How the West Was Won: An Epic Western at 60 Years

Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck in How the West Was Won. Courtesy of MGM/Warner Bros.

How the West Was Won is an epic Western that follows the Prescott family bloodline during a 50-year period stretching 1839-1889.

Spencer Tracy narrates the Oscar-winning film through its five main segments and an impressive epilogue showing the transformation of the West into the early 1960s. In particular, we see the Hoover Dam, the Four Level Interchange in Downtown Los Angeles, and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s kind of like the ending of Gangs of New York in 2002.

“The Rivers” introduces us to Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) and Zebulon Prescott (Karl Madden) and his family in an intersecting storyline taking place in 1839. Linus is traveling east while the Prescott family is heading west. Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker) has her eye on Linus but he’s not ready to settle down just yet. Things change after an attack  on the family and then her parents drown when their raft can’t handle the rapids. The segment ends with Lilith Prescott (Debbie Reynolds) eying a paddle steamboat, presumably to head back east.

Next thing you know, it’s 1851 and Lilith performing in St. Louis while on tour. She makes the decision to head to California on wagonmaster Roger Morgan’s (Robert Preston) wagon train. It’s here where she meets gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), seeking to avoid his own gambling debts and benefit from Lilith’s new gold mine in California. Both men attempt to court Lilith but she brushes both of them off. After surviving an attack by the Cheyenne, they eventually make their way to the mine. Unfortunately, they learn it is not worth a cent. In any event, they both head out in different directions. Fate eventually brings them back together on a riverboat. This time, Lilith accepts Cleve’s marriage proposal and they make their way to San Francisco.

Taking a break from the Henry Hathaway segments, John Ford directs “The Civil War.” The segment lasts 1861-65 in what is a very abbreviated version of the war. It goes down exactly as one would expect from Ford. Linus Rawlings is now a captain in the Union Army during their Civil War. Eve gets a letter from Lilith about joining her out west. She stays but her life will never be the same after her husband and son leave for battle. Zeb (George Peppard) enlists because he does not want to be a farmer. Unfortunately, his father loses his life at the Battle of Shiloh. While taking a break from fighting, a Confederate soldier (Russ Tamblyn) talks him into deserting but this is short-lived after Zeb stops an assassination attempt on Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) and William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne).

With the war over, Zeb heads home but it is not the same. Learning of Eve’s death, he leaves his share to brother Jeremiah (Claude Johnson) and leaves for an adventure. It’s not until the George Marshall-directed “The Railroad” in 1868 when we see what Zeb is up to. He’s now a lieutenant in the U.S. Calvary, keeping the piece between the railroad company and the Native Americans. Zeb does so with a friend of his father’s, buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda). Mike King (Richard Widmark) is not a nice guy. Ultimately, his actions violate a treaty with the Native Americans. Zeb has no choice but to resign after the Arapaho send a buffalo stampede in their direction.

Finally, we get to “The Outlaws” in 1889. Zeb is now a marshal and married to Julie (Carolyn Jones). Meanwhile, Cleve is dead and after auctioning their items, Lilith heads to their Arionza ranch to spend the rest of her days. Zeb and his family pick her up at the Gold City train station. Unfortunately, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) is on the same train. Informing the town’s marshal, Zeb learns that there is nothing they can do. He takes matters into his own hands when he suspects Gant of robbing a train. Zeb is successful in defeating Gant and his gang. Lilith and Zeb’s family continue on their merry way.

The film ends with one heck of a monologue from Spencer Tracy:

The west that was won by its pioneers, settlers, adventurers is long gone now. Yet it is theirs forever, for they left tracks in history that will never be eroded by wind or rain – never plowed under by tractors, never buried in a compost of events. Out of the hard simplicity of their lives, out of their vitality, of their hopes and sorrows grew legends of courage and pride to inspire their children and their children’s children. From soil enriched by their blood, out of their fever to explore and build, came lakes where once there were burning deserts – came the goods of the earth; mine and wheat fields, orchards and great lumber mills. All the sinews of a growing country. Out of their rude settlements, their trading posts came cities to rank among the great ones of the world. All the heritage of a people free to dream, free to act, free to mold their own destiny.

How the West Was Won is one of very few dramatic pictures to use the widescreen three-strip Cinerama processing to present three projections on one screen. It may have looked stunning on the big screen at the time but depending on how one watches the film, it might not translate that well to the small screen. TCM uses the SmileBox format to recreate the presentation. It makes for a weird curved-screen look at home but otherwise, it would just look weird on a flat screen TV.

Traveling west came with a number of difficulties but it especially came with dangers. While the United States may have doubled in size after the Louisiana Purchase or won it during the Spanish-American war, the Native Americans were there first. The film shows how the railroad companies betrayed the Native Americans while showing the strengths of Manifest Destiny. The railroad may have been in the country’s best interest but it wasn’t without its costs. James R. Webb’s script doesn’t really explore the great extent of the costs but does tough on it ever so lightly.

All in all, this is some epic filmmaking with two dozen stars surrounded by at least 12,000 extras. It is weird though that they decide to go with a 53-year-old James Stewart rather than an actor in his late 20s at the time. There are some things here that do not age well by today’s standards but this is what went in the early 1960s. You’ll know it when you’ll see it, particularly with the vocabulary. But as far as Westerns or any frontier film goes, what happens in the film is par for the course. One of the best decisions in James R. Webb’s screenplay was to have one family be glue that holds the story together.

The film counts Oscar wins (Best Original Screenplay, Sound, and Editing) in eight nominations (Best Picture, Art Decoration/Set Decoration – Color, Cinematography – Color, Costume Design – Color, and Original Score). It’s funny that it gets an Original Screenplay win because the film itself is based on a series that ran in Life magazine. Anyway, Alfred Newman delivers one of the best scores in his career, which somehow did not win an Oscar. Regardless, it’s among 25 scores honored by AFI in 2005.

How the West Was Won is a star-studded Western with an impressive level of filmmaking on an epic scale.

DIRECTORS: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall
NARRATOR: Spencer Tracy
CAST: 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, Richard Widmark

MGM released How the West Was Won in theaters on February 20, 1963. Grade: 4.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.