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Film / How the West Was Won

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"Stride by stride—they tamed the savage prairie land
Nothing stopped them—no wind nor rain nor sun!
Side by side—these pioneers from every land:
All pulled together—That's how...the West was won!!!"

How the West Was Won is a 1962 epic Western film by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The last major feature filmed in the classic three-strip Cinerama widescreen format, it tells the story of the westward-bound Prescott family through four generations and many events in American history. Famously, the cast boasts more than twenty big-name stars of the era, including Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Eli Wallach. In fact, there were probably more big-name stars with major roles in this film than any other in the history of Hollywood. The film also had three directors, although one of them, Henry Hathaway, helmed three of the five stories; the other two were John Ford and George Marshall. The epic music score, by Alfred Newman, is also pretty famous.

There was a television show loosely based on the movie in the late '70s. Moderately successful in America, but a huge hit in Europe, where it's still well-known.

This film contains examples of:

  • Animal Stampede: After learning of King's plans, Zeb has the Arapahos stampede a group of buffaloes to destroy the railway camp.
  • Bandit Clan: "The Rivers" segment features Walter Brennan as "Alabama Colonel" Hawkins, the leader of a clan of river bandits who prey on unsuspecting settlers moving westward into the Illinois Country.
  • Bayonet Ya: After realizing that the Confederate deserter is going to kill Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Zeb uses his musket's bayonet to stab the deserter in the gut.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Linus Rawlings arrives just in time to save the Prescotts from the river pirates.
  • Big Eater: Linus Rawlings enjoys dinner with the Prescotts.
    Linus Rawlings: Thank ya, ma'am. That's right tasty.
    Rebecca Prescott: You've only ate four plates, I was beginning to think you didn't like it.
    Linus Rawlings: No, well, it don't pay to eat too much on an empty stomach, ma'am.
  • Cassandra Truth: Ultimately subverted concerning Gant; town marshal Lou Ramsey initially doesn't believe Zeb when he claims that Gant is trying to cause trouble but later agrees to help his attempt to ambush Gant during a planned train robbery.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: A comic book version was published in conjunction with the film's release, as was the practice back then with all family and children's films. In the comic book, when Sheriff Ramsay tries to prevent Zeb Rawlings from going after Gant, Rawlings whacks Ramsay over the head with his rifle and knocks him unconscious, which explains the bandage on Ramsay's forehead in the next scene. No such explanation is offered in the film; it is as if somebody had edited something out.
  • Dark Is Evil: Charlie Gant wears mostly black.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The Sheriff played by Lee J. Cobb also wears dark colours.
  • Dawn of the Wild West: The first part of the movie involves the migration of the Prescott family through the wilderness of Illinois country during the 1830s.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Zeb's children in "The Outlaws" (Prescott, Eve and Linus) are named after their deceased ancestors.
  • Death by Despair: Eve, after her husband is killed in the Civil War.
  • Defector from Decadence: As a result of his involvement in the Arapahos' destruction of King's camp, Zeb resigns from the U.S. Cavalry.
  • Designated Girl Fight: Lilith takes on the only female in the pack of river pirates when they fight.
  • Determined Homesteader: The Prescott family.
  • Disappeared Dad / Missing Mom: Lilith and Eve's parents, as well as one of their brothers, is killed in the first act.
  • Due to the Dead: Being a pious man, Zebulon believes that everyone deserves some sort of funeral and a spot in Heaven, no matter what they did in life, so after he and his party (including Linus) defeat the Indian rustlers that tried to ambush them, they burn the casualties in a funeral pyre made from the rustlers' portable trading post and, at the end of a brief prayer led by Zebulon, intercede for the rustlers. Later, after he himself dies trying and failing to save his wife during a deadly trip along the rapids, their remains, upon recovery, are buried under a nearby tree.
  • End of an Age: In the last segment, there's a running theme that the days of hot-shot gunslingers and train-robbing outlaws are almost at an end, with all the most famous examples of each having died already. The big showdown between Marshal Zeb Rawlings and outlaw Charlie Grant is portrayed as one of the last of its kind as the West loses its wildness.
  • Epic Movie: With an epic scope that spans decades of American history, an all-star cast, gigantic (for the time) action scenes involving hundreds of extras, and even real animals, the film lives up to the idea of an epic movie.
  • Fake Shemp: For unknown reasons, John Ford refused to let James Stewart play his character's dead body. Rather than use a dummy, he used a double who looked nothing like Stewart.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Gant. Being played by the very likable Eli Wallach helps.
  • Fish-Eye Lens: The entirety of the film was shot through two paired fisheye lenses, a purposeful choice by John Ford to show the open, sweeping landscape of the West. It works beautifully for its intended purpose, but when used for close-ups inside buildings... not so much.
  • Generational Saga: The film follows the Prescott family and the next three generations of their descendants from 1839 to 1889 as they move increasingly further west to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Grave-Marking Scene: Eve talks to her parents' graves as Zeb goes off to war.
    What could I do, Pa? He's Linus' boy. Always was more Linus' blood. I guess that's why I love him so much. But you've got to help me pray, Pa. Help me pray.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: The trope name is used as a Precision F-Strike in the title song.
  • Heroic BSoD: All Julie can do is watch in sadness as Zeb leaves home so he can thwart Gant's train robbery.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Averted with one of the Prescott boys dying as a child. Played straight with Zeb's children, who are kept safely out of the way with their mother and great aunt while Zeb deals with Gant.
  • In the Back: Linus kills one of the river pirates by throwing an axe at his back.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: The film begins in the early 1800s with a group of settlers from the east encountering the hazards of the wilderness, both natural and human, and traces their families through to the later part of the century.
  • Large Ham: The performances in this movie (most noticeably from Gregory Peck) tend to be "bigger" and broader than what one generally expect from the genre. This is because the Cinerama photography made close-ups impossible, so the actors felt they had to "play up" their roles and emotions in order to make up for it.
    • Charlie Gant easily out-hams everyone else in the entire movie, with the possible exception of Zebulon Prescott.
  • Love at First Sight: During Lilith's showgirl years, Cleve becomes immediately smitten with her. Towards the end of "The Plains", he invokes the trope to the letter shortly before he proposes.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Lilith in her showgirl years.
  • Narrator: Spencer Tracy narrates the film.
  • Out-Gambitted: Gant didn't know Zeb's friend would agree to help ambush his gang during the attempted train robbery.
  • Pony Express Rider: Referred to:
    Even while North and South were being torn apart, East and West had been drawn together by the Pony Express, the most daring mail route in history. Eighty riders were in the saddle at all times, night and day, in all weather. Half of them riding east, half riding west between Missouri and Sacramento, carrying mail cross-country. Unarmed, they rode to save weight. Five dollars a letter, the mail cost, and on thin paper, too. It was courage, skill and speed against hostile Indians, bandits, hell and occasional high water. Even as they rode, men were already building a faster message carrier across the country, the Overland Telegraph.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the title song, yet!
  • Professional Gambler: Cleve Van Valen, who joins a wagon train to avoid paying his debts. The fact that Eve has inherited a gold mine also contributes.
  • Punch-Clock Hero: The only reason Zeb joins the U.S. Army during the American Civil War over Eve's objections is that he wants to seek out glory and escape from his mundane farming life.
  • Scenery Porn: Big, sweeping, gorgeous landscapes.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: At the end of "The Railroad", Zeb decides to leave the U.S. Cavalry for good after the Arapahos use the buffaloes to destroy Mike King's camp.
  • The Smurfette Principle: There's only one woman in the gang of river pirates.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: The settlers (including mountain man Linus Rawlings) triumph over a gang of Indian rustlers that nearly robbed them, or worse than merely robbed them. As the survivors burn the casualties in a massive funeral pyre, Zebulon and his party offer this humble prayer to the Most High:
    Zebulon Prescott: And now, let us pray: O Lord, we thank Thee for our salvation. We commit the souls of our dead to Thy gentle keepin'. We pray for the speedy recovery of our wounded. And now, another matter: O Lord, without consulting with Thee we have sent Thy way some souls whose evil ways passeth all understanding. We ask Thee humbly to receive them... whether You want 'em or not. Amen.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Mr. Morgan. Cleve to an extent, both for Lilith.
  • Stock Footage: The film utilised footage from other epics, none of which were in Cinerama. It took the Mexican army marching past the Alamo from The Alamo (1960), a Civil War battle and shots of a riverboat from Raintree County and (then) present-day America from This is Cinerama.
  • Title Drop
  • To the Tune of...: The English folk song "Greensleeves" is rewritten as "A Home in the Meadow", which recurs throughout the film as a song sung by Lilith.
  • War Is Hell: By the time of the Battle of Shiloh, Zeb finds out the hard way that the American Civil War isn't what it seems to be.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Zeb to the Confederate "deserter" he had befriended before being forced to kill him to protect Generals Grant and Sherman.
    Zeb Rawlings: Why did you make me do that?
  • While You Were in Diapers: The film ends with Zeb and his family riding off and Lilith starts singing "A Home in the Meadow":
    Prescott Rawlings: Aunt Lilith, do you know that song? That's our song!
    Lilith: Your song? I sang that song long before your pa was ever born.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Gant threatens to kill Zeb's children.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: Zeb says goodbye to his mother before heading off to war.
    Zeb: Mother, I...
    Eve: Why'd you call me that? It's always been Ma before.
    Zeb: I don't know. All of a sudden... Ma didn't seem enough somehow.