How the West was Won (1962)

When it’s on: Friday, 2 January (2.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s a neat comparison to suggest that Cinerama was the IMAX of its day. The latter, those colossal cinema experiences, are quite special in their own way, but with home cinema easily available and many big new releases available on IMAX, it can’t replicate the extent to to which Cinerama really was a big deal.

From 1949 to 1952, cinema audiences dwindled dangerously with the advent of television. As more American homes welcomed an ‘idiot’s lantern’, the number of people up for a night at the movies dropped by nearly a half, and Hollywood moguls scratched their heads over what to do about this crisis. The answer, inevitably, was spectacle. TVs invariably were 9″ screens, capable of producing black and white images, so the solution was to serve up something in theatres that the goggle box just couldn’t show you – sprawling films, featuring casts of thousands, made on a massive scale and in full, glorious colour. Little surprise, perhaps, that this was the era of the swords and sandals epic, the likes of Quo Vadis wowing the masses with expensively made feasts for the eyes. But it didn’t stop there. Ever earnest to undermine television, Hollywood came up with filming processes that widened the screen, given grandiose names like Vistavision and Cinemascope and offering more and more detail to awestruck audiences. ‘Widescreen’ was nothing new; as early as 1927, Abel Gance took advantage of a three-panel process called Polyvision to increase the scope of Napoleon and showed all those extras having at each other in contemporary military uniforms.

But even by these standards, Cinerama offered something unique. Fred Waller, who previously had attempted a logistically ludicrous process that used eleven projectors casting their images onto a dome, developed a system in which three cameras recorded simultaneously. The results would then be projected separately onto the left, central and right panels of a huge curved screen, done in such a way to produce a single, seamless image. A seven-channel sound system was an accompanying innovation, all designed to give audiences the feeling of being virtually immersed in what was being shown on the screen. Early exhibitions of the process, the wildly successful This is Cinerama (1952) was a showcase of what it could do, opening with a Roller Coaster ride that was shown from the perspective of someone sitting in the front car. The experience for viewers must have been amazing; This is Cinerama was a huge hit, more so for the limited number of screens that could support it.

Travelogues that took cameras to parts of the world previously inaccessible to the public made up much of Cinerama’s output through the rest of the 1950s, until it was decided to make dramatic films specifically for the process. The first was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. The second, and perhaps the ultimate expression of what Cinerama could create, was How the West was Won. It cost $15 million, a vast investment for the time, employed a cast of thousands to rub shoulders with some very big stars, took in the work of three prestigious directors, and created a sprawling saga that ran for more than two and a half hours.

It’s difficult watching How the West was Won on a small screen to appreciate the impact it must have made on Cinemara audiences. The film was designed for those looming curved screens, so something is inevitably lost on an ordinary television, even on a modern LED. For certain, there are better Westerns. The tight plotting of the very finest the genre has to offer goes out of the window in favour of a smash and grab from classic Western stories – castle rustling, showdowns with Native Americans, train heists, gunfights. It’s all in here, stringing together a loosely arching plot that tracks the Prescott family over half a century as they emigrate westward. The story takes in their experience as pioneering emigrants, the impact of the Civil war on their fortunes, along with that of the railroad, and the brief period of lawlessness before civilisation catches up with the mass migration of humans across the continent.

The conversion of a film intended for Cinerama onto a flat widescreen format presents further problems. At times, it’s possible to see the ‘joins’ on the screen, particularly when the shot is filled with blue skies. Added to that is the strange sense of perspective; it’s a little like watching the film on a cylinder, objects moving horizontally towards the screen from the right background before appearing to veer off towards the left rather than simply straight across it. To compensate for perspective issues, directors made actors stand in the dead centre of the screen and could never favour close-up shots. When two people converse, they were unable to look at each other in order for the illusion to work on Cinerama, yet on a ‘normal’ screen the problem returns and characters talk whilst peering off into some middle distance.

These, however, are minor issues and never really ruin the film, rather it’s possible to sit back and luxuriate in some quite gorgeous photography. One of the enormous benefits of Cinerama was its ability to show off the American landscape in beautiful, crystal clear images, and How the West was Won features the west at its most brilliant, natural and barren, indeed much of the intention was to illustrate a land untouched by the footsteps of modern man. It’s a thing of staggering visual pleasure.

The show is helped by the presence of an excellent cast of actors, a compendium of some the Western genre’s leading lights. Some, like John Wayne and Harry Morgan as jaded Generals Sherman and Grant, are little more than high profile cameo appearances. Gregory Peck is fine as a card playing rogue who also possesses a heart. There’s James Stewart, too old to be the fur tracker who captures Carroll Baker’s heart, but bringing class to the screen, and he’s involved in one of the film’s best action scenes when he helps the Prescotts beat off river pirates led by Water Brennan (and including in their ranks Lee Van Cleef). The film’s second half focuses strongly on George Peppard’s Zeb, the son of Baker and Stewart, who fights in the Civil War before helping the security of the railroad’s building and coming across Henry Fonda as a cynical and grizzled frontiersman. Zeb also has moral struggles with that classic Western anti-hero, Richard Widmark, who oversees the railtrack’s construction at any cost and whoever it affects, and later fights physically against Eli Wallach’s train robber, Charlie Gant.

There’s a lot going on, so much that the film was split into five segments, three of which were directed by Henry Hathaway, with George Marshall taking on the railroad story and John Ford covering the Civil War. All three experienced frustration with the Cinerama filming, the needs of the camera taking precedence over their normal shooting style, and they all wound up using objects like tree trunks to cover up the bits where audiences might see the ‘joins’.

How the West was Won is far from the best Western, but equally there’s nothing quite like it. Apart from the Cinerama aspects, it’s possible to see the film as marking the end of an era, a sort of compendium of the genre’s best bits from its classic era, before it moved into darker and grittier territory with the advent of the ‘Spaghetti’ films and Clint Eastwood.

How the West was Won: ****

And with that, readers, we’ve reached the end of the holiday fortnight. It’s been a blast writing these pieces, and I hope you have enjoyed reading them, perhaps one or two have even inspired you to watch a film you might otherwise have ignored. The bad news is that I can’t sustain this pace over a normal working week, however I have had too much of a good time to simply stop, and will be keeping FOTB going, probably on a reduced, two-three reviews per week basis. It’s your readership and support that has kept it going, so thanks for all the Follows, Likes and Comments, and I hope to see you throughout 2015!

Warlock (1959)

When it’s on: Monday, 16 July (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s Western released at the tail-end of the genre’s golden age, turns out to be a complicated affair. Characters are morally obscure, and with a lengthier running time than normal for the 1950s, back stories and motives are expanded upon. It also has a foot in both camps – complex plotting and characterisation versus an old-fashioned set-up and trappings of 1950s cinema, which makes it difficult to pin Warlock down. The two hours of film serves up some sag, but it’s never less than intriguing and, best of all, when the climax arrives (in Warlock’s case, the finish turns into finishes as a series of resolutions are reached) it’s never clear who will emerge standing.

Warlock refers to a small town, which plays unwilling guest to a gang of rowdies. The law quickly emerges as inadequate. Sheriffs are picked off with each visit of the villains; a wall on the gaol features a list of names, each of which has been chillingly crossed out. In desperation, the townsfolk put their money on the line and call in the services of Marshall Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a Wyatt Earp type with a history of clearing just the sort of trouble they’re experiencing. Accompanying him is Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), his constant shadow. The pair don’t come cheap, but they quickly see off the thugs, and by their deed even convince one of their number, the conflicted Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), to turn his back on lawlessness and become Warlock’s Deputy Sheriff.

All straightforward enough, but as the story progresses so the characters unravel. Blaisedell starts as the ultimate vigilante solution, quick on the draw and effortlessly authoritative. Yet his ‘super human’ status is undermined. The Marshall’s tangled relationship with his right-hand man runs deeper when we discover Morgan goaded him into killing someone years ago, earning him the endless resentment of Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), who subsequently takes up with Johnny. Even more critical is Blaisedell’s sense of hubris. There comes a point in the film where his belief in his own godly status takes hold of him, which becomes dangerous when it’s clear he needs to leave Warlock in order for it to have a chance of settling down.

It’s a brilliant performance from Fonda, some years away from Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, yet already hinting at the cold ruthlessness in those blue eyes. But if he isn’t exactly a good guy, then Quinn’s Morgan is greyer still. The devotion he displays to Blaisedell is touching enough, and has led to suggestions of a latent sexual subtext, something Dmytryk denied. I guess that angle’s there if you want it to be, but I prefer to see him as simply clinging on to the better man, perpetually ‘owing’ the Marshall for his gunfight with Miss Dollar’s lover (which happened because of Morgan’s love of Lily and his jealous obsession with seeing off her man, indeed it’s a fatal character flaw that’s seen him stick with Blaisedell). One thing Morgan most certainly happens to be is corrupt. When Johnny goes out to meet the gang on Warlock’s streets, Blaisedell should be by his side, only Morgan holds him at gunpoint, leaving him to stare at the ensuing action impotently from his window.

And then there’s Widmark, Dmytryk’s frequent collaborator and earning top billing in Warlock despite Fonda’s presence. For me, he’s quickly becoming one of the more interesting actors I’ve written about on these pages, and after being offered the part of Blaisedell initially, he’s more powerful as Gannon, seeking atonement and trying to steer his gun-happy brother away from harm. He features in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, where he visits the gang in their hideout and tells them to stay away from Warlock. It sounds like a fool’s errand, and that’s just what it becomes as he’s brutally attacked by the thugs and has his shooting hand stabbed. Only the timely intervention of Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley) spares him from further harm.

Warlock isn’t perfect. The last half hour is a series of climaxes as the various issues dominating the narrative come to a head, and each loses weight while another comes around the bend. The best turns out to be Johnny’s showdown with McQuown’s men, partly for the switching of sides by one of the gang but also because it marks Gannon’s moment of redemption. Morgan’s end feels like it goes on for a very long time, though Quinn does a good job of keeping his character’s pain hidden beneath drunken bravado.

I’ve chosen the poster used in this blog because I think it sums up Warlock nicely as a film of interlocking lives and the events leading them to this point. It’s certainly an interesting piece of work and I love its move away from characters who are either GOOD or BAD, rather real people with legacies that are part explained but mainly stay with them on the screen, motivating everything they do.

Warlock: ***

Drums along the Mohawk (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 10 July (11.25 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

1939 really was the key year in John Ford’s development as a film maker. Turning to tales of American history for inspiration, he directed films covering late nineteenth century Western pioneers (Stagecoach), the events that helped build the character of one of the USA’s greatest presidents (Young Mr Lincoln), and Drums along the Mohawk, set in the Revolutionary era. Faced with the competition, and indeed that of Gone with the Wind, which dominated historical epics released that year, it’s tempting to see Mohawk as the lesser work, a footnote in Ford’s lengthy filmography.

Certainly, there’s little of the earnest melodrama present in Victor Fleming’s lengthy Oscar vacuum. Drums along the Mohawk is less than half the length of Gone with the Wind and presents its main characters essentially as stoical pioneers with a collective ‘make do and mend’ approach in the face of considerable perils. The impression should be obvious enough – the Mohawk Valley settlers represent the American spirit at its steadfast, dependable and redoubtable best. When any of the settlers’ homesteads is ransacked and razed by Indian raiding parties, they simply move on to the next free plot and start all over again. At the film’s close, Henry Fonda turns to Claudette Colbert and tells her they’d ‘better be getting back to work, there’ll be a heap to do from now on’, which comes after a stirring, flag-raising sequence and sums up the idealised American mentality at its finest, indeed Fonda and Colbert’s characters are really nothing less than Mr and Mrs USA. He’s reliable and firmly believes in doing the right thing. She shows a fierce determination to rough it in the cause of standing by her man.

That these sentiments don’t melt the film into hopeless sap is a mark of Ford’s greatness as a storyteller. There’s a considerable effort to show the progress of Fonda and Colbert’s newlywedded settlers as something that happens organically rather than according to narrative conventions. Especially touching is their arrival at the log cabin he’s built, the first time Colbert’s seen it. It’s pouring down and the humble little house looks a world away from the fine living she’s enjoyed in Albany to that point. The arrival of Christian Native American, Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree) to welcome them is the final straw. Colbert gets uncontrollably hysterical and Fonda has to slap her in order to shock her into calming down. Blue Back promptly returns with a switch so that Fonda can maintain household discipline, but it’s clear he’ll never need to use it. Their love is too strong. Her despair is fleeting. Despite its lowliness, the cabin becomes an earthly paradise for the young couple, who are soon seen happily farming and planning their future together.

The film never quite manages to convey the loneliness and sense of great distance that tortured real life settlers, instead portraying the loosely dotted community as happy and there for each other, gathering at the fort for square dances, assemblies of the local militia and forging friendships. Prominent amongst them are Ward Bond’s eternally cheerful Adam Hartman, and Edna May Oliver as widowed landowner, Mrs McKlennar, who lets the young couple move in with her and help out when their home is torched. Oliver’s salty attitude steals the show. When it’s her turn to suffer an Indian raid, she forces her invaders to help her move the bed out of the room they’ve recently put to the torch.

Given the political realities of 1939, Drums along the Mohawk is careful not to cite the British as outright villains, instead labelling the American Tories with the ‘bad guys’ motif. This has some basis in the actual history of the Mohawk Valley. It was invaded by Colonel St Leger as a diversion to the main attack on Albany, much of the fighting carried out by Indians in the pay of Tory, Guy Johnson. In the film, Johnson becomes Caldwell, an eyepatch-wearing wrong ‘un played by John Carradine, who co-ordinates the attack on the fort, which during the exciting climax is defended by the local militia.

This follows the militia’s mobilisation and departure to aid the Revolution’s war effort. Ford’s focus remains on the women, the agonies they experience in waiting for their men’s return and inability to get any news in advance. When they eventually make it back, ragged and riddled with injuries, the reunification of Colbert with Fonda is an incredibly touching moment, due in no small part to the care in which Ford has shown their growing love and the pair’s on-screen chemistry. Rather than lavish money on filming an actual battle, Ford has Fonda relate his personal experiences to Colbert, which he does in gory, minute detail. Famously, the scene was filmed by the director asking Fonda questions and getting him to improvise his answers while remaining in character.

Fonda also carries off one of the film’s most blazing scenes, when he leaves the besieged fort to seek reinforcements. Pursued on foot by Indians, the chase lasts an entire day, Ford getting in some brilliant shots of the runners silhouetted against vast, dramatic skies. This was the director’s first colour film, and he took advantage by creating a gorgeous palette, never better looking than in the lengthy chase.

Drums along the Mohawk is simply a wonderful slice of entertainment. Both the director and his main star did more celebrated work together and Gone with the Wind took the plaudits for historical drama shot in colour, but the effort here to create a seldom seen part of American history on screen is beautifully put together, rarely gets overwhelmed with mawkishness and gives its female characters something to do beyond waiting for rescue. Colbert’s character grows visibly; as the Indians invade the fort and break into the room where the women hide, she waits for them with a loaded musket. Her development from the spoiled girl who cries at the sight of a Native American could hardly be expressed more clearly.

Drums along the Mohawk: ****