How The West Was Won
There are two things about this masterpiece that must be said. First, this is the West, no doubt about it. Second, it was achieved in Cinerama by all three directors recognizing equally the uniqueness of this proposition.
The film is divided into five parts. After a brief overture, Hathaway’s “The Rivers” is announced by an epochal dolly-in down Main Street to the river, which carries him to “The Plains”, where he discovers the West for the first time, as it always was and always will be. The first thing you find there is piratical flag-waving whiskey-peddlers who show you “the varmint in the pit”. After you’ve “see’d the cave-dwellin’ varmints,” they sink your boat and steal your pelts, and that’s before you reach Indian Country.
The centerpiece is Ford’s “The Civil War”, which is exactly like Yeats’ idea of a Nō play. Ford themes, a graveyard dialogue, a long take two-shot. He casts John Wayne as Sheridan, and Henry Morgan as Grant. “It doesn’t matter what the people think, it’s what you think, Grant.”
Marshall inhabits the West from the outlook of a Remington (Henry Fonda). The poetry of the film is indicated by the buffalo stampede. It is thunderous, and it bisects “The Railroad” as Impressionism, but it ends with Richard Widmark riding a cowcatcher all the way to the end of the line.
Hathaway concludes on “The Outlaws” with a remake of High Noon, expanded to the furthest limits of the Cinerama screen.
The influences extend to The Unsinkable Molly Brown, True Grit, Chisum, Deliverance, Jeremiah Johnson, Rooster Cogburn, etc. Legendary precedents must extend beyond The Big Trail to William S. Hart, but very probably there is no comparison to be made save to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which decided if the West could be represented, anything could.
A coda shows the modern West from the standpoint of an Eames.