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10.08.08

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Phaedra

How the West Was Won

Three discs; Warner Home Video; $20.98

Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Anderson


One of the few narrative features filmed in Cinerama, How the West Was Won was one of the very biggest of all movies. This process, which simultaneously projected one wide image across three screens, via three projectors, was expensive and cumbersome, so MGM threw everything but the kitchen sink into the film, which was one of the top hits of 1963 and won three Oscars. How the West Was Won consists of five episodes, following roughly two generations of settlers through years of migration, Civil War and railroads. It starts as sisters Eve (the amazingly sensuous Carroll Baker) and Lily (Debbie Reynolds) make a cross-country trek to set up a farm. Eve marries a trapper (Jimmy Stewart) and stays put, while Lily goes on to California and marries a gambler (Gregory Peck). Their children continue with more adventures. The technical process is still stunning, even on TV; Warner Home Video's new DVD does a fantastic job syncing all the elements into a nearly seamless, widescreen, letterbox picture, with an immense depth of field. The effect is almost surreal; when character walk from the foreground to the background, they appear to shrink in size, since they are covering a lot of ground in a compressed bit of screen space. Cinerama doesn't allow for many close-ups, so very often you can't see who the big-name stars are unless you can recognize their voices. And it makes editing, especially during action sequences, exceedingly difficult and disorienting. The best part is John Ford's segment, "The Civil War," which comes in the middle. Ford, who co-directed with Henry Hathaway and Geroge Marshall, is the only one who seems able to transcend the cheesy, preachy quality of the screenplay, as well as mastering the editing problem. Ford gets more power out of his simple idea than the other directors with their grandiose scenes. An extra feature explores the technical side of Cinerama.

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