How the West Was Won (1962) – A Movie Review

“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.

12 Angry Men (1957) – A Movie Review

12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama, or more accurately a jury room drama.  It almost entirely takes place in the jury deliberation room in a downtown Manhattan court building.  The star of the movie is Henry Fonda as Juror 8.  The setup (and it is a setup) has Fonda as the only juror unwilling to vote not guilty in a murder trial.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last two paragraphs to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

The eleven other jurors to a greater or lesser extent are convinced that the trial has proven the guilt of the young man accused of stabbing his father to death with a switch blade knife.  There was an eye witness to the killing and another witness heard the defendant threaten to kill his father and saw him running away from the murder scene just after the killing.  Another witness saw the defendant in possession of a switch blade knife the day of the murder.  The defendant’s alibi was that he was at a movie theater at the time of the killing but no one remembers him there and he could not remember the name of the movies playing or even the actors in the movie.  When questioned about the whereabouts of the switch blade he had been seen with, he claimed it had fallen out of his pocket without his knowing it and wasn’t the one found plunged into his father’s chest.

When the deliberations begin the foreman (played by Martin Balsam) asks them to start with a preliminary vote to see how many want to vote not guilty.  Fonda says he has doubts.  He is verbally challenged by Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb) who is portrayed as a belligerent, irascible man who is determined that the verdict be guilty.  His behavior is so extreme that you can see he is being set up as the bad guy.  And what we are shown is that the other jurors are so annoyed by Juror 3’s behavior that regardless of the logic of the case they find themselves more sympathetic to Juror 8’s arguments.

Step by step Juror 8 attacks the details of the case against the defendant.  With regard to the witness who heard the fight and saw the defendant running from the building, Juror 8 uses the fact that a nearby elevated train was passing at the time of the murder to cast doubt on what the witness could have heard.  And then based on the disabled status of this old man he contradicts the idea that he could have reached the staircase in time to see the defendant running out of the building.  Next he shows that the switchblade knife that killed the defendant’s father was of a common design easily available by producing one he bought the day before in the neighborhood where the murder took place.  With the help of Juror 9 he makes a plausible case that the eye witness to the murder might have been unable to see the murder clearly due to poor vision.  To the question of the defendant not remembering the movies he’d seen that night Juror 9 questions Juror 4 about his memory of two movies he had gone to a week before.  And although he remembered the movies’ titles, he was incorrect on one of the actresses in the second feature.

As each of these questions was raised by Juror 8 one by one the other jurors changed their votes until finally it’s only Juror 3 who claims to have no reasonable doubts and still wants to declare the defendant guilty.  At this point we witness Juror 3 rant about the character of the young defendant and we realize from his speech that he has a grudge against his own son who has turned against his father because of his brutal strictness.  And finally relenting Juror 3 declares not guilty and the jury leaves the room to announce their decision, not guilty, in the court room.

This film is a leftist propaganda film.  The intent is to try and prove that no matter how much evidence there is against a defendant in a case there can always be enough doubt generated by clever obfuscation to justify a not guilty verdict.  The characters are defined so that the audience will obviously admire Juror 8 and despise Juror 3.  The first is presented as an educated, white collar, intelligent, polished speaker and the latter is a working class, obnoxious bully who can’t help but alienate all around him.  The defendant is portrayed as non-white, poor and coming from a criminal family background.  All these things are used as points against him by Juror 3 and by others of the jury.  This ethnic and class bias is highlighted as another factor in the unfairness of the opinions of the jurors.

Obviously I’m not a fan of the message that the film is meant to make.  However, I think the film is well made.  The cast is for the most part, very good.  I’ll list the below for your perusal but I’ll say that they are all pretty with Martin Balsam and E.G. Marshall providing particularly strong supporting roles.  Fonda and Cobb have the lion’s share of the camera and even though Cobb provides the strawman for Fonda’s attack I thought they both were pretty good.

As I’ve said this is propaganda and propaganda for the Left.  But the topic of the importance of the jury in our society is something that should be thought about and dramatized.  I served on a jury that tried to ignore its duty and decide against a defendant without any actual evidence.  I was forced to hang the jury.  Seeing how Americans were willing to abandon their duty and instead declare a verdict based on personal animus was shocking and enraging for me at the time.  I think a movie about the jury process is a worthy thing to make.  I would prefer a better one but I will admit I think watching this movie is worthwhile.  Intelligent people will know they’re being patronized and judge accordingly.  But it will still be an interesting experience.  I guardedly recommend this movie on those terms.

Martin Balsam                                 …            Juror 1

John Fiedler                                        …            Juror 2

Lee J. Cobb                                         …            Juror 3

E.G. Marshall                                      …            Juror 4

Jack Klugman                                     …            Juror 5

Edward Binns                                     …            Juror 6

Jack Warden                                      …            Juror 7

Henry Fonda                                      …            Juror 8

Joseph Sweeney                              …            Juror 9

Ed Begley                                            …            Juror 10

George Voskovec                             …            Juror 11

Robert Webber                                 …            Juror 12