Directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall
Screenwriter: James R. Webb
By Roderick Heath
Amidst the sprawl of big-budget historical epics designed to lure audience away from their televisions in the late-1950s and ‘60s, How The West Was Won was unusual as a grandiose Western rather than Biblical or medieval costume tale. The film was coproduced by MGM as one of several would-be epic follow-ups to Ben-Hur (1959), in collaboration with Cinerama, whose colossal, curving screen format which had previously been used to showcase specially-shot documentaries since first appearing in 1953. How The West Was Won was one of only two feature films, along with the same year’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, filmed in the original version of the Cinerama process, shot with three lenses and projected in three panels. This spectacular but unwieldy format offered a level of visual clarity and detail so unusual the filmmakers had to get costumes sewn by hand as machined seams were too obvious. Later films shot to exploit the format like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were more conventionally filmed. Today even the best, most exactingly restored prints of How The West Was Won still retain the imprint of the format, which when viewed in a standard letterbox sometimes seeming to bend landscapes into bizarre forms.
How The West Was Won has its basis in a series of historical articles published in LIFE Magazine, but its purpose is much less to describe that historical process than to entertain. Indeed, it’s can be best described as a kind of monument to the idea of movie entertainment, with a subtext not that deeply concealed suggesting that the entire motive behind the westward expansion of the United States was so that Hollywood could be born, one reason a major protagonist of the narrative is a prototypical American song-and-dance gal. Similarly, How The West Was Won encapsulates just about the entire Western film genre in miniature, sporting most of its essential tropes and kneading them into an overall mythos that evokes and mimics Biblical narratives in erecting a church of Americana. In this regard How The West Was Won isn’t so conceptually different from the spectacular documentaries made for Cinerama, with a similarly curated, occasionally diorama-like aspect to its visuals and storytelling, and interludes designed purely to floor the audience with moviemaking might. The film finished up costing a then-colossal $15 million, but earned it back more than four times over.
The script was written by the experienced screenwriter James R. Webb, who had written Apache (1954) and Vera Cruz (1954) for Robert Aldrich, Trapeze (1956) for Carol Reed, The Big Country (1958) for William Wyler, and Pork Chop Hill (1959) for Lewis Milestone. He would win an Oscar for best original story and screenplay for How The West Was Won, before going on to expand on the film’s Native American sympathies in more overt fashion with his script for Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and write the two sequels to In The Heat of the Night (1967), They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971). Production of How The West Was Won was complicated by MGM’s uncertainty over which episodes in the sprawling survey Webb penned would be filmed, which frustrated the great Western novelist Louis L’Amour, hired to write the novelisation. To make production easier and give the multi-strand story different inflections, producer Bernard Smith hired three directors, determined they all should all be “old pros.” So, Henry Hathaway directed the bulk of the movie, credited with the chapters entitled “The Rivers,” “The Plains,” and “The Outlaws,” whilst George Marshall handled the portion called “The Railroad,” and, in a coup that ironically marked the point just before his career started a last wane, John Ford directed the mid-film portion on “The Civil War.” A great number of Hollywood stars past and (then) present who had cut their teeth in Westerns were roped into the film, but the lead actors were young and fairly fresh faces – Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, and George Peppard.
Of course, from a contemporary perspective the inherent triumphalism of the title How The West Was Won and the general thesis contained within obliges more than a few raised eyebrows. The opening narration immediately sets teeth on edge as it formulates the idea of the West having to be “won from nature and from primitive man.” One can all but hear descendants of the primitive men snorting loudly in the aisles. Also very notably excised from its depiction of the West are any African-American people at all, a perturbing reminder of how not long ago people could make a movie like this and yet completely excise a whole bloc of society. In that light it’s interesting to note that the hit TV series Roots, screened a mere 15 years after How The West Was Won came out but reflecting a vastly different zeitgeist, played as both a vehement counter-narrative but also a spiritual companion piece with a similar narrative temple and equally engaged with creating a mythos of American founding. To be fair, also, How The West Was Won eventually proves surprisingly layered when it does get around to encompassing the clash between white and Native Americans in “The Railway,” as well as exhibiting feminist underpinnings in the way the film revolves around two strong-willed woman who each choose different paths entirely according to their own characters and who stitch themselves into the fabric of the country. When I recently watched the film shortly after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), a film just as about as opposite a social and historical viewpoint as it’s possible to get in mainstream storytelling, I couldn’t help but feel that in certain ways How The West Was Won is the more sophisticated dramatic artefact and consideration of history.
Of course, what How The West Was Won mostly wants to do is provide a rollicking and affirming epic. The physical immediacy and immersive power of the Cinerama screen is balanced by an insistence on playing the film’s dramatic elements for maximum theatrical bravura. Because the producers presumably couldn’t get hold of Jehovah’s agent when looking for a narrator, they got the next best thing in Spencer Tracy. His inimitable tones are heard over an opening shot that immediately evinces the film’s pure sense of spectacle and deeply worshipful sense of the American landscape, as the expanse of the screen is filled with the soaring crags and banks of ice of the Rocky Mountains. Linus Rawlings, one of the mountain men venturing into the wilderness to hunt fur and filled out by the dangling physique of James Stewart, rides a horse towards the camera along a high ridge, imbued with a monumental quality by the unique lensing effect and sharpness of the Cinerama camera and entirely fitting with the film’s hypertrophied aesthetic ambitions. Despite the multiple directors and sprawl of action, some attention is paid to revisiting this shot much later in the film when Linus’ son Zebulon ‘Zeb’ Rawlings (George Peppard) himself briefly drops out of society and spends time as a mountain man himself with his father’s old pal Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), like his father traversing a highland ridge, lord of all he surveys.
Linus’ ramblings see him negotiating with Native tribes as an exemplar of a peaceable intruder in the Western landscape, but already destined to intersect in returning eastward with the family of the religious but talkative and footloose Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden), who has set his mind on dragging his large family – wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead), two grown daughters Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lilith (Debbie Reynolds), and two sons – off in an expedition along the Ohio River via the Erie Canal to find a new spread in Illinois, sometime in the 1830s. Waiting for their paddleboat on the Canal, Zebulon raves to another patriarch, the Scottish immigrant Alex Harvey (Tudor Owen) who’s making the same journey with his clutch of sons, that he owned a farm so rocky he had to blast out furrows with gunpowder, a story Rebecca immediately dismisses: “We had the best farm in the county…it was his itchin’ foot that brought us here.” Zebulon, noting Harvey’s sons are all single and eager to get his girls married off, gets the musically inclined Lilith to entertain them all. Lilith initially, sarcastically starts to sing a dirty shanty, to be immediately chastised and obliged to sing the song that becomes a generational motif throughout the film, a version of “Greensleeves” with new lyrics (by Sammy Cahn) called “A Home in the Meadow.”
Hathaway has always been a director left in a limbo of appreciation even as he surely counted as one of the major figures of Hollywood for most of its so-called Golden Age. Born the son of two actors, Hathaway had the odd distinction of inheriting through his mother the title of Marquis in the Belgian aristocracy: his mother’s father had been sent to the US negotiating with the government over possession of the Hawaiian Islands. Hathaway made his name as an assistant director under DeMille and Von Stroheim amongst others. Whilst he would work in just about every genre known the Hollywood when he became a director in his own right, his debut was on the Western Heritage of the Desert (1932), whilst The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) made him a major filmmaker. Most of his best work came in the film noir genre in the latter 1940s, with films like Kiss of Death (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and Niagara (1953), and later Westerns including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969), although his greatest work is likely the backwoods drama The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). Hathaway was a no-nonsense image-crafter and a smart handler of actors, although his lesser movies could dissolve into plodding competence.
Hathaway’s long-honed talent at balancing cinematic gloss with strong performances as the most professional of Hollywood pros is certainly apparent in the early scenes of How The West Was Won as he presents the Prescotts as a prototypical American family. Zebulon is nominally a zealous New England Quaker, named for a son of Jacob mentioned in the Torah who becomes a father of a tribe, but constantly lurches into tall tales and is tempted by profane urges, his daughters, whose names also wryly but meaningfully echo Biblical figures with the born-to-be-married Eve and the peripatetic Lilith, already well-schooled in worldly affairs: “Ma’am, it seems to me you’ve been kissed before,” Linus notes after snogging Eve. Linus encounters the Prescotts on the Ohio River down which they’re travelling with the Harveys on rafts they build themselves: afraid at first Linus might be a river pirate, Zebulon warns him to approach carefully with a gun trained on him, but is satisfied Linus is on the level and let him camp with them. Linus gives Eve the suggestive gift of a beaver pelt, and immediately Eve sets her cap at him, eventually drawing him into the woods for a spell of had wooing: “Eve, you make me feel like a man standing on a narrow ledge comin’ face to face with a grizzly bear,” Linus groans, and confesses, “I’m a sinful man, deep, dark, sinful – I’m on my way to Pittsburgh to be sinful again.” Eve nonetheless remains smitten. When her father awakens in the morning and sees Linus’ canoe is gone he immediately hollers out to make sure Eve is still in the camp, and finds she is, expecting nonetheless to meet Linus again.
The rather jagged age disparity between Baker and Stewart (although he looks younger than he was and Baker was a bit older than she looked) and Reynolds’ later offered the choice of Gregory Peck and Robert Preston for romantic interest reflects an odd moment in Hollywood history when younger leading men were thin on the ground (or too busy in TV, like Clint Eastwood, James Garner, and Burt Reynolds) and the old familiars getting, well, old: the same year Stewart was called upon to play the idealistic young lawyer of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Baker and Peppard, playing her son, despite their genuine and formidable talent, look meanwhile far too glossy to fit properly into the historical setting. Reynolds meanwhile is at least given a role tailor made to show of all her skills as a musical star, and the way the film showcases her performances often makes How The West Was Won close to a musical in a manner that today rather strongly resembles Bollywood cinema in its willingness to inject such scene amidst otherwise serious stories, and might even have given that style some licence. One agreeable aspect of this, however, is that How The West Was Won left behind some of the more pretentious aspects of the 1950s Western style, avoiding the moral gravitas of Westerns begotten by High Noon (1952), and whilst also evoking the self-conscious mythicism of Shane (1953), its showbiz energy cuts in a very different direction, just two years before Sergio Leone would launch on his much darker-hued and wilder effort to drag the Western back to its violent and mythical roots.
Linus’ attempt to escape the spectre of settling down represented by Eve hits a serious road bump when he lands at a trading post set up in a cave by the river, which proves to be an enclave of actual river pirates captained by Jeb Hawkins (inevitably, Walter Brennan), with his daughter (Brigid Bazlen) and crew of cutthroats (including Lee Van Cleef, looking like the ancestor of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, 1969). Under the guise of getting Linus to identify a strange animal caught in the cave, the daughter leads him deeper into the cave before stabbing him in the gut and dropping him into a pit. Fortunately the wound proves superficial and the pit leads back out to the river, and Linus swims to safety. The Prescotts and the Harveys encounter the same pirates at a new locale further down the river, and are held up by at gunpoint by the rogues. Linus bounding out of the underbrush and launches an axe into one pirate’s back, sparking a battle: one of Harvey’s sons is shot dead, but Hawkins gets walloped with a chair, Lilith chases down and swats his daughter with a sack full of coins, and Linus hurls a barrel of gunpowder on a fire, causing an explosion that takes out several pirates. As they bury the dead, Zebulon leads a group in prayer, concluding with an invocation to God that, having sent His way several evil souls, “We ask thee humbly to receive them…whether you want ‘em or not.” Eve fails again to convince Linus to marry her, and continues on downriver with her family. The Prescotts take a wrong fork and finish up careening through some rapids: the raft breaks apart, and the two elder Prescotts are killed.
This first third of the film gains zest from Malden’s outsized performance, whilst Webb’s script cuts against the grain of sanctified patriotism by teasing out a disparity between the sentimentalities of Victorian fiction and the hard-headed necessities of frontier life. The disparity between the sarcastic and sceptical Lilith and the arch romantic Eve is noted as Eve rhapsodises over a passage in a romantic novel she’s reading in which lovers carve their names interlocked on a tree trunk and the man hurls his knife at the junction, much to Eve’s disbelief. Later when Eve successfully encourages Linus to perform this symbolic deed, Lilith blurts, “You got a growed man to do that?!” Part of the joke is precisely that Linus proves despite his status as the hardiest and most independent of men to be especially susceptible to such absurd gestures. Notably, Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), which knowingly appropriated Alfred Newman’s theme for this film for its opening, also in part was a spoof-cum-remake of “The Rivers,” similarly seeing a starry-eyed woman under the spell of romantic fantasy thrown in with an actual, hard-bitten adventurer. Lilith for her part plays a sardonic sad accordion sound as a response to one of Linus’ tall tales. There’s a satirical lilt to Hawkins using a big Stars and Stripes pinned on the wall to prove the adage about patriotism as a last refuge, reiterated when, as he and his men rob the settlers, Hawkins inveigles them: “Why, it’s in our noble tradition that we conquer the wilderness with nothing but our bare hands and stout hearts!” The sexually loaded image of Linus going off with Hawkins’ daughter to get a gander at a strange furry thing has meaning he acknowledges later on to Eve: “I still went to see the varmint with the pirate girl. I’ll always be goin’ to see the varmint.”
The white water scene meanwhile sports some impressive stunt work of the kind that obviously demanded risk of life and limb to the stuntpeople involved, even though interspersed with rear projection work. After crawling out of the river, Lilith, helping Eve bury their parents (their two young brothers vanish from the story), plans to return east at the first opportunity, but Eve vows to remain on the shore of the Ohio where the graves are, and Linus, after hearing about the disaster, tracks her down and agrees to get married and help her build a farm. Lilith leaves on a paddleboat and, a few years later in “The Plains” chapter, is rediscovered making a living as a vaudevillian in St. Louis, singing her own songs and dancing in rambunctious fashion with a troupe. The moment she gets an unexpected inheritance from one of her gentleman admirers, who has recently deceased and left her a gold-producing claim in California, Lilith is happy to abandon her career and signs onto a wagon train forming up under the captaincy of Roger Morgan (Preston), partnering with another unaccompanied female, Aggie Clegg (Thelma Ritter), who quickly realises that Lilith is a man magnet and, being eager to get married, she might be able to nab one of her rejects. A professional gambler, Cleve Van Valen (Peck), who overhears Lilith hearing the news of her good fortune. Owing a lot of money, Cleve resolves to get into Lilith’s good graces by offering his services as a hired hand: initially rejected, Cleve trails the train, and at length gets Aggie to vouch for him.
“The Plains” spares several scenes for Reynolds to strut her stuff in the kind of musical performance that made her a star, straining at the edges of credibility for a nominally straight-laced drama, particularly when she starts hollering out a hoedown dance number to stir up the others on the wagon train, who might well have shot her for waking them up, but instead all get roused for a fling including Cleve, who proves unembarrassed to dance in a towel having muddied up his pants. Later, when she’s back to performing alone around the California gold fields, Lilith sings the bawdy ditty “What Was Your Name in the States?”, mocking the denizens of the West as criminals and rejects of all stripes, and still later warbles “A Home in the Meadow” again with a backdrop and accompaniment more ripe for The Lawrence Welk Show rather unlikely for the setting of a Sacramento riverboat. Borderline silly as such moments are in context, they nonetheless point to that subtext I noted before, charting the birth of a specifically American performing style and attributing it to the wild energy of such places and people. This aspect of the movie is also connected with the interpolation of folk songs on the soundtrack, a touch that also pins the movie exactly to the folk music craze of the early ‘60s. Songs like “Erie Canal” and “Shenandoah” in “The Rivers” chapter and, more obviously, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” during “The Civil War,” are used not just as appropriate mood-setting but as markers in the temporal and physical journey.
Lilith, the avatar for the film’s conflation of pioneer and hoofer chutzpah, is partnered with the equally, obviously on-the-make Cleve, who Lilith understands as a creature much like herself: “We might both have been born for the poorhouse, but we’re not the kind to like it.” Morgan is contemptuous of Cleve, pegging him for a card sharp and almost giving him a beating when he catches him gaming with other travellers. He also initially takes Lilith for less than reputable, inspiring her to start lashing him with a whip when he calls her “a woman of your sort.” During the long trek to California, Morgan becomes impressed by Lilith and asks her to marry him. When the train is attacked by a band of Comanche, Morgan bets they want the train’s herd of cattle and some of their horses and takes the chance of charging the train for cover. Innumerable number of Westerns had sported scenes of Indians attacking wagon trains, but this is certainly the most spectacular, even on the smallest screen the looming, surging quality of the Cinerama frame and its depth of field matched to tracking shots and dashing behind and before the mounted riders and with the charging wagons surging across the screen which in standard format makes them seem to be bending.
Cleve proves his valour by unhooking the lead horses from Lilith and Aggie’s wagon, in a stunt modelled Yakima Canutt’s famous work on Stagecoach (1939). He also leaps off to save some men from an upturned wagon, only to be thought lost in the melee. Morgan, toppled from his steed, grabs onto a lead horse pulling a wagon and plucks Lilith, who falls amidst crazily wheeling horses, off the ground and swings her in behind him. When Cleve turns up during the night with the man he rescued and utterly exhausted, it’s plain he and Lilith are in love, causing Morgan to shy away. When they reached California Lilith and Cleve find to their grievous disappointment that Lilith’s claim has already been mined out, leaving her as poor as before, and they soon split. When Morgan comes across her performing, he again offers to marry Lilith, but she still wistfully refuses, whilst also refusing to condemn Cleve for wanting the same things she does. Sometime after, Cleve hears her singing on the riverboat and performs what he considers the ultimate romantic gesture in putting aside a winning hand to come see her. He proposes they get married and insists they quiet they respective jobs and head off to San Francisco to make their fortune, having their clinch just in time for the intermission.
Much of the hard work of stitching How The West Was Won into a whole was done by Newman with a score that counts as the climax of his career, wielding a variety of grandiose, even often corny, but ferocious showmanship that would barely last out the 1960s. Newman’s main theme immediately announces the blockbuster stature of the production as well as the florid romanticism and bristling energy of what’s ahead, over a painted title card representing Native Americans hunting buffalo and attacking a stagecoach. A variation heard at the end comes appended with silly lyrics, and lush, even syrupy renditions of “A Home in the Meadow” also punctuate the soundtrack. Between each chapter of the film come brief vignettes narrated by Tracy explaining the intervening, big picture events of the history the characters pass through, noting the likes of the Mexican-American War (borrowing footage from John Wayne’s The Alamo, 1960; later MGM recycles some shots from Raintree County, 1957) and the Pony Express at work but also being chased down by telegraph construction. The first vignette after the intermission notably features Raymond Massey playing Abraham Lincoln, the role he had essayed to acclaim in the play Abe Lincoln In Illinois and its 1940 film adaptation, but he doesn’t get any dialogue, only requied to look pensive and sit down to write at his desk like a slightly more mobile Disney animatronic.
Ford’s “The Civil War” chapter follows, and if ever a director taking over a project can be felt by a viewer, it’s here. Eve, now aging, is still on the farm she and Linus built, but Linus has gone to fight for the Union and gained a Captain’s rank, whilst she persists with her two teenage sons. The elder, named after his grandfather and called Zeb (George Peppard) by all, is eager to follow his dad off to the fight, whilst the younger, Jeremiah (Claude Johnson), loves working the farm. They receive a letter from Lilith brought by the local postmaster (Ford regular Andy Devine), assuring them there’s no fighting in California and offering to take Zeb in, but Zeb is insistent, and Eve finally gives in. Eve and Zeb talking about his future and his departure could have been clipped right out of How Green Was My Valley (1941) or The Sun Shines Bright (1953) in the slowly rhythmic, intense evocation of emotion registered more in gestures and physical attitudes than dialogue, start and end of the scene bracketed by Devine’s approach on his wagon and Zeb’s leaving by foot along a tree-shaded, sun-dappled road. Ford’s sense of dramatic symmetry is carefully despoiled when Zeb comes home by riverboat, and his return proves no return at all. Ford similarly brackets the central vignette depicting the Battle of Shiloh, or rather its nocturnal intermission, with banks of cannons being set off. Both Linus and Zeb are amongst the soldiers fighting the battle, but only Zeb survives it.
Where Hathaway dealt with the tricky problem of framing in the Cinerama format by mostly keeping his distance and often blocking shots along flat, rectilinear lines, Ford immediately displays his bolder eye in trying to wrangle the format to serve him. He works to compose multiple elements for the three-block frames, often framing his actors obliquely foregrounded and utilising the depth of field to hold them in their environs, or utilising the centre of the frame for its looming, almost vertiginous quality to achieve a painterly framing, as in a vignette of an army surgeon contending with a stream of bodies splayed out on a blood-smeared table top before him: one of the bodies is that Linus, whose loss hits the men under his command who have carried him there hard. They carry him out again, one becoming annoyed with an officer who bumps into him, not realising the officer is General U.S. Grant (Harry Morgan), accompanied by his friend and subordinate General Sherman (John Wayne), who behold the awful spectacle of the improvised surgical ward. Meanwhile Zeb wanders the battle disorientated and stricken with disgust, carrying only the barrel and affixed bayonet of his broken rifle. He encounters a stray Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who professes to be deserting and tries to talk Zeb into coming with him, whilst gleefully showing off the revolver he stole off a dead officer. But when they spy Grant and Sherman talking, the Confederate tries to take a shot at them, missing when Zeb grabs his arm, and Zeb stabs him to death with his bayonet.
The conceit in portraying the Civil War through this vignette is transformed into pure Fordian expression, eliding traditional depictions of the conflict’s battles and instead meditating on its human cost, the carnage rather than action, in a manner reminiscent of his depiction of the aftermath of a Revolutionary War battle in Drums Along The Mohawk (1939). The stream flowing by the Union camp tastes strange to Zeb when he takes a drink of it, the Confederate tells him why: the stream is running red with blood. Ford’s surveys of ditches being dug for myriad corpses would be quoted by Leone for Duck, You Sucker (1972). Ford applies painterly skill to images like the blooming trees lit up in firelight looming over the bedraggled warriors and rows of corpses and tainted rivers, whilst the sidelong glance at Grant and Sherman achieves a similar brand of nuance in depicting the human underneath the historical mystique to that he managed with Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Grant is portrayed as feeling the toll not just of a terrible and exhausting day of fighting, but in expecting to be blamed for the nearly successful surprise attack with rumours he was drunk going around. Sherman retorts that he was the one hit by surprise, and argues with Grant until he relents in his decision to resign: “I say a man only has the right to resign if he’s wrong, not if he’s right.” The odd but ingenious casting of Morgan and Wayne renders Sherman the block of assurance to Grant’s wizened self-doubt, the pivot of the moment of regaining moral and personal courage matched to Zeb more literally saving Grant’s life and so changing the course of the war.
Zeb and the Confederate’s encounter provides the common grunt’s mirror to the two leaders, and acknowledges the surreal and unnecessary sight of two ordinary men representing two great power blocs meeting amidst the wreckage and connecting. The moment the Confederate takes aim he becomes an enemy again, and Zeb screams at him as he dies, “Why did you make me do that?!” Zeb’s return home continues the cyclical motif but also breaks with it, as Zeb returns on a riverboat rather than by the road, setting the scene for Zeb’s shock in seeing Eve’s grave now beside Linus’s, his mother having wasted away after his father’s death. Zeb declines continuing to run the farm with his brother, and decides to remain in the army. This leads into Marshall’s contribution to the film, with “The Railway” opening with a brief depiction of the Pony Express riders degying “bandits, Indians, hell and occasional high water” and their supplanting by telegraph poles, before shifting to the race to build the transcontinental railroad. Zeb, now in the Cavalry, is the army’s official representative charged with negotiating with the Arapaho whose land the railway is being built across, and protecting the construction workers, a job that requires tricky balance. Zeb meets Stuart, his father’s old pal, who’s been hired to hunt buffalo to keep the workers fed. Both men find themselves in constant conflict with the high-powered and overbearing engineer running the construction, Mike King (Richard Widmark).
“The Railway” is in terms of story and length the scantiest of the film’s five proper chapters, and it doesn’t have the artistry of Ford’s portion. But it’s the most interesting part of the film in terms of what it tries to dramatise and say about it. George Marshall was one of the oldest of old pros still working in Hollywood: like many early Hollywood figures he lived a peripatetic life after he dropped out of college, doing everything from journalism to logging, until he stumbled into filmmaking and debuted as a director on the 1916 short Across the Rio Grande. Marshall worked with early screen heroes from Tom Mix to Laurel and Hardy, but most of his films were lost or relatively forgotten until he found a niche in comedy, reviving Marlene Dietrich’s career with the comedy-western Destry Rides Again (1939) and cleverly fusing horror and comedy with The Ghost Breakers (1940), and with films like The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Perils of Pauline (1947), Houdini (1953), and The Sheepman (1958) scattered amidst a lot more forgettable fare. It’s to Marshall’s credit that he manages to construct an ideogram of narrative, history, philosophy, character, and filmmaking bravura in his twenty-minute chapter. “The Railway” deals with the tension between the relentless progressive positivism the film otherwise espouses and the question of its cost to Native Americans and other bystanders and bit players of history. Tracy’s narration notes that the prize in the race to complete the track is free land “one day would be worth millions.”
Mike King embodies the headlong and relentless drive of the railway project in specific and the west-conquering project in total. When Stuart brings to the railhead the bodies of some men killed by Arapaho for violating their agreed territory, King furiously demotes the foreman who lets workers gawk at the sight, and sacks Stuart, who only laconically queries whether King himself is going to feed the men. When the railway has to take a new route through the tribal hunting grounds, King pressures Zeb into making a new agreement with the Arapaho for the diversion. Zeb makes the compact, only for Stuart to make him aware that he’s now personally responsible in the Arapaho logic for the keeping of the agreement, and he’ll pay the price if anyone breaks it. Hearing the train whistle Stuart mutters that it sounds “like the crack of doom for all that’s natural,” and muses on how he and Linus were constantly driven forward by the coming of civilisation: as the nation-building project reaches its climax already it’s birthing rueful nostalgia for days when everything was free and wild. Meanwhile Zeb’s clashes with King see the railroad man willing to do anything to get his job done, and obeys his bosses who, cash-strapped from the construction, want to make money by transporting buffalo hunters and immigrant settlers up the line.
This immediately infuriates the Arapaho, and Zeb finds himself abandoned by his scouts. Zeb confronts King, who retorts that the Arapaho will have to do like the incoming settlers and change their ways to make it in the new land. Zeb says he knows he’s right in the long term but that “they don’t have to be double-crossed” and vows to resign. Zeb rides out to try and appease the Arapaho but is immediately shot at, and the tribes muster together a huge herd of buffalo and stampede through the railway camp, killing a number of camp dwellers including women and children. The buffalo charge is another interlude of awesome spectacle, but more impactful is the aftermath as Zeb again confronts King, demanding of him as they listen to an orphaned baby wailing, becoming an emblem of everything injured and left bereft by the American project: “You can live with that?” “You think that’s crying?” King retorts: “That’s just new life being born.” Nonetheless the cost to the self-appointed prophet of the future is glimpsed as King climbs up onto the front of a train and his face buckles in pain, allowing himself a private squall of empathy even as the iron horse starts urging him forward again. Some of the patchiness of the film’s last third, according to Hathaway, was down to Smith, whom Hathaway felt was incompetent, and MGM boss Sol Siegel, who he said was drunk right through filming, spending so much money on the early portions they were reluctant to shoot the latter, but Hathaway argued that if they didn’t at least film “The Outlaws” they wouldn’t have a movie, as in his mind the victory of law and order enacted in the chapter was the winning of the west.
“The Outlaws” finally delivers a classic Western situation reminiscent of High Noon but with a new situational twist. The chapter begins with some more connecting vignettes depicting frontier struggles between sheep graziers and cattle farmers, with a shepherd gunned down whilst his flock is driven off. Zeb, now middle-aged, moustachioed, and weathered, is glimpsed working as a US Marshal, shooting after some hooligans careening down his main street. Zeb has become an intermediary figure, bring law and order to the far west in Arizona Territory, but also one with his readiness to use a gun and get down and dirty about to meet his own sunset. In San Francisco, the now greying and widowed Lilith is glimpsed selling off the mansion she and Cleve built and all the belongings within to pay off their debts, including the chair Lilith is sitting on. Lilith says that she and Cleve “made and spent three fortunes together…if he’d lived a little longer we would have made and spent another.” She takes comfort in her last possession, some land in Arizona, and knowing Zeb is working near it at the town of Gold City, she decides to get him to help her work it. Zeb is happy to quit being a Marshal, as he’s now a family man, and he, his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones), and his three children meet Lilith at the train. Also on the train is a much less welcome face: Zeb’s old outlaw nemesis Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach), released from prison and met in town by some of his old gang (with Harry Dean Stanton amongst their number).
Zeb, immediately suspecting Gant has both some criminal enterprise in mind and possibly revenge too considering Zeb killed his brother in a shootout, goes to warn his replacement as Marshal and former colleague Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb). Lou however doesn’t feel there’s anything to act on except for Zeb’s own apparent grudge against Gant. After Gant, in his customary manner of smiling hyperpoliteness, makes veiled threats against Zeb’s family, he becomes convinced the only way to stop him is to catch him in a crime, and deduces Gant and his gang intend to rob a gold shipment going out of town on a train. When Lou finds Zeb preparing for battle he threatens to arrest him. Whilst “The Outlaws” is chiefly a pretext for the climactic action scene, it grazes substantial territory here as Lou makes clear he’s not going to tolerate any vigilante action, echoing the theme of many a 1950s “adult” Western in contemplating the end of the Wild West’s each-man-a-paladin ethos and the oncoming age of proper law and order. Zeb however manages to persuade Lou that he means to use the law, and the two ride out on the gold train. Just as Zeb expected, Gant’s gang try to stop the train with a barricade on the tracks, but the driver speeds through it. The outlaws chase on horseback and clamber onto the train, trying to fight their way up to the engine.
Whilst it would likely have more dramatic impact if it came at the end of a more developed story, the shootout on the train is the show-stopping sequence it was plainly intended as. It also marks an interesting moment in the history of the Western film, where it intersects with nascent signs of the modern action film emerging, in turning from a genre mostly powered by literal horsepower to action staged at speed and with an emphasis on chaotic danger and large-scale destruction, which makes it the one sequence in How The West Was Won that feels forward-looking. Nods to Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) are played dead straight as cargo on the train like lumber lengths, a tractor, and a steam engine break loose and cause havoc for the men who have to dangle and dodge it, punctuated by some brilliant stunt work from dedicated performers pretending to fall dead off the top of the moving train. Lou turns the chaos to his own purpose as he shoots up ropes tying down the engine to force Gant out of cover: finally the tractor falls off with is caught by a dangling chain and dragged behind the train. Finally rear carriages detach from the forward and roll back down a gradient, and Zeb, hanging off the rear, manages to plug Gant before the train crashes off the rails and wreckage flies everywhere. Steven Spielberg would directly cite the sequence as a model for the desert chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), George Miller would evidently take much inspiration for the climactic chases of his Mad Max films, and echoes through all movies influenced by them.
The sight of an aging but still wry and lively Lilith finding a home with Zeb and his family sets the seal on the How The West Was Won’s generational story, with Hathaway sneaking in a last flourish of humour as Lilith sits down to distract Zeb’s kids by teaching them card games, before arguing with them over ownership of “A Home in the Meadow” which Zeb learned from Eve, as the family roll out towards their new home via, inevitably, the forms of Monument Valley. The film is capped off in its full-length version by an appended epilogue utilising footage shot for the Cinerama-showcasing film This Is Cinerama, surveying works of modern American industry and engineering, from Boulder Dam and Lake Mead and logging machinery at work, open-cut mines and vast wheat fields, to the freeways and skyscrapers of San Francisco, at length resolving on an incredible helicopter shot barrelling under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea. With Newman reiterating his theme but this time with soaring choral voices voicing cheesy lyrics, this all goes stratospherically over the top, whilst underlining its sense of imperial vigour in the won west with visions of capitalist-industrialist imprint on the land that’s hard to exalt quite so freely from sixty years later, and indeed within only a few short years American culture was being reshaped by those more with Jethro Stuart’s outlook. And yet the epilogue is also undeniably impressive and memorable, exalting in cinema at its largest possible scale capturing imagery redolent of a continental myth, and coherent as a conclusion to the story the film tells. And the film’s faith that it can find something gobsmacking in the real world and not a CGI program now feels, well, radical.