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Monday, 9 February 2015

Classic Film Review: How the West Was Won (1962)

How the West Was Won is an epic Western focusing on three generations of the same family. As well as three tremendous directors, it boasts a phenomenal 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, Walter Brennan, Agnes Moorhead, Harry Morgan, Thelma Ritter and Russ Tamblyn. Oh, and it's narrated by Spencer Tracy.

There are distinct sections in this film and it's rather difficult to review in light of all the separate bits. I will say that I enjoyed the opening parts with parents played by Karl Malden and Agnes Moorhead and the daughters played by Carroll Baker and Debbie Reynolds, the first of whom captures mountain man James Stewart and the second toys with Robert Preston before entrapping Gregory Peck. This is one of those films where it's much easier to refer to people by their actor name because it's a film where characters are symbols, the means by which we live through outlaws, white water, civil war, the railroad and Indian battles. The only character who lasts the film out is Lily (Debbie Reynolds), but even she only appears in three of the five sections. It makes latching onto character difficult, though Thelma Ritter makes an impact as a woman in search of a husband and Jimmy Stewart, despite being too old for his part, is as enjoyable as ever.

That said, it's certainly a film that merits watching at least once for what it depicts. It feels like an amalgamation of every Western every filmed and including some of the heavyweights of the genre certainly helps its credentials. There are some spectacular sequences including the white water scene in the first section and a brilliant train battle towards the end. Ultimately, these scenes are more memorable than any of the characters and, more memorable than even those, is the overarching ideal of the West that comes across via Spencer Tracy's narration.

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