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.

Sergeant York (1941) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“Sergeant York” stars Gary Cooper as the eponymous WWI hero.  The story relates his pre-war life and shows how he overcame a wild youth to “find religion.”  He lives in a log cabin with his mother and younger brother and sister.  Being hillbillies, the soil of his family land is very poor.  When he finds a girl, he wants to marry he sets his mind to buying some “bottom land.”  But a rival in love frustrates this ambition and it was when he was set to settle this feud with his rifle that divine intervention steps in.  Lightning knocks him off his horse and damages his rifle and Alvin ends up at the church where Pastor Rosier Pile played by Walter Brennan, welcomes Alvin back to the Lord’s flock.

But when America enters World War I Alvin York has to somehow square his biblical aversion to killing with his duties as an American citizen.  This conflict and how the reality of the modern battlefield affects him is the climax of the film.  As was stated in his Congressional Medal of Honor citation Alvin single-handedly killed 28 German soldiers with his rifle and pistol and in doing so forced the surrender of 132 Germans and 35 machine guns.  In the movie York explains to the investigators of his actions that he killed the Germans to stop the guns.  As he explains it his actions were meant to save lives.

After the war Alvin returns home and to his great surprise a grateful nation hails him as a hero with a ticker tape parade down Wall Street in New York City.  But even more importantly his home state of Tennessee presents him with a beautiful house on fertile land in his hometown.

Sergeant York was made on the eve of America’s entry into WW II.  In fact, Pearl Harbor was attacked while the movie was still in the theaters.  It is claimed that thousands of young men went directly from the movie theater to the enlistment station.  It could be defensibly claimed that it is a propaganda film for the war effort.  Nevertheless, York’s war time actions were not exaggerated in any way.  Obviously, the supernatural basis of his religious conversion is pure Hollywood but doubtless the portrayal of Alvin York as a simple backwoods man was quite accurate.  The reality of poverty in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee was real and the importance of family and religion was true.

Gary Cooper’s portrayal of York is somewhat broad and even comical at times but I find that is one of the charms of the film.  The other actors in the Tennessee scenes equally play up the hillbilly stereotypical behaviors.  But recognizing those characteristics I still recommend this movie as a fascinating personal story that shows the collision of an older world with the 20th century.  Sergeant York was an American original.

Rio Bravo (1959) – A Movie Review

“Rio Bravo” is supposed to have been made in reaction to the movie “High Noon.”  In that movie Gary Cooper is a sheriff who can’t find any townsmen to help him stand against an outlaw gang gunning for him.  Howard Hawks and John Wayne were so affronted by what they saw as the whiny, “woe is me” feel of that movie they decided to make Rio Bravo as an alternative.  Wayne would play the sheriff but with no angst.  Basically, he refuses to deputize a large number of civilians to stand down a gang of outlaws who threaten to kill the sheriff if he doesn’t release the gang leader’s brother.

Wayne is Sheriff John T. Chance.  His sometimes deputy but mostly just alcoholic friend is Dude, played by Dean Martin.  They’re joined in their desperate but light hearted stand by Stumpy, a gimpy and hot-tempered old man played by Walter Brennan and Colorado, a resourceful young cowboy with a fast gun hand and a guitar played by Ricky Nelson.  And finally, Angie Dickinson is a professional gambler who will be the love interest for Chance.  For whatever reason the only name we’re given for her is Feathers.

The setup is as follows.  While involved in an altercation with Dude in the saloon Joe Burdette (played by Claude Akins) kills a man.  Chase arrests Joe and has Stumpy keep guard over him basically for the duration of the movie.  Meanwhile an old friend of Chance’s, Pat Wheeler (played by Ward Bond) arrives in town with his crew and supplies.  When he hears what is going on with Chance, he offers his associate Colorado as a deputy to help Chance hold off the Burdette gang that numbers in the dozens.  Chance declines because he doesn’t want to involve Wheeler in the trouble.  But Wheeler is murdered that night.  After some back and forth in which members of the gang take Chance and Dude hostage more than once, Colorado comes aboard as a deputy.

As a side story Feathers arrives in town to play poker in the saloon but when a wanted poster shows up that seems to implicate her as a card cheat Chance tells her to leave town.  But Colorado defends her saying that another player in the game was cheating.  After catching the cheater with several aces up his sleeve, Feathers tells her side of the story.  The poster was about her and her late husband.  He had gotten into a crooked card game and paid for his crime with his life.  For the rest of the movie whenever Chance and Feathers are together, they maintain an odd and annoying sort of awkward bickering cum flirting.

Meanwhile the climax of the movie arrives when Dude is taken hostage by Burdette’s gang and they demand a swap of Joe for Dude.  The transfer involves the two men crossing a clearing in opposite directions.  Joe is walking away from the barn where Chance, Colorado and Stumpy are holed up and Dude is walking away from the commercial building where the whole Burdette gang is arrayed.  But when they reach each other in the middle Dude tackles Joe and forces him into some cover that is somehow much closer to Chance’s building than Burdette’s.  After subduing Joe, Chance and his deputies begin a lively gun battle with Burdette’s gang.  Eventually Chance’s side gets ahold of some dynamite and he does some fancy shooting to set off the explosives as Stumpy hurls it across the clearing toward the Burdette building.  And finally Stumpy ties several sticks together and the final explosion takes most of the building down and the surviving gang members stumble out of the wreckage and surrender.

All that remains is for Chance and Feathers to complete their awkward courtship and declare their weird and annoying love.

So, this is a strange movie.  It’s part western, part buddy movie and I guess a love story.  Mixed into this is the fact that Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson are allowed to sing a few songs.  I know I haven’t made it sound like a conventional western but the main story around the Burdettes is done extremely well, especially the action scenes.  Wayne, Martin, Brennan and Nelson make for a very interesting team.  I have seen this movie many times and still consistently enjoy this part of the plot.  Now as for the “love story” I don’t know what to say.  It’s just so out of place and unconvincing that I can’t even dislike it.  It’s just this bizarro incursion into an otherwise normal movie.  All I can do is hope that sometime in the future, technology will allow it to be excised from the movie.

I can highly recommend this to fans of westerns and John Wayne.  Even the songs were very much in the tradition of the Roy Rogers, singing cowboy style.  A good western.