Friday, 22 June 2007

Film: How the West Was Won

Lowdown: How the west was won and where it got us.
For a long while now, How the West Was Won was one of those films I had on my to do list to watch. It's just that it's one of those historically important films. For a start, it's a Cinerama film: one of those few films made for a super wide screen, supposedly the cinematic answer to the rising popularity of TV during the fifties. It actually shows: you can clearly see that the picture is divided into three squares that are not on the same plane, with straight lines getting themselves twisted as they move from one screen to the other. Distracting when watched on the TV, but still interesting, especially when the wide screen area was filled using super wide angle lenses and generating some impressive panoramas. By the way, the only leftover from this age of the huge screen that we have today is the Panavision screen format (commonly referred to as Cinemascope), featuring a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which is quite inferior to Cinerama (more like 2.8:1 and projected over three curved screens). Both, though, are incredibly wider than what we're being programmed to accept as "widescreen TV" (1.66:1).
HTWWW's epic stance is not only due to its cinematography but also its scope. Essentially, it is the story of several generations of one family during the 19th century, and how these family members have conquered the west side of the USA. The story of each generation is told in a mini movie of its own, so we're left with four (or was it five) mini movies covering a family crossing a river to go the west in the first place and stumbling upon a tough river and tough villains, a couple in a caravan crossing to the west, the USA's civil war, and the wild wild west.
Star power is also quite a powerful element here, and HTWWW offers the best of the stars of its era (the film was made in the early sixties): Gregory Peck, Hannibal Smith (also known as George Peppard), Henry Fonda, James Stewart, John Wayne, Eli Wallach (the ugly from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), and many many more. There is no dominant star here, for despite an overall length of almost 3 hours, the small stories' structure ensures no one is there long enough to dominate the screen. A possible exception is Peppard, who gets to appear in two of the micro-films.
I will remember HTWWW for two main reasons. The first is the film being very funny but for very wrong reasons: there are just that many times that you can hear the film talk about how the west was "rescued" from "primitive men" by "god fearing" "good Christians" etc. Sure, some of that talk is proper, simply because that is the way the people of the time saw themselves; yet this talk continues when the narrator presents things from a current perspective, too. HTWWW is therefore not only very not politically correct, it is also stupidly wrong: it ends by showing us the achievements of those who conquered the west - a mighty freeway with lots of traffic on it, including even traffic jams. Wow! So this is how we managed to destroy our planet!
The second reason for remembering the film is the lesson in history it provides. Growing up in Israel, most of what I learned in school about history was focused on the history of the Jewish people, and that can be summarized in a single line as "the people went there, the locals hated them and killed them, so they went there". Which is interesting and you can learn a lot from it, but what you don't learn from it is just how tough life generally was back then for everyone - be it a good Jew, a good Christian, or a primitive Indian. However, you watch HTWWW and you gain some appreciation of this hardness: you realize that the people that made it to the west, while not the most intellectual of people and while motivated through not the most altruistic of motivations, are still the people you and I come from; and that at the time in which they did their crossing of the west they didn't exactly have rolls of toilet paper with them. It is a pity, though, that such an important lesson is conducted by exposing us to the nicer aspects of life at the time and not the really real way in which it went by, but it's still enough to learn something. It's cinema for the naive, but it's good cinema.
Best scenes: Several of the big time action scene can qualify here, from the ride through a river wild through an Indian wagon chase and a bison stampede to a gunfight on the rails. All are pretty equivalent, artistically, so I will avoid picking a specific winner.
Overall: The message is all wrong, but the lesson can still be learnt and the result is pretty entertaining. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

No comments: