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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

How The West Was Won

When it was made, the story in How the West Was Won concluded at a point that reached the lifetime of some of the 1963 MGM film’s oldest viewers (and background extras), so that its own narrative span, depicting in an episodic fashion, the gradual settlement of western America during the Nineteenth Century, could present a graspable vision of how America was formed (with one character, played by Debbie Reynolds, surviving from the beginning to the end). Viewers who saw the film when it first opened (most of them who are still around now are starting to comprehend that same generational arc of existence themselves) were treated to a fabulous innovation of cinematic showmanship, Cinerama, in which the movie had been shot simultaneously on three conjoined cameras and was then projected with such a wide aspect ratio (on three projectors) that it could partially surround and completely immerse the viewer in its thrills and drama.

All previous manifestations of the movie on home video that were not cropped to begin with, including the first DVD release, have left the evidence of the triptych in tact, with two obvious vertical interfaces separating the letterboxed image into three ‘panels.’ The letterboxing on the first DVD had no 16:9 enhancement, and while it had an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1, there was still a fair amount of picture information missing from the sides. Dirt and minor speckling were also present on the image at times, and the colors, while good, were inconsistent from one ‘panel’ to the next. Warner Home Video has at last eliminated all of those distractions with their dazzling new Three-Disc Special Edition. The picture is slightly windowboxed, with an aspect ratio of about 2.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. It is spotless, vividly colored, and distortion-free (at the most, there is a vague shadow on the lighter portions of the screen at the demarcation points).

What immediately hits you with the Special Edition DVD is how odd the screen compositions look, with the characters sometimes pushed into the center of the image, or held unnaturally apart with a gap of space, or the sight-lines not always matching exactly, but it is far less distracting than having those lines in the middle of the picture, and it isn’t just the action scenes that are improved by the delivery. Each ensemble shot, many dramatic scenes, and every gorgeous landscape vista are absolutely riveting, and continue to be across the film’s entire 163-minute running time. Just as the movie was not depicting what the West was really like, but rather what the spirit of its settlement has passed along to us, so does the DVD’s image not convey what Cinerama was like, but does suggest the majesty and excitement that viewers who beheld the process felt when they first experienced it.

The film is spread across two platters and is split at its Intermission point. There are an Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is similar to the previous release, but conveys the marvelous, old-fashioned separation effects and left-right dialog delivery, as well as a reasonable surround presence. There is an alternate French track in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French, Spanish, Japanese and Thai subtitles. The first platter also has a trailer, and a terrific quintet of experts provides an excellent group commentary track for the entire program (it is hard to tell if they are always sitting together, but sometimes their talks interact with one another; the commentary, incidentally, has optional Japanese subtitles). Historian Rudy Behlmer, stuntman Loren James (who played just about every bad guy and every good guy in the film), film music expert Jon Burlingame, Cinerama historian David Strohmaier and Cinerama technician John Sittig talk about every aspect of the movie, such as what the sets were like, what locations were used, how the cast members adapted to the challenges of the shoot, the use of folk music on the soundtrack, how a major plot change to the final acts was put together after production had begun (Hope Lange shot some scenes before her character and pessimistic storyline were dropped), and what the challenges were for shooting in the Cinerama format. “A loudspeaker warned the crew when the cameras were rolling in order to get everyone to hide behind something, because otherwise, the crewmembers would be in the shot since it incorporated so much area with the three Cinerama cameras. You can’t assume you’re not in the shot. MGM created a bunch of fiberglass rocks, paper maché rocks or something, because there weren’t enough trees for people to hide behind. So people would scurry and get behind these rocks and huddle, waiting for the take to be over.”

Even if you aren’t that interested in seeing How the West Was Won again, the movie on the third platter, an outstanding and definitive 2008 retrospective history of Cinerama entitledCinerama Adventure, makes the DVD worth obtaining. Directed by Strohmaier, the 97-minute program is thoroughly researched and traces the development of the process before and during World War II, when it was used for early and successful virtual reality anti-aircraft gun training. There are terrific clips from almost all of the Cinerama travel documentaries, in full widescreen format, and equally engrossing tales of how the most spectacular sequences were achieved. As is pointed out in the documentary, unlike today, very few people who saw the first Cinerama films had ever even flown before, let alone experienced, through film or otherwise, many of the adventures the Cinerama shows had to offer. Even now, the mix of daring cinematography and the preservation of natural and cultural imagery from what has become the past give the movies an enduring fascination. Until such time as the Cinerama films themselves appear on DVD, the documentary is easily the next best thing.

There are people who insist that movies, and DVDs for that matter, are supposed to be Art, and you wonder what these people do for relaxation. How the West Was Won is art all right, folk art. The technology that was used to create it was aiming not for a high ideal, but for a mass entertainment. With as many directors as it has panels and four times as many stars, it is a conglomeration of talent with no individual’s imprint looming larger than another. In telling a generational story that codifies the growth of the American West in a collection of movie action sequences, the film’s limitations are readily apparent. That was why the cropped presentation is so bad. When the widescreen images are employed, however, the film justifies itself. The vignettes are precisely what the filmmakers intended them to be, enough of a story to provide a mild commentary on the path of generational growth, while stringing along the thrills. It has one grandstanding moment after another, and when you become attuned to them you can get excited just seeing the shot of the St. Louis street, because looming in the center is a large show palace and you just know the next cut will be to a widescreen dance number. What the movie is really saying is that our forefathers fought to expand and settle America so that we could sit back and enjoy movies like this, and we certainly do not intend to let them down.

September 25, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon