“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

 

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

This 1962 movie was among the last of the old-fashioned “epic” films that was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Filmed using the Cinerama widescreen process, it featured an all-star cast directed by at least three directors. 

After making the decision to use the Cinerama wide-screen process, MGM decided to produce a cinematic adaptation ofLIFE magazine’s 1959 series of articles about the history of the American West. Screenwriters James R. Webb and John Gay (uncredited) achieved this by focusing the film on two to three generations of family that migrated westward from western New York, to Southern Ohio, to California and finally to the deserts of Arizona. The story stretched out in a period of fifty (50) years from the late 1830s to the late 1880s. According to Wikipedia, the movie was set between 1839 and 1889. Yet, Webb and Gay’s script never indicated this. The movie consisted of five segments that were directed by three directors, Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall.

“The Rivers”, which was directed by Henry Hathaway, focused on the Prescott family’s journey from western New York to Southern Ohio, in an attempt to reach the Illinois country via the Erie Canal and the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins, who falls in love with eldest daughter, Eve; encounter murderous river pirates; and are caught in some dangerous rapids during their trip down the Ohio River. The last part of their journey ends in Southern Ohio, when the patriarch and matriarch of the Prescotts are drowned and Eve decides to remain there. She eventually marries Linus and her younger sister, Lilith decides to head to St. Louis.

In “The Plains”, Lilith Prescott is a dance hall entertainer in St. Louis, when she receives news of an inheritance – a California gold mine – from a former patron. In order to join a California-bound wagon train, Lilith becomes the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Agatha Clegg. She also becomes the romantic object of two men – the hard-nosed wagonmaster Roger Morgan (who has a ranch in California) and a professional gambler named Cleve Van Valen. Lilith eventually forms an attachment to Cleve. But when her inheritance turns out to be a bust upon their arrival in California, Cleve abandons her. He eventually reconciles with her on a Sacramento River steamboat and the two marry. Hathaway also directed.

John Ford directed “The Civil War”, a short segment about the experiences of Zeb Rawlins’ (Eve and Linus’ elder son) at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. Although Zeb survives, his father was killed during the battle, and his mother died before his return to the family’s Ohio farm. Zeb decides to remain in the Army after the war.

“The Railroad” was about Zeb’s experiences as an Army officer during the construction of the railroad during the late 1860s. He tries and fails to keep the peace between the construction crew led by a man named Mike King and the local Arapaho tribe. The Arapho incites a buffalo stampede through the railroad camp after King breaks another promise. And Zeb resigns from the Army. George Marshall directed.

Hathaway directed the final segment, “The Outlaws”, which featured Zeb’s last days as a law officer, as he tries to prevent a group of outlaws led by a man named Charlie Gant from stealing a shipment of gold. After he is successful, Zeb and his family join his widowed aunt Lilith on a trip to her new Arizona ranch.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won three won – Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It is also considered a favorite of director Ron Howard. I might as well be honest. I have always liked “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. If I had not, I would have never purchased the DVD set. But I cannot see how it was ever nominated for Best Picture, let alone won the Best Screenplay Oscar. It was NOT that great. To me, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was a mediocre epic that featured a small handful of excellent performances, great photography and a superb score.

The fifty year period that spanned “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” struck me as more suitable for a television miniseries, instead of a movie – even if it had a running time of 162 minutes. There was too much going on in this film and its time span of fifty years was simply too long. The 2005 miniseries, “INTO THE WEST” had a similar premise, but it had the good luck to be aired in a six-part miniseries that ran for 552 minutes. And because of the lack of balance between the story’s premise/time span and its running time, the story about the Prescott-Rawlins family seemed half-empty . . . and rushed.

The best of the five segments are the first two directed by Henry Hathaway – “The River” and “The Plains”, which featured the Prescotts treks from New York, to Ohio. Although not perfect, thanks to some plot inconsistency and historical inaccuracy. What makes these two segments superior to the other three is that are longer and if I must be frank, more substantial. I could not decide between the two segments on which was my favorite. I enjoyed viewing the family’s journey down the Ohio River and the exciting battle with the river pirates. On the other hand, both Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck’s performances made “The Plains” very enjoyable for me.

But the worst of the three segments is the third one directed by John Ford – namely “The Civil War”. I hate to say this, but John Wayne did not make an effective William T. Sherman. The recently deceased Henry Morgan did a slightly better job as Ulysses S. Grant – frankly, by saying as little as possible. As for the segment, the screenwriters and Ford did not even bother to feature any plausible battle scenes of Shiloh. Instead, the audience was subjected to a quick montage of Civil War scenes from other MGM movies – probably 1957’s “RAINTREE COUNTRY”. The only good thing about this segment was the beginning scene, when Zeb said good-bye to his mother and younger brother . . . and the last scene, when he said good-bye and handed over his share of the family farm to his brother.

I enjoyed the work of the cinematography team led by the legendary William H. Daniels very much. I noticed that a great deal of the movie was shot on location in many of the national parks in the United States. However, the Cinerama process took away some of the grandeur with the curved lens, which made it impossible for Daniels and the others to film any effective close ups. And has anyone ever notice that whenever two of the actors seemed to facing each other, their lines of sight seemed to be slightly off? It must have been hell for the actors to face off each other in a scene, while being unnaturally positioned for the camera.

There were certain aspects of “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” that made it enjoyable for me. Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, Henry Fonda, Lee J.Cobb and Eli Wallach gave the best performances, as far as I am concerned. Spencer Tracy did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. But I especially have to commend Reynolds, Baker and Peppard for damn near carrying this film. Without them, this movie would have folded like a sheet of paper. There were some performances that did not ring true to me. According to one scene that featured Linus Rawlings’ grave, Eve’s husband and Zeb’s father was born in 1810. I hate to say this, but James Stewart was too old – at the age of 53 or 54 – to be portraying a 29 year-old man. He gave an entertaining performance, but he was too damn old. Karl Malden, who portrayed Eve and Lilith’s father, struck me as a bit too hammy for my tastes. So were Robert Preston, who portrayed the gauche wagonmaster Roger Morgan; and Richard Widmark, who portrayed the railroad boss Mike King. Everyone else was . . . okay.

What was the best thing about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? The music. Period. It . . . was . . . superb. Every time I hear the first notes of Alfred Newman’s score at the beginning of the movie, I feel goosebumps. I love it that much. As much as I enjoyed John Addison’s score for “TOM JONES”, I find it mind boggling that it beat out Newman’s score for“HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I just cannot conceive this. Newman also provided 19th century music from the era for the movie and it was used beautifully . . . especially in “The Plains” segment. With Reynolds portraying a dance hall performer, she provided moviegoers with entertaining renditions of songs like “What Was Your Name in the East?”“Raise a Ruckus” and the movie’s theme song, “Home in the Meadows”.

What else can I say about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? It is an entertaining movie. I cannot deny this. It featured first rate performances by the leads Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker and George Peppard. It featured beautiful photography shot by a team of cinematographers led by William Daniels. And it featured some gorgeous music, which included a superb score written by Alfred Newman. But it is a flawed movie tainted by historical inaccuracy and a story that would have been served best in a television miniseries. I am still astounded that it managed to earn a Best Picture Academy Award.

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“KELLY’S HEROES” (1970) Review

“KELLY’S HEROES” (1970) Review

When one thinks of acclaimed movies about World War II, titles such as 1962’s ”THE LONGEST DAY” or 1998’s ”SAVING PRIVATE RYAN” come to mind. But an offbeat movie about a group of U.S. Army soldiers that go AWOL behind enemy lines to rob Nazi gold from a bank in a small French town does not conjure up images of Academy Award statuettes in one’s mind. In fact, I doubt that 1970’s ”KELLY’S HEROES” had ever received a prestigious award or nomination. 

”KELLY’S HEROES” began on a stormy night in 1944 France, in which a U.S. Army private named Kelly was ordered by his sergeant to find a German officer for information on the best taverns, restaurants, hotels and whorehouses in the nearby town of Nancy. Do you see where this is going? Instead, Kelly managed to nab a German officer who, in a state of alcoholic bleariness, revealed the location of a cache of Nazi gold being held at a bank in the German-held town of Clermont. Kelly then convinced the rest of the men in his squad and their gruff sergeant – Big Joe – to take advantage of the three-day furlough being offered to go after the gold. After all, their less than competent company commander, Captain Maitland, is rarely around to lead them and he had plans for a trip to Paris. Kelly also recruited an acid-tongued and avaricious supply sergeant named Crapgame and a proto-hippie tank commander named Oddball for support in his little caper. What followed was a hilarious, caustic and epic journey for a group of weary soldiers, determined to benefit somehow from a brutal war.

One aspect about ”KELLY’S HEROES” that struck me as . . . interesting was that the majority of the cast seemed to be between the ages of 30 and 45 during the movie’s production and looked it. Including the film’s main star, Clint Eastwood. The Army uniforms wore by most of the cast seemed historically questionable. One of the characters, namely Oddball, behaved like a slightly aged 1969/70 hippie with a questionable New York accent, instead of a 1940s Army sergeant. There are NO female characters in this movie whatsoever. The pacing threatened to bog down two-thirds into the film. And yet . . . and yet I LOVE this movie. In fact, I never get tired of watching it.

What do I love about ”KELLY’S HEROES”? Well, I could start with the screenplay, written by Troy Kennedy-Martin. It is a first-rate war story/caper that went into detail over Kelly’s discovery about the gold, his recruitment of his squad for the mission, the journey to Clermont . . . everything. Another aspect of the movie I had enjoyed was the witty dialogue. And who had received the cream of it? Who else but the King of Insults, Don Rickles. The movie also had some first-rate action that included a firefight near a field booby-trapped with mines, an attack upon a Nazi fuel depot by Oddball and his tank unit, and the final assault on Clermont that ended with a humorous and ironic twist. My favorite action sequence centered on the tank unit’s attack upon the Nazi fuel depot. There was something surreal and bizarre about Oddball’s tanks blowing nearly everyone to hell, while country-western music blasted from their speakers.

What did I love most about ”KELLY’S HEROES”? The characters, of course. Clint Eastwood portrayed the caper’s brainchild, Kelly – the former officer who was busted down to private. There was nothing particularly unique about Eastwood’s performance. Well . . . I must admit that I found his reactions to the lunatic characters around him rather funny. Especially when he interacted with the likes of Oddball. There are times – especially in this movie – when I feel that Eastwood might be one of the best reactors in Hollywood. Telly Savalas gave Eastwood a run for his money in terms of screen presence as Kelly’s sardonic, yet practical squad leader, Big Joe. After all, Kelly needed Big Joe’s cooperation to convince the rest of the squad to join him in on the caper. Whereas Eastwood reacted to the lunacy around him with facial expressions, Savalas did so with some very funny and caustic remarks.

Don Rickles. What can I say about his performance? He surely earned his moniker as the King of Insult Comedy in this movie. The man seemed to have twice the number of witticisms as the rest of the cast put together. And his performance as Crapgame, the caustic and avaricious supply sergeant was spot on. Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of the loopy tank sergeant, Oddball, is probably my favorite performance in the entire movie. On the surface, Sutherland’s Oddball seemed out of sync in a movie set during World War II. If ”KELLY’S HEROES” had been set during the Vietnam War, his Oddball would fit in beautifully. Ironically, Sutherland’s performance is one of the reasons why I love this movie. I really enjoyed watching Eastwood, Savalas, Rickles and especially Gavin McLeod (who played Oddball’s machine gunner and mechanic) reacting to his lunacy and hippie-style dialogue. A year before he had shot to fame as Archie Bunker in ”ALL IN THE FAMILY”, Carroll O’Connor appeared in this movie as the squad’s gung-ho division commander, Major General Colt. O’Connor literally infused the screen with a raw energy in his portrayal of the aggressive general with a tendency to refer to military action in football terms.

”KELLY’S HEROES” also had the good fortune to be filled with some memorable supporting characters that were portrayed by some first-rate actors. Stuart Margolin first made his presence known as Big Joe’s pragmatic and witty radio operator, Little Joe. Jeff Morris and Harry Dean Stanton provided plenty of comic relief as a pair of Southern-born soldiers that also happened to be friends. Richard Davalos (grandfather of Alexa Davalos of ”ANGEL” and ”DEFIANCE”) gave a memorable performance as the squad’s trigger happy marksman, Private Gutowski. Four years before ”CHINATOWN”, Perry Lopez was hilarious as the slightly dim-witted Private Petuko. Karl-Otto Alberty made a brief, but memorable appearance as the German tank commander in Clermont who ended up standing between our ”Heroes” and the gold inside in the bank. And Gavin McLeod turned out to be a perfect straight man to Sutherland’s loopy Oddball as the latter’s exasperated mechanic and gunner.

While perusing the Wikipedia website, I discovered that ”KELLY’S HEROES” had placed at #34 on the 100 Greatest War Movies list. Frankly, I would heartily agree. In fact, the movie appeared on my list of ten favorite World War II movies of all time. That is how much I love it.