How the West Was Won
Classic / Epic / Western
Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall
Narrated by Spencer Tracy
Carroll Baker as Eve Prescott
Lee J. Cobb as Lou Ramsey
Henry Fonda as Jethro Stuart
Carolyn Jones as Julie Rawlings
Karl Malden as Zebulon Prescott
Gregory Peck as Cleve Van Valen
George Peppard as Zeb Rawlings
Robert Preston as Roger Morgan
Harry Morgan as General Ulysses S. Grant
Debbie Reynolds as Lilith Prescott
James Stewart as Linus Rawlings
John Wayne as General William T. Sherman
Walter Brennan as Colonel Hawkins
Agnes Moorehead as Rebecca Prescott
Lee Van Cleef as Marty
David Brian as Lilith's attorney
Andy Devine as Corporal Peterson
Raymond Massey as President Abraham Lincoln
Thelma Ritter as Agatha Clegg
Mickey Shaughnessy as Deputy Stover
Russ Tamblyn as Confederate deserter
How the West Was Won is the episodic story of the Prescott family as they migrate out west over a period of 50 years.
The Rivers starts the epic in 1829 and focuses on Zebulon Prescott and his family, consisting of his wife Rebecca, two sons and two daughters, Eve and Lil. The Prescott family has been living in upstate New York and Zebulon decides to head out west to take advantage of the opportunities there, which for this time is considered Illinois. Starting out on the newly built Erie Canal, they travel by river, encountering fur trapper and mountain man Linus Rawlings. The connection between Eve and Linus is evident, but Linus, not wanting to make a change to domestic life, leaves the Prescotts to continue on his own. Shortly after leaving the Prescotts, Linus stops in at a trading post and encounters a band of river pirates who are preying on travelers on the river . Linus is duped by an attractive bandit named Dora, who leads Linus into a cave on the pretenses of an amorous encounter, but instead stabs him and throws him into a pit. Shortly behind Linus, the Prescotts encounter the same trading post, and are about to become victims as well, but Linus escapes the trap and helps the Prescotts defeat the pirates. The Prescotts and Linus continue down river, and their raft is caught in rapids. Zebulon and Rebecca drown in the river , and Eve decides to settle down and homestead at the area in memory of her parent’s sacrifice. Linus has fallen for Eve by this point, and decides to give up his mountain man life and marry her.
The Plains takes up the story of Eve’s younger sister Lily, who decides to go to St. Louis and takes up working in a dance hall. Her dancing catches the eye of gambler Cleve Van Valen, and he goes to her dressing room to woo her. Along the way Cleve overhears a conversation in which he learns that Lily has just been bequeathed a gold mine in California by an elderly admirer. Cleve, smelling an opportunity to get out from under his gambling debts and obtain the affections of such a pretty lady, joins the wagon train taking Lily out to her gold mine. His romantic overtures towards Lily are hampered along the way by a competing suitor, wagon master Roger Morgan. Lily spurns them both throughout the journey however. After enduring the hardships of the trail to California, including attacks by the Cheyenne, Lily and Cleve discover that the mine is an empty hole in the ground. Cleve departs, and Lily goes back to working as a dancing girl. After a time Cleve encounters Lily again while she is singing in a riverboat show. Once Cleve hears her voice he realizes his feelings for Lily and proposes to her on the spot. Cleve and Lily settle down in the new boom town of San Francisco.
The Civil War returns to the story of Linus and Eve, and their son Zeb. Despite Eve’s protests, both Linus and Zeb join the Union Army and march to fight against the Confederates. Zeb is possessed with a sense of adventure and glory and sees military service as a ticket off the farm and to a more exciting life. After participating at the Battle of Shiloh, and witnessing the horror and bloodshed of war, Zeb begins having second thoughts. Unknown to Zeb at the time, his father Linus was also involved in the battle, and lost his life there. Zeb crosses paths with a Confederate soldier who is of a similar mindset, who talks him into deserting. Before they can escape however, they come across a tent where Union Generals Grant and Sherman are discussing the war and how it is seen across the country. Zeb’s new Confederate ally’s pride returns and he is going to seize an opportunity to strike a blow for the South and assassinate the two generals. Zeb cannot allow this to happen and is forced to kill the man. Zeb returns to his post to finish out the war. Upon the conclusion of the Civil War, Zeb returns home to discover that his mother has died. His brother has been taking care of the farm since her passing, and Zeb leaves his share of the farm to his brother and leaves his home once more.
The Railroad finds Zeb serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry. Zeb and his friend Jethro Stuart are trying to keep the peace with the Indians to protect the railroad workers. However, Zeb’s efforts are in vain when Mike King, who is in charge of building the railroad through the territory, decides it would be more profitable to violate a treaty with the Arapaho Indians and put the railroad straight through their lands. The Arapaho naturally retaliate, sending a stampede of buffalo through the camp that kills many of the railroad workers and their families. Again disillusioned with the grim realities of life, and his role in the tragedy, Zeb quits the military and heads to Arizona.
The Outlaws reunite Zeb and his family with his aunt Lily, who has been widowed by Cleve, and has sold her possessions to pay off her debts. Lily and Cleve had been living an alternate life of boom and bust, and she travels to Arizona, where she owns a ranch. Lily invites Zeb and his family to work and live on the ranch, and to meet her on her arrival at the Gold City train station. Once at the train station, Zeb recognizes Charlie Gant, an outlaw he has encountered while he was working as a U.S. Marshall. Gant also recognizes Zeb, and bears a grudge against Zeb for killing Charlie’s brother in a gunfight. Charlie makes veiled threats to Zeb and his family, but the local sheriff cannot act against Charlie as he has done nothing wrong in his jurisdiction, yet. Zeb decides to take matters into his own hands instead of waiting for Charlie to make good on his threats. Zeb discovers that there is a large shipment of gold heading through the territory by rail, and deduces that this is Charlie’s target. He persuades the reluctant Sherriff Ramsey to travel with the train to protect it. Zeb was correct, and Charlie and his gang attempt to rob the train. Zeb and Ramsey are able to protect the train, killing Charlie and his gang in the process. Now that Zeb’s family is safe, he can rejoin them at Lily’s ranch and live out the rest of their days.
How the West Was Won - Trailer
How the West Was Won was the last movie filmed in the cinematic style called Cinerama. Cinerama involved special cameras that took three images at once and combined them to make one enormous picture. It was designed to be shown on extremely large screens, and presented serious problems both in shooting and in viewing. Because of the three images being shot at once and blended to make one image, perspective appeared differently, and actors needed to look slightly away from one another and towards the camera when giving their lines. When blended on a Cinerama screen this effect works, but it can appear odd when the image is flattened out for standard screens. It also makes acting much more challenging as the actors are never really making eye contact when reacting to each other. Director John Ford was also annoyed with having to dress sets that were two to three times larger than the standard format, and the additional time and expense it required to do so. Attempts to flatten out the Cinerama image for standard presentation on TV screens have been problematic, with the three images of the camera having distinct lines where the image has been blended. This is most noticeable in bright scenes, such as against the daytime sky. Due to the higher resolution of the Cinerama image, all of the costumes had to be hand sewn, as they would have been in that time period, instead of being made with a sewing machine.
Sequences were shot separately and even directed by different directors. Henry Hathaway directed three segments, The Rivers, The Plains and The Outlaws; John Ford directed the Civil War segment (which is where his friend John Wayne makes his appearance) and George Marshall directed the Railroad.
Louis L’Amour wrote the novelization of the screenplay.
How the West Was Won was awarded three Academy Awards and was nominated for five others. The movie won awards for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Music.
Stuntman Bob Morgan was seriously injured on the picture when a chain holding logs on a railcar snapped and sent the logs into Morgan, crushing his legs. One of his legs had to be amputated, ending his career.