Technically, only two narrative films were ever made in proper three-strip Cinerama. The one with the most cultural impact, not to mention the better cast, was How the West Was Won, hereinafter HTWWW. (Weirdly, both films feature Russ Tamblyn.) This epic feature was intended to present a complete history of the American West from the perspective of a single family, the Prescotts. Indeed, three segments are at least partially through the eyes of a single woman, Lilith Prescott Van Valen (Debbie Reynolds).
We start on the banks of the Erie Canal, in those early days when “West” could mean “Ohio.” Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) is a gregarious man, full of jokes about his New England farm and lust for the considerably less rocky fields by the Ohio River. He has a wife, Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead), two sons (both uncredited), and two daughters, Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lilith. They team up with another family that shares their boat on the Canal and make their way onto the Ohio. As they travel downstream, they meet mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) traveling upstream. He has a load of furs that he plans to sell so he can spend a winter in the fleshpots of Philadelphia, but that doesn’t matter to Eve, who promptly falls in love with him. The families take the wrong fork in the river and end up going over the Falls of the Ohio. Zebulon and Rebecca are killed. Eve declares she will not set one foot ahead or behind the place where her parents’ bodies came to rest. Linus realizes he cannot live without her and stays alongside her, becoming a farmer whether he likes it or not.
Time passes. Lilith is a singer and dancer now, her kit initially paid for by the sale of those furs. She is performing in St. Louis when a lawyer comes to her and tells her that she has inherited a gold mine in California, which she has to go claim. Gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) overhears this and decides that marrying a rich woman is just the life for him, especially one as beautiful as Lilith. She teams up with Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter), a spinster determined to catch a husband out in California, and they set off across the Great Prairies. Cleve manages to attach himself to them. Slowly, he and Lilith fall in love. The gold mine isn’t what it’s supposed to be, but they become the true gamblers of the Old West—investors.
The Civil War. Eve’s son, Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard), follows his father to fight in the war. Linus is killed. Zeb survives, somehow. He returns home, finds that his mother did not long outlive the news of his father’s death, and leaves again, letting his younger brother (uncredited) keep the family farm.
Zeb stays in the Army, possibly out of a lack of a better idea, and ends up protecting the building of the railroad. The executive onsite is Mike King (Richard Widmark), who violates a treaty with the Arapaho. He told them he’d stay off their land, but going through it is a faster and easier path for the railroad. In one of the film’s more famous set pieces, the Arapaho respond by stampeding a herd of buffalo through the railroad camp, which is already full of people like the Prescotts, looking for a farm somewhere. In disgust, Zeb leaves.
After another twenty years, Zeb is a retired marshal in Arizona with three children of his own, married to Julie (Carolyn Jones), daughter of his father’s old friend Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda). Lilith is broke again; she and Cleve went from rich to broke to rich again several times over the decades of their marriage. She has one asset left, a ranch down in Arizona which she convinces Zeb to work for her. Unfortunately, the last entanglement of Zeb’s marshaling days, Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach), is out of prison and coming after Zeb for killing Charlie’s brother during a robbery. The climax of this sequence is the spectacular battle on top of a moving train.
There’s a lot of plot there. And the whole thing is narrated by Spencer Tracy, too. The novelization was written by Louis L’Amour, because of course it was, and there’s even more plot to that. This is forty years of American history, and the novelization gives us such details as a brief history of the mountain man, a decent enough overview of the Civil War, and some of the dealings of the US government and the various people who got to the West first. All without losing its focus of one American family.
The premise of the film can probably be simplified into the idea that the nation needs people like Eve—and the various unnamed farmers in the various sequences—to hold on, but it also needs Linus and Lilith and Zeb and so forth in order to expand and find a place for all those farms. It does acknowledge that, yes, in many cases, there were other people there first; both the wagon train of “The Plains” and the immigrant camp of “The Railroad” encounter hostile Indians, and “The Railroad” even gives us a specific nation. But the film does, to a certain extent, buy into the idea that those natives weren’t doing anything with the land, and it needs all those farmers from wherever to really be won.
Make no mistake, too, there’s no accident in the naming of the two Prescott girls. Eve is the homebody. She would have been perfectly happy staying on their old farm except for the part where all the men in the area bored her. Lilith sums her up by saying she wants to be a farmer’s wife but doesn’t want to marry a farmer, and that’s just about right. Eve is the good one, the one whose goal is keeping a farm and raising children. Lilith isn’t bad, not really, but she’s Zebulon’s daughter in ways even he can’t admit. He’s a farmer because that’s the life he expects. Lilith knows there’s a different life, knows she wants it, and knows she can get it. We don’t see much of the time she spends with Cleve, but we know she had more varied experiences than her sister and relished every one of them. Each would be desperately unhappy with the other’s life.
It is through these two women, though, that we may perceive the whole of the film. By extension, it thinks, the whole of the West. Its sections are intended to tell us everything of the history of the West that we need to know, the real overview. The Rivers. The Plains. The Civil War. The Railroad. The Outlaws. And there we are. The whole of the West. But then, for many of us, isn’t Monument Valley the whole of the West? Five sections is four more than most of movie history has given us, right?
John Ford’s only section was “The Civil War.” Not Utah but Shiloh. (With John Wayne, still, as William Tecumseh Sherman, and Harry Morgan as Ulysses S. Grant.) It’s the Battle of Shiloh as the story of four men. Yes, we find out that a fifth man is dead, but the whole of the section can be summed up in the interaction of Sherman and Grant and the interaction of Zeb Rawlings and an unnamed Confederate soldier (Russ Tamblyn!) who watch them.
And yet what most people remember is the scope. Well, sure; Cinerama. You think of this movie, you think of the scene in “The Plains” where the wagon train is under attack. You think of the buffalo stampede in “The Railroad.” You think, of course, of the great battle on top of the train. And even beyond that, there’s the Prescott family on the river even before the falls. There’s the vast plains when the wagons are just slowly traveling across them. There’s the few minutes, even, where we see the mountains of California as themselves, which is pretty rare.
That’s because we don’t really know how to recognize our history in its intimate moments. We have been brought up in those moments of grandeur, and the fact that a lot more of our history takes place in a conversation between two men beside a stream, a conversation between two men in a railroad car, a man and a woman on a riverboat? We don’t get that. We haven’t been brought up to. We grew up with the Cinerama version.
I love the Cinerama version. I always have. I’ll tell you a true story, here—I once started crying in a Target because I saw the spectacular special edition DVD release of this, and the person I most wanted to talk to about it in all the world had died before it happened. The really depressing part in retrospect is that the person who bought it for me after I told him about that is now also dead, but yeah. The point is, I have no doubt I’ll be buying the thing on Blu-Ray one of these years, too.
At the same time, though, I’ve read enough to wish we knew more of what happened in those small conversations. That we made more movies acknowledging them, even celebrating them. At least this one believes that the Arapaho did what they did for a reason, not just because the movie needed a villain just then—if that scene has a villain, it’s Mike King. Zeb knows it, and the movie knows it, and we learn it if we’re willing to. Movies teach us; they always have. It’s just that what they teach us isn’t always what we should learn. Maybe the scope of the West really was as big as the Plains and as small as two sisters; probably it was. But did it actually need to be “won”?