NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.1962
John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Richard Thorpe
There are many, many film genres out there, and I think I enjoy most of them, but there are few that can inspire as much eager anticipation as the Epic Western. Tell me that we’re going to see a new movie this week—an action picture—mystery—musical—fantasy—a costume drama, maybe—whatever genre you choose, unless the movie is one I had a specific interest in seeing, you’ll get mild enthusiasm until I know enough about the movie to gain a specific interest. But, tell me we’re going to see an Epic Western, and I’ll be looking forward to it all week, sight unseen… and I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps there’s something to the idea that the American west represented the hopes and dreams of the entire country; of pioneers who were looking for a Promised Land they’d never seen before, but were sure was just over the horizon. I suppose that, like the West, the great American Western is so full of potential, of promise, that we just keep trekking onward, with all our excitement—despite having been disappointed so many times already, and despite having been exposed to a lot of sights we never wanted to see.
How the West Was Won was one of those movies that I really looked forward to seeing. And, it was unfortunately one of those that disappointed me. When one goes to watch an Epic Western, one rather expects a masterpiece, you know, and a masterpiece on all fronts—acting, music, cinematography, scenery… story. If all else fails, you should at least be able to enjoy those first four aspects of the art; and unfortunately that’s pretty much what happened with How the West Was Won: all else failed.
There is one thing a story should never be without: a good guy. And that’s the one thing—amidst all the advertised splendor—that the movie didn’t give us; at least, not in the half that I actually saw. What it gave us instead were wicked men and women, stupid men and women, and dead men and women—all walks of life represented; all manner of dreams and ambitions; and not one character with enough virtue to make the ending worth finding out.
Mr. and Mrs. Prescott (Karl Malden and Agnes Moorehead): A bickering pioneer couple comprised of a devout, hypocritical Christian man with more ambition than brains, and more braggadocio than either, and a severe woman who can find nothing better to do with her time than to scold her husband.
Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker): Their romantic but dim-witted daughter. Eve reads too many sentimental novels, believes too much of what they say, and in consequence immediately and irretrievably falls in love with—
Linus Rawlings (James Stewart): A man who divides his time between trapping, trading, drinking, and romancing the bar-keepers’ daughters. By his own admission, he is “a sinful man,” which (along with his distaste for farming) is his primary reason for rejecting Eve’s matrimonial offers. Latterly, however, he is redeemed by her unfailing love and foregoes his “sinful” trip to Pittsburgh to start a life (and a farm) with Eve.
Lilith Prescott (Debbie Reynolds): The Prescotts’ other daughter, who leaves her family for a life in show business. She is a confident, independent woman who impresses people with her coarse behavior and street smarts, and who sees neither inconsistency nor impropriety in wearing little more clothing on the stage than she would in the bath, and publicly bullwhipping men who are arrogant enough to consider her a loose woman. Her manifold charms form the apex of a love triangle involving Roger Morgan and Cleve van Valen.
Roger Morgan (Robert Preston): A wealthy rancher whose attraction to Lilith can only be accounted for by her health and nerve, which he believes would serve her well in the primary task of a wife: child bearing. Mr. Morgan is an honest, friendly man, but even his forbearance after the bullwhipping incident is not enough to outweigh the disadvantages of his steadiness and lack of obvious vices.
Cleve van Valen (Gregory Peck): A gambler, liar, womanizer and fortune hunter, latterly redeemed by his growing attraction to Lilith, whose affection he gains by virtue of her previous dislike of him, his disappearance for a few hours after an Indian attack, his poverty and good looks, and his not mentioning children in his proposal.
You might possibly have noticed the two main problems with How the West Was Won; they’re pretty basic: Debbie Reynolds, and a skewed worldview. The coarse sexuality of Lilith Prescott’s character is inexcusable, and it ought to prevent people from seeing, let alone enjoying, lengthy segments of the film. And, of course, we all know that there is plenty of opportunity for a slanted worldview to come up in any western. Really, any time you so much as show a picture of a buffalo, you can hardly help but communicate some kind of propaganda, whether good or bad. But when you script in several favorable references to faith in God, hymns, prayers, etc., you might think you’ve given Christians in the audience a movie they can be tranquil about… until they happen to notice that none of the Christians in the movie are meant to be taken seriously; that your religious references include, among other things, the phrase “God must have helped create”, and an optimistic “with the help of the devil”; and that the more vices the character has (short of murder), the more appealing he is supposed to be. They might also notice that the only female character with a brain is a red-dressed feminist; that the only men who came anywhere close to biblical patriarchy swung right past it to the point of viewing women as objects; and that the woman’s rejection of marriage simply as a means to motherhood, happens to involve her demeaning motherhood in general.
How the West Was Won was epic, I admit, and it certainly was a western, and unfortunately it was really not worth watching. Or, at least I can say as much about the first half. The Debbie Reynolds character doubtless would have left us pretty well alone after the intermission, but the twisted worldview, the implausible relationships, and the complete lack of a single character worth liking, made the story not worth finishing—not even for the sake of the acting, cinematography and scenery (and, thankfully, we no longer need to watch the movie in order to hear the music). When I hear from somebody that the second half of the movie is completely different from the first half with respect to all the bad things I’ve mentioned, I’ll write another review. Until then, I’m going to be moving on toward that western horizon, and all the really great westerns I know are just beyond it. I’ll be sure to write you when I get there.