothing special despite the big names, and it all simply does not add up to anything bigger than its parts. It's no wonder that Super Cinerama fell by the wayside. Perhaps it's not that unfortunate, as it appears to be a fairly cumbersome process, but it would have been nice to give it a better shot.
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