How the West Was Won (1962)

I’ve now been in Hollywood for about a month, and school finally began a week ago. It’s definitely been an adjustment coming from much calmer suburbia to the hustle and bustle of the city. Screenings, the thing I always imagined would be a perk of living here has turned out to be one of my favorite things so far, and I’m lucky to be within walking distance to a few of the major venues.

In celebration of Cinerama’s 60th anniversary, the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood screened a series of Cinerama films. Some were shown in digital or 70mm, but there were a few exhibited in their original 3-projector format. Being a big western fan, I decided to go to How the West Was Won last Thursday, and what a treat it was.

The Cinerama Dome opened in 1963 and remains one of the few places in the world that is set up for showing movies in their 3-projector format. It’s huge inside, with seating for over 800 people. The seats are assigned as well, so you have to choose where you want to sit when you buy a ticket. The theater has stadium seating but there is a bottom tier and a top tier, so I chose to sit just to the left of center in the bottom half of the theater.

The unique ceiling at the Cinerama Dome. Photo by me.

The movie started with the curtains left in front of the screen as the overture played. As the MGM lion came on, the curtains parted and the title credits rolled. The Cinerama screen is curved, which created some strange optical effects when I went to see The Master in 70mm a few weeks ago at the same theater, but the print of How the West Was Won fit it perfectly. It’s an amazing sight, as the image wraps all the way around to cover your peripheral vision.

The film follows the settlement of the West from the prospective of several generations of a pioneer family. As the opening credits note, the idea for the movie came from a Life magazine series. There are five segments with an intermission: 1. The Rivers, 2 . The Plains, 3. The Civil War, 4. The Railroad, and 5. The Outlaws. Veteran Western directors John Ford (The Civil War), Henry Hathaway (The Rivers, The Plains, The Outlaws) and George Marshall (The Railroad) helped bring the film to life. The cast is equally impressive, featuring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Gregory Peck to name a few.

I won’t go into the plot as the movie is epic at almost 3 hours in length. I will say that even though I’ve only been here a short time, this screening immediately went to the top of my list of all the things I’ve seen so far. Sequences like the Cheyenne attack, the buffalo stampede and the train robbery were breathtaking on the big screen. I will admit that the opening areal shots of the mountains got me kind of homesick as I do miss the open spaces of Colorado.

Another fun thing was seeing a familiar landscape that I recognized immediately. In the southwestern corner of Colorado, near Telluride, is the little town of Ridgway. Once a major railroad town, it sits right at the base of the San Juan mountain range. Ridgway is most famous for being a major shooting location for the John Wayne version of True Grit, but How the West Was Won filmed there as well. In the same meadow where Rooster Cogburn famously faces off with Ned Pepper and his gang, reins in mouth and guns in each hand, the wagon train that Debbie Reynolds is heading West with makes camp. You can tell by the wall of aspens, all golden in their fall glory, ringing the meadow, and the sight of Chimney Rock in the background.

Chimney Rock, Ridgway, Colo.

A friend said to me the next day that they hadn’t seen the movie before, but even if it wasn’t a “great” movie it was probably awesome in Cinerama. While I wouldn’t say How the West Was Won is the greatest Western ever, I don’t think it’s a bad or mediocre film at all. Sure, it’s a pretty one-sided version of history, but I think the scope of the production is quite something. Images of buffalo running through the camp, rafting down the river, you can’t recreate that with all the CGI in the world. I think in that way the film is effective at pulling you into the story and getting the audience to experience the perils that the characters are facing on screen. It was definitely memorable, and if the opportunity arises again, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.


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10 Responses to How the West Was Won (1962)

  1. Laura says:

    What a wonderful experience! The thing I love most about HOW THE WEST WAS WON is the music — it must have been very exciting to have the curtains part as the credits music began. Thanks for sharing, wish I’d been there!

    Best wishes,

  2. Tom says:

    Love the photo you took of the dome ceiling; it looks like a honeycomb!

  3. Sounds like a dream to see the movie in all its original glory. I love Alfred Newman’s score. Get chills just thinking about it.

  4. Oh wow! To see that film in a Cinerama Theatre! Sounds marvelous. Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

  5. ClassicBecky says:

    I hate to admit it, but I saw How the West was Won when it first came out. It was a thrilling experience in Cinerama, and I loved it. I’ve seen it since then on TV (sometimes in that awful pan and scan mode), and it has never been as amazing as at the theatre. Nice piece about the experience!

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