(out of 5)
Epic look at a century’s worth of American history, from settlers making their way west, through to the Civil War, the creation of the railroad and the earliest days of any semblance of law in dusty western towns. Filmed by three directors, who were each responsible for different sections of the film, it mainly centers around members of a family headed by Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead, who suffer hardships on their way to a land claim, then continues through the adventures of their daughters Debbie Reynolds and Carroll Baker, then the third generation represented by Baker’s son George Peppard. Gorgeously shot in Cinerama, an unwieldy process that required three lenses on the camera and three strips of film in the projector (even on a digital copy you can see the faint lines squaring off images in the long shots), it’s an entertaining, dazzling and star-studded affair, but despite the fact that it has enough pizzazz to get you through its near three hour running time, it really does lack soul. Faint attempts at telling a more realistic story about the wild west that go beyond the myths perpetuated by Hollywood filmmaking are appreciated, Spencer Tracy‘s narration sometimes speaks critically of these uppity pioneers taking over land that is not theirs, insinuating that they have no business thinking they can tame, but the film also includes the familiar two-dimensional images of native Americans that are common for the era, and a few musical numbers that stick out like a sore thumb. Casting an obviously aged James Stewart as Baker’s love interest is pretty awkward to watch too, at some point the film just feels like a salad of carelessly picked and assembled ingredients. The dialogue is intelligently written, though, the train robbery sequence at the end is thrilling, and Reynolds is particularly delightful throughout, but it wouldn’t be until McCabe and Mrs. Miller that a film looking to explore the seedy origins of frontier towns would really succeed.
Screenplay by James R. Webb, suggested by his Life Magazine series “How The West Was Won”
Produced by Bernard Smith
Music by Alfred Newman
Costume Design by Walter Plunkett
Film Editing by Harold F. Kress
Academy Awards: 1963