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How The West Was Won Blu-ray Review

How The West Was Won is one in a long roster of movies that I have been meaning to watch for years. Thanks to being able to review the new Warner Blu-ray release, I can finally cross it off that list. In this case, it turns out procrastination was to my benefit. While How The West Was Won cannot rival the glory of its original Cinerama presentation, this new Blu-ray most certainly bests all previous home video incarnations and is a wonderful way to discover this epic.

The Cinerama technology was introduced in the early 1950’s as a response to the growing popularity of television which was deeply cutting into the profits of movie theaters. Features shown in this format would be exhibited for up to a year or more and were considered social events with reserved seating, formal attire and no irritating concession sales. The process utilized three synchronized projectors against a tall, wide (three times the width of the “full screen” standard of the time) and deeply curved screen encompassing the majority of a person’s peripheral vision. Rounding out the production was seven-track audio with five speakers across the front and two in back. This presented a level of realism that the average13-inch television with a 4:3 aspect ratio, black and white video and mono sound could not compete with.

Released in 1962, How The West Was Won was the first Hollywood film, along with The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, to utilize the Cinerama exhibition process. The six or so prior films utilizing the technology showcased nature and travel. This is very similar to many of the films shot in IMAX which some critics claim is a modern descendant of Cinerama. Due to the growing cost of shooting with three cameras, these two Hollywood films were also the last to be shot specially designed for three-strip projection. Subsequent films (including Kubrick’s classic 2001) released under the Cinerama title utilized the Ultra or Super Panavision 70 widescreen techniques, which were “fitted” to the curved Cinerama screens. At the time, there was disagreement among critics whether the single camera image was comparable to the three-camera technology.

How The West Was Won, inspired by a Life magazine series of the same name, loosely chronicles the Prescott family’s endeavors over three/four generations. Spanning the years of 1838 to 1889, we are presented with vignettes of pioneer life in the West, the Gold Rush, the Civil War and later industrialization through the development of the railroad. These are interspersed with Indians, outlaws, gambling boats and other trappings of the time period involved.

The cast is the true definition of an ensemble starring Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne and Richard Widmark. Befitting a cast of this stature, no less than three directors were involved: Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall. Hathaway shot three segments of the film, while Ford and Marshall each directed a separate one.

Taking inspiration from Western musical and action/drama genres this historical epic works best in piecemeal parts rather than as a cohesive narrative. Even at 164 minutes, it still feels stretched thin at points though this can be understood considering the breadth of history trying to be encapsulated and the number of characters spread across decades. The best scenes are very entertaining, especially due to the quality of the actors, but some of the lesser feel dated and like products of the early 1960’s.

To its benefit, How the West Was Won does not stand solely on its acting/narrative, and an argument could be made that the real “star” of the movie is the cinematography. Befitting a film shot for Cinerama, four cinematographers (also acting as directors of photography) were utilized with very impressive results. Realistic detail is delivered through being shot on location in California, Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky, Ohio, South Dakota, Arizona and Utah. From the gorgeous opening sequence of the camera moving above a mountain range (which we learn in the commentary is culled from outtakes of a previous Cinerama feature), through the High Sierras, the Badlands, the western plains and Monument Valley, just to name a few, we are presented with an extensive range of the American landscape. This alone makes the Blu-ray version essential viewing.

Framed at an aspect ratio of 2.89:1, this is probably the widest movie (competing with Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur) I have ever watched on my high def television. It makes you appreciate how this feature would have shined on such a tall, wide screen in its original format. Encoded in VC-1 at 1080p, How The West Was Won is not video perfection but is downright stunning for the majority of its runtime.

The main difficulty the studio faced for this newly minted HD transfer was how to erase or maximally minimize the connecting areas of the three original filmstrips. The Cinerama filming technique was to position non-important objects in the overlapping areas between the three panels so as to decrease notice of them. While this was helpful, it did not totally remove the obtrusiveness of the connecting joints for later video productions. From what I have read, previous home video releases (some inexplicably done in pan ‘n scan) went to no effort to address this.

Warner utilized a new process to digitally join the three panels of the movie together and minimize the connecting seams. There are a few moments when the different elements become overly noticeable, but this is rare. If you scrutinize the imagery, there are scenes where you can see the three screen areas split. This is most obvious in daylight outdoor vistas where the color of the sky will waver between the sections. Also noticeable from time to time is a subtle distortion of the image on the far sides of the screen that results from transferring what would have been projected on a curved screen to a single widescreen image. However, the beauty of the overall presentation will keep you absorbed well enough so these never become much of an issue.

Warner’s restoration of How The West Was Won should put to rest any argument about whether the age of a film is the sole deciding factor in how it will look in high definition. This film’s video equals the best of catalog titles released on Blu-ray and gives many recent films a run for their money. It shows that the camera and film stock used are vastly important in the final product delivered. Colors, being representative of the production era and Technicolor process, are deep, stable and vibrant. Contrast and black levels are solid throughout and almost never waver. The image is naturally sharp and often delivers the dimensionality we have come to associate with high definition.

The print is astonishingly clean with no cuts or damage and very rare moments of dirt, which were present on the camera during filming. I assume these were left intact for authenticity. Noticeable grain is virtually non-existent, and this is not due to artificial post-processing. The film and cameras utilized for the Cinerama process pickup amazing amounts of detail without excessive grain. Personally I am a fan of natural grain in film but when presented with this level of clarity without sacrificing detail, I find it hard to complain

And speaking of detail, the amount present here puts to shame films 25 plus years younger. There are aspects of dimly lit scenes that would have been lost in shadow if shot with cameras not capable of the resolution required for Cinerama. In fact, there are moments when I was almost distracted from the story by the astonishing clarity, resounding colors, solid blacks and how much I could perceive in shadowy backgrounds. The expansive outdoor vistas stunningly appear to stretch for miles, and the camera moves in and out of a depth of focus that resembles similar techniques later to be used in IMAX. Obviously, this level of quality was required for the scope of the original presentation and carries over exceedingly well to Blu-ray.

The only times you notice any deficit in the detail delivered is in scenes such as the river raft sequence. Due to the nature of how this needed to be shot, the actors on the raft in the foreground had to be filmed separately with the background projected behind them. While functional, this resulted in an obvious loss of detail especially in comparison to the immediately surrounding sequences. Aside from this and the aforementioned issues inherited from the original shooting technique, there is really nothing to complain about. You can tell by the composition of many scenes that the images would make more sense on the curved screen (this is akin to watching a 2-D version of a movie shot for 3-D), but they are in no way deficient in this 1080p transfer and look amazing.

For many previous Blu-ray catalog titles, Warner has reconstituted the original mono soundtrack into a surround mix with varying results. Since this film was recorded with seven tracks of audio, that was not necessary in this case. I cannot say exactly how they would map the original 7 tracks to the 5 (plus .LFE) we get here, but whatever method they used produces consistently good results.

A comparison between the Dolby TrueHD and the Dolby Digital shows the high-def audio track to be marginally fuller. However, this is not by as large a margin as that which separates the lossless from lossy audio in more recent soundtracks. The TrueHD track sounds a bit brittle in the upper registers and slightly lacking in the low end, but for a film 45 plus years old, the sound is constantly immersive with presence throughout all speakers.

Dialog is presented across the five main channels though elevated, and thus more noticeable, in the center. Compared to the accompanying music, vocals, including Spencer Tracy’s narration, can be mixed a bit low but not enough to be muddled and are generally clear. Alfred Newman’s thematic, majestic score and Ken Darby’s supporting folk music adaptations shine throughout. Bass response is not often utilized but is impressive for a film of this age, and the subwoofer is put to good use in the river raft and buffalo stampede sequences, for example. Though the audio is not reference quality, lacking the full range and atmosphere found in more modern lossless tracks, it more than services the film and outshines almost any contemporary soundtrack and many of those from successive decades.

Warner delivers How The West Was Won in a deluxe 2-disc “Digi-book” edition on Blu-ray. The extras consist of an audio commentary, theatrical trailer and Cinerama documentary on the first disc. The second disc contains a Smilebox (curved) depiction of the film. The trailer and documentary, though encoded in VC-1, are only standard definition and have lower bitrates than many regular DVD releases.

A Smilebox presentation is a VC-1 encoded transfer with the same high def audio as the widescreen version but presented through a specially designed process to simulate the original wraparound exposure of the movie. While I have no doubt that the Cinerama experience stands as one of the milestones of movie history, lacking the depth of the curved screen, I was skeptical how much of the original experience could faithfully be replicated here. When I first viewed the Smilebox depiction, it produced a light sense of motion sickness and made me vaguely queasy. Once I acclimated to the video, I was fine but was still surprised as I am not normally susceptible to these types of effects. Maybe this is a testament to the efficaciousness of this approach.

While the Smilebox technique sometimes helps makes sense of the composition of the image, other times it makes objects seem out of proportion with those surrounding them. I do not think what is shown here would compare to the true Cinerama projection and prefer the widescreen transfer. I would speculate that large projected screens would maximize its benefit while small televisions would accentuate the distortion of the simulated curved image. I am still glad the Smilebox version is included as it is an interesting addition.

A Feature-Length Audio Commentary includes input from Filmmaker David Strohmaier, Director of Cinerama John Sittig, Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Music Historian Jon Burlingame and Stuntman Loren James. I am not sure if this was recorded for this release or an earlier one but is very impressive. The range of information covered includes the history behind the movie, shooting details, context of the music involved, film anecdotes and the challenges of the Cinerama process. It is not a light track, but as the participants note early on, you are listening because you are a fan of the film.

Theatrical Trailer (3:02): This is a trailer whose ratio is definitely truncated from the movie’s theatrical display, but this may have been the way the trailer was originally shown.

Cinerama Adventure (1:36:54): A 90-plus minute documentary detailing the history of the Cinerama process. It delves into predecessors of the format, the previous and still existing Cinerama screens, the history behind the technology and its lasting effect. Numerous interviews from participants, and/or their descendants, involved in the original films are included. Sequences from the movies are presented with the Smilebox technique. To call this feature thorough would be an understatement, and it goes a long way to justifying the purchase of this Blu-ray set. Pretty much any reasonable question you have about Cinerama will be answered here. With this being a recently made documentary, my only complaint is an effort to include HD mastering would have been appreciated.

Warner deserves credit for the level of attention given to restoring How The West Was Won. Most of us will probably never enjoy the true Cinerama experience, but we can make the most of this beautiful 1080p transfer. Minor issues aside, the video is dazzling throughout. The lossless multi-track audio supports the epic story and action sequences very well.

Though a documentary specifically detailing the making of the movie would have been nice, the commentary fills that gap fairly well, and the Cinerama Adventure included is excellent and informative. Opinions will vary on the effectiveness of the Smilebox transfer, but it is a worthy inclusion even if for curiosity’s sake. Fans of classic cinema, the Cinerama technique, epic stories, gorgeous cinematography and those just curious about the potential of high definition will welcome How The West Was Won to Blu-ray.

Buy How the West Was Won on Blu-ray at Amazon.

Score: 9.1
With a surprisingly good A/V presentation and informative bonuses, this truly is a “win” for Blu-ray.

— Robert Searle

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