How the West Was Won (1962, Henry Hathaway / John Ford / George Marshall)
One of the darkest corners of film scholarship and fandom, one of those you-just-don’t-want-to-go-there avenues, is the dreaded Aspect Ratio Conversation. Nearly everyone who gets seriously and deeply into movies goes through a spell of obsession over this issue but for a few scattered people, it grows into a fixation to the exclusion of seemingly all else that brought them to an interest in film in the first place. We needn’t name names; lurk for a few days at any of the well-traveled movie forums across the internet and you will see plenty of this. For most passionate buffs or cineastes, the problem of movies incorrectly presented — one that has unfortunately become egregious again with the rise of HDTV, only now even television programs are subject to the liberal cropping once reserved for Cinemascope films in the CRT era — is an irksome inconvenience, to be dealt with only when absolutely necessary. Frankly, it’s a dull and (in the grand scheme) trivial thing to have to worry about, and it’s depressing when it takes precedence over all other kinds of discussion about film. With that having been said, How the West Was Won is the sort of movie that’s catnip for the fringe hobbyists who will lecture you for hours on end about the differences between 2.35:1 and 2.40:1. In fact, in 2014, such people seem to be the primary and maybe the exclusive audience of the production.
The gigantic MGM project was one of the last gasps of the old epic “roadshow” cinema. Its particular gimmick is Cinerama: wider than Cinemascope, projected on a huge curved screen and theoretically bigger than life itself, first brought to prominence by the thrill-ride documentary This Is Cinerama in 1948. James R. Webb scripted the monster, sourced from a series of factual articles about American migration from the 1840s to the 1960s. Viewing the vast screen as a kind of blunt instrument, Webb dumbs down an intelligent enough premise — tracking changes, in the vein of something like Cavalcade, through the progression of one American family — into a supernaturally vapid creation that feels more like a kid’s diorama than a movie. It’s something to look at — which it required three credited directors to become — but good heavens, even Giant was more fun.
This was one of only two films produced in the three-camera, three-screen, three-projector process that were intended for a general filmgoing audience (the other, in case you’re on Jeopardy! any time soon, was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm), and it’s easy to see why. Cinerama is a good format for bravura documentaries, travelogues and (presumably) experimental films. For a narrative feature it’s mostly a hindrance, although the majesty of the American west comes through in fits and starts during what amounts to a surprisingly talky “summary” of the by-now-largely-dormant western genre. That it proved massively popular is probably a testament to how nostalgic audiences already were for the golden age. The ultra-wide, rounded screen comes in handy during a wild buffalo stampede and a riveting train-crash climax, but to get there you have to struggle through nearly three hours of celebrities mugging, trying desperately to make an impression in what seldom goes beyond five or ten minutes of screen time. Ultimately, the screen is the star here, hence all the controversy in the intervening decades when television screens all across America proved tragically incapable of translating a picture that was nearly thrice its width. Technically the aspect ratio of West is somewhere around 2.59:1. A standard Scope picture on a classic Academy ratio monitor typically gets cropped horribly, but say this much: you’re still getting a good bit more than half the original image. With this movie (and other ultra-wide productions like Ben-Hur), you’re barely seeing anything.
Letterboxing came about as a result of companies like Criterion, directors like Woody Allen (whose contract for Manhattan precluded a pan & scan transfer ever being made) and critics like Roger Ebert, but even letterboxing for Cinerama and other special processes such as Todd-AO proved endlssly controversial. In these cases, not only is the resolution for a letterboxed image on a standard television extremely low by default since most of the screen must be occupied by blank space, the fact of the matter is that things go beyond just aspect ratio here. The Cinerama screen was shaped differently than anything your TV, HD or otherwise, can reproduce. In order to avoid (as much as possible) any nutty distortion, most DVDs of How the West Was Won actually add information on all sides to sort-of flatten the rectangle out. Warner Bros. also went to especially wild lengths to try and put across the theater experience for the film by issuing a copy in a new process they labeled “SmileBox,” which is like Letterbox but curved upward on either end so that one supposedly feels one is sitting in the sweet spot in a fully equipped Cinerama room. What a massive clusterfuck! It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that one can’t really duplicate the intended experience of this film without seeing it theatrically and in a properly calibrated room, three projectors and all, but then again — can’t you sort of say the same for any movie? Why does 2001: A Space Odyssey, which relies just as much on ambiance and vastness as this, translate to tiny teevee and this does not?
Probably because it isn’t very good. The stories being told edge strongly into pure, artificial nostalgia — and not even nostalgia for the Old West as much as nostalgia for the West as seen in the movies that were made on Hollywood backlots, out on Monument Valley and in the dregs of Poverty Row from the ’10s to the mid-’50s. How the West Was Won has little value as a piece of informative entertainment; it’s mostly a hat-tip to a movie business that its producers likely knew was fading. And like so many films of this type, it can’t get enough of the Spot the Celebrity game. In essence, it’s a series of walk-on cameos; not even the likes of James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Debbie Reynolds and Henry Fonda have time to do much with their parts, the usually reliable Stewart fatally miscast as a supposed mountain man thirty-odd years his junior. The brightest spots come from two actors I typically dislike: Gregory Peck is fun as a professional scumbag, and George Peppard steals the entire film with a brief impersonation of Stewart (who protrays his father in the narrative, though they have no scenes together).
Speaking of not making much of an impression, let’s reiterate one point: there were three directors, one of whom was the illustrious John Ford. And yet the entire production feels more anonymous, muddled and impersonal than a producer-led dictatorial enterprise like Gone with the Wind or Fantasia ever did. Henry Hathaway directs the bulk of the picture, with Ford and George Marshall each taking a twenty-minute sequence. All three hated working in the Cinerama frame, and none show much of a gift for it; ironically, it wouldn’t surprise me if the striking visual moments were all second unit work. Ford’s Civil War bit is over so quickly, and Marshall’s brief interlude so incomprehensibly plotty, that one wonders why Hathaway wasn’t just permitted to work the entire picture — it certainly is his movie more than his cohorts’.
But in all three cases, the frustration with Cinerama’s three-camera 2-59-2.89 (it depends) setup and its resistance to closeups, simple character shots and even straight lines is amusingly protested by the directors by sending the actors into the center camera’s field and allowing the two side screens to go all but completely dormant. So for much of the time, you’re staring at an Academy ratio conversation or whatnot with a still frame on either side. When stuff moves more than that it’s extremely disorienting, looking at times like a Hype Williams fish-eyed music video from 1997 — even in the recent restored versions.
But say this: the movie translates better at home than, say, the Todd-AO disaster Around the World in Eighty Days, and I could be talked into believing it was a hell of a thing to see theatrically. It’s numbing enough that it took me three damn days to watch it, though. Which brings us back to the aspect ratio conversation, which has played out for this film alone in hundred-page threads across forums and on the websites of widescreen devotees all across the web for almost two decades now. Is SmileBox “correct”? What about the old laserdisc that presented the film as a regular but strange-looking 2.35? Should we just give up and wait for a now-nearly-impossible Cinerama screening? And what about the old DVD versus the new DVD versus the BluRay versus on and on and on?
A major element of aspect ratio zealots from Jeff Wells (who is a complete nutcase but at least gets paid for it) on down is a kind of ruthless, grouchy partisanship: one’s theory of how a given film is supposed to look becomes exclusionary. It feels like a way for hyper-possessive movie fans who really don’t have that much deep knowledge of the field to avoid discussing it in any scholarly or personal sense, to instead pretend to some sort of authority, because numbers. To an extent, it’s good to have stalwarts for films to be seen as their directors intended, but sticking to such a hard and fast attitude leaves no room for directors who composed for multiple ratios as well as studios and processes that allowed the same, and frequently ignores documentation giving the lie to some prejudice or assumption. And when confronted with a film like this, one that I’d have a hard time believing anyone except the producer and studio with dollars in eyelids felt passionate about, one has the forbidden thought: isn’t it a waste of time to worry about this shit so endlessly? Can we get back to talking about movies now?