Warner Home Video has released How the West Was Won as an ultimate edition 3 DVD set. It's an outstanding achievement in every way. The initial DVD release in 1998 looks inferior in every way, given the new technology that has been employed this time around. The film has always represented a challenge in terms of viewing on the small screen. TV broadcasts over the decades have presented the film, which was shot in the famed three panel Cinerama process, in a pan-and-scan format that left little of the movie's grandeur in place. The latest edition uses technology that manages to eliminate most evidence of the screen seams on the right and left side of the picture (though a separate Blu-ray DVD release gives viewers the option of recreating this true Cinerama experience, including watching it in a curved Smilebox format designed to recreate a Cinerama theater screen.) The remastered picture makes the film look as wonderous as one can imagine, though no small screen format can ever do it true justice. In the early days of Cinerama, the films were relegated to spectacular travelogues. MGM later produced two narrative films in Cinerama format: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won. Though both were extremely popular (HTWWW was the top-grossing film of 1962), the three projector format was clunky and complicated both for movie directors and for theaters, which had to make expensive enhancements to allocate the three projector format. Beginning with It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, three panel Cinerama was replaced by a single lens format that many purists feel is a bastardization of the true process. All of this is explained in a bonus feature on the making of the film by Cinerama historian David Strohmaier. The documentary is as valuable as the main feature, as Strohmaier includes interviews with cast members Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Russ Tamblyn and others who worked behind the scenes on the spectacular production. He also includes a full history of Cinerama and provides extremely rare footage of premieres and audio snippets from the format's creators. However, if you have the 1998 edition, don't discard it as it includes a documentary on the making of the film that is inexplicably missing from this version.
As a film, HTWWW holds up magnificently, even if it does provide a simplified look at American history. (One would assume the West was won entirely by good looking white people). Still, the script does an excellent job of interweaving the broad range of characters into a logical storyline and the action sequences are among the most impressive ever filmed. They include an Indian attack on a wagon train, a deadly ride on a raft through rapids, an actual buffalo stampede and a suspenseful shootout aboard a speeding locomotive. If ever a film provided jaw-dropping scenes, this is it. There is also the pleasure of relishing another Hollywood tradition that is now gone: the true all-star production. Stars such as Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and John Wayne all performed in the film for paltry salaries. They simply wanted the honor of appearing in a pro-American movie. Try selling that concept in Hollywood today.The movie has three directors: George Marshall, Henry Hathaway and John Ford. The latter disdained working in the Cinerama process and almost in defiance, made his segment on the Civil War the most personal and intimate of the storylines. Mention should be made of two other major contributors: Spencer Tracy, who provides the narration for the emotionally moving end sequence, and composer Alfred Newman who created what is arguably the greatest score written for a motion picture.
The Ulimate Edition boxed set is packed with exciting extras including mini reproductions of the film's original souvenir program and pressbook, a selection of interesting behind the scenes production photos and very collectible mini lobby cards created for this set. Consumers can also send in for an exact reproduction of the original one sheet theater poster. The DVD also features audio commentaries by David Strohmaier, film historian Rudy Behlmer, music historian Jon Burlingame, Director of Cinerama Inc John Sittig and stuntman Loren James. There is also an original theatrical trailer. My only gripe is that WB continues to make these classic titles available in a confusing manner: this Ultimate Edition has many aspects that don't appear in the Blu-ray edition, while the Blu-ray has a hardcover book about the film that isn't available here. The 2 DVD Blu-ray set also boasts the Smilebox true Cinerama aspect that isn't available here. Adding to the confusion, there is also a standard 2 DVD "no frills" edition. Why not standardize these formats instead of causing resentment among collectors about which version to buy? Although this is the "ultimate edition" compared to those that preceded it, there is still room to enhance future releases of How the West Was Won with some bonus items not available this time around. Among them: a CD of the soundtrack and reprints of the comic book and paperback novel tie-ins. Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles. This is a superb tribute to a superb film and belongs in every classic movie lover's library. - Lee Pfeiffer