“How the West Was Won” is a Western extravaganza with enough Hollywood stars for five films. It consists of five vignettes that are strung together out of the fortunes of a family from the East caught up in the settling of the western frontier.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
Karl Malden is Zebulon Prescott, a farmer in New York State who becomes disgusted with his rocky unproductive land and sells it to go west with his wife Rebecca, (Agnes Moorehead) and two daughters Eve (Caroll Baker) and Lilith (Debbie Reynolds). Along the way they meet fur trapper Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart) who saves them from some nefarious river pirates led by Col. Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) but finally Zebulon and Rebecca are killed going over the rapids on their raft and Rawlings reluctantly gives up his wandering ways to marry Eve and start a farm by the river.
In the next vignette, Lilith has become a show girl and does a song and dance act in St. Louis. A messenger informs her that a former admirer has left her a gold mine in California. She joins another woman Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter) in a wagon train headed west.
When gambler/fortune hunter Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) overhears her good fortune, he follows her to California. At first reluctantly and then gratefully, after he saves her life during an Indian attack, Lilith partners with Cleve.
But when they get to California, they discover that Lilith’s gold mine is played out. Cleve leaves Lilith in the lurch to pursue his gambler’s life. She receives a proposal of marriage from wealthy rancher Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) but rejects him because she doesn’t want a conventional life as a wife and mother. But when Cleve overhears Lilith singing on a river boat, he realizes that they will both be happiest if they marry and combine their two adventurous lives together into a partnership. And they do.
In the next story the Civil War has begun. To dramatize this we even have a brief look at Raymond Massey portraying Abraham Lincoln. Eve’s son, Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) wants to follow his father into battle on the side of the Union. Eve tearfully says goodbye and Zeb is swept along by the tides of war.
During this episode he manages to save General Grant (Harry Morgan) and General Sherman (John Wayne) from a Confederate soldier who was trying to convince Zeb to desert. After the war Zeb returns home to find that both his parents are dead. He leaves the farm to his brother and heads west as a cavalry soldier.
In the next vignette Zeb is a cavalry officer tasked with helping the Union Pacific Railroad cross the Great Plains. The ruthless railroad boss Mike King (Richard Widmark) is angering the Indian tribes by laying down the track through the Indian hunting grounds. Zeb has help from buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of his father.
They convince the Indians to accept the latest route but finally when settlers start filling up the area the Indians revolt and we watch as they stampede a herd of buffalo through the railroad worksite. Disgusted with the railroad’ treachery, Zeb and Jethro leave for happier circumstances farther west.
In the last episode, we see Lilith as an old woman in San Francisco. Cleve has died and an auction is proceeding to liquidate their estate to pay off debts. All that will remain will be a ranch in Arizona that she hopes to retire to with her nephew Zeb Rawlings and his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones) and children.
Zeb was a sheriff and while meeting his aunt at the train in Arizona he catches sight of an outlaw Charlie Grant (Eli Wallach) that Zeb put in prison years ago. He figures out that Grant means to rob the train when the next gold shipment is aboard. Zeb recruits his old friend Marshal Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) to go with him to guard the train.
The train robbery scene involves Grant and eight or ten of his men boarding the train and battling Zeb and Lou as they fight them off with rifles and hand guns. In the ensuing violence the train is battered to pieces and finally derails in catastrophic fashion but Zeb puts a final bullet in Charlie Grant. Then he returns to take up a peaceful life as rancher with his family.
The movie ends with a panoramic view of California including Los Angeles freeways and the golden Gate Bridge with a stirring speech by the narrator (Spencer Tracy) about the epic adventure that was the taming of the west.
So, you get the picture. This is an extravaganza. They put every actor they had into it. I’ve even left out a few other for the sake of brevity. So, what do I think? As far as spectacle, the scene of the raft on the rapids and the buffalo stampede are exciting and in the wide screen of a theater must have been fun for the audience. Some of the landscapes are truly beautiful. The plot is very straightforward. It covers the various stages of the westward expansion of the United States with a personal story. The performances vary from competent to perfunctory. This isn’t high drama. I would restrict my recommendation to saying if you’re in the mood for an epic western movie (and you have three hours to spare) this movie would be fine.