Sunday, February 28, 2016

How the West Was Won ( 1962 ) ....and How it Didn't Win the Cinematography Oscar

There were some years in Oscar's history that were stellar. In those years no matter how good a film was, compared to all of the fine films it was competing with, it would be just on par with the average. In such years as these it is understandable when a really good film loses an Academy Award. The Quiet Man didn't win Best Picture in 1952 because it was going up against The Greatest Show on Earth. Bette Davis did not win Best Actress for what many consider her greatest role, that of Margo Channing in All About Eve in 1950. Her competition that year was Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.....but then Gloria didn't win either, because a little blonde stage actress - Judy Holliday - captivated audiences with her performance in Born Yesterday.

These are understandable losses....and another understandable loss would be Cleopatra losing the Best Cinematography Oscar in 1963 because How the West Was Won won that year. Over 50 years later, the filming of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's epic re-telling of America's migration into the West is still known for being one of the greatest achievements in cinematography. But that wasn't the case. Cleopatra took away the Oscar that year....and I, for one, think that the Academy made the wrong choice. 

How the West Was Won was filmed in Cinerama which was the greatest movie-going experience ever created. It was the "Metropolitan Opera of the movies" and only selected theaters across America had the facilities to project the triple film onto specially built curved screens.
Cinerama cameraman Peter Gibbons explained the process for an American Cinamatographer article published in Oct. 1983 : 

"The Cinerama camera was actually three cameras in one. There were three synchronized movements, three separate 1000-foot Mitchell magazines and three separate lenses. Each camera was set at a 48° angle to the next, so the center movement photographed straight ahead, the right movement captured the left portion and the left was aimed to the right.... When projected, the three images blended into one, covering an astounding 146 horizontal angle of view..... Those lenses were fantastic. We discovered that 27mm was a very close approximation of the focal length of the human eye. Each camera had three [lens], each covering one third of the field of view." 
The whole process was conceived by Fred Waller for the purpose of re-creating, in film format, a human eye's peripheral vision. It was a difficult process and no "close up" shots could be made, because, like the human eye, there will always be something in the right and left lens for the camera to pick up. Because of this, entire scenes had to be planned out for the benefit of the camera. Even the actors had to be taught to look two-thirds of the way into the camera and react to other actors, standing feet away, as though they were directly in front view. 

Cinerama made a sensation across America when the first full-feature Cinerama film was released - This is Cinerama in 1952. In spite of its popularity, only two dramatic feature films were ever shot in this very cumbersome three-camera process : The Wonderful World of Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won, both released in 1962. 
Four of Hollywood's best cinematographers handled the cameras for each of the production units of How the West Was Won ( three directors filmed the five differently themed sequences of the story ) : Milton Krasner, Charles Lang, Joseph LaShelle, and William Daniels. And what a magnificent job each one of them did. 

How the West Was Won had so many great scenes that remain memorable even after the film ends. That is one of the main reasons why it should have won over Cleopatra. If you ask someone who has seen Cleopatra, "What was the best 'shot' in the film?", they probably could not answer that, even after several viewings. 
But who can forget the opening aerial sequence of the majestic Rocky Mountains in How the West Was Won? There was the beautiful scene of the Mississippi riverboat cruising down the river in the moonlight and the sweeping panorama of the railroad when it first came into town. Then there was that magnificent shot of the horses stampeding while pulling the covered wagons : the camera started at ground level, capturing the hoofs pounding the ground, and then it moved upwards till it was level with the horses' eyes, and then it continued moving upwards until it was high above them and the audience could see all of the wagons at once rushing like mad towards the promised land. Marvelous. 

Who also can forget the scene of Zeb ( George Peppard ) heading off to the Civil war, walking down the dirt road all by himself with his pet dog wanting to follow. It was a sequence reminiscent of Alida Valli's approach in the final sequence in The Third Man ( 1949 ). 

But Cleopatra won. 

Cleopatra ( photographed by Leon Shamroy )

Cleopatra was the top grossing film of 1963, reaping in nearly $58 million at the box-office. It was highly publicized as being the greatest epic film produced to date and, indeed, it was. What stands out about the film, however, is not its cinematography ( although it was beautifully shot ) but its art direction. A film is not classified an epic for its length but for its grandeur. The costumes of Cleopatra, the acting, the music, were all magnificent; but it was the immense size and beauty of the sets that transported audiences into the era of Julius Ceasar and Ancient Egypt. For this, Cleopatra justly won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. 

The other nominees that year included : 

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World ( photographed by Ernest Laszlo )

The classic Stanley Donen all-star comedy was slated to be filmed in Cinerama. After seeing the hassles involved in setting up the scenes for Cinerama in How the West Was Won, the studios decided to use 70mm film instead, releasing the film throughout Cinerama theatres.  

Irma La Douce ( photographed by Joseph LaShelle )

Joseph LaShelle did a great job filming Irma La Douce, but compared to How The West Was Won and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, it didn't have much of a chance at winning Mr. Oscar. 

The Cardinal ( photographed by Leon Shamroy )

This film tells the story of an Irish Catholic priest ( Tom Tryon ) and the events leading to him becoming a Cardinal. It features beautiful location footage of Boston, Rome and Vienna, but, like Irma La Douce, it just couldn't compete with the three epic films that year. 

How the West Was Won was nominated for eight Academy Awards in total, winning three. There was some great competition for the Best Cinematography Oscar in 1963, but the film should have gone away with a win in that category as well. 

For those who have not seen How the West Was Won, watching screenshots of it, or small clips on Youtube, does not do this film justice. Viewing it on a large screen in Blu-ray is eye-boggling, and only then can one imagine how tremendous it was on a Cinerama screen, seen the way it was meant to be seen. How the West Was Won had to be filmed in Cinerama for that was the only way to pay proper tribute to America's great history of the West - in GRANDEUR.

This post is our contribution to the Oscars Snubs Blogathon being hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and yours truly, Silver Scenes. Be sure to check out all of the great articles defending films that should have won awards. 


  1. Just the thought of the marvel of Cinerama combined with Alfred Newman's score for "How the West Was Won" gives me chills.

    1. It does for me too. That was one powerful score..and I would love to see the film on the big screen ( even if it isn't in Cinerama format ).

    2. I have it on Blu ray & also have a immersive head mounted display. Combing this with a 2D-3D conversion..which simply mimics the Cinerama curve from the disc I get an approximation of how it looked in a Cinerama theatre. Not perfect & not rocket science either.

  2. You are so correct - seeing clips of this film can never do it justice. If ever a film was made to be seen on a BIG screen ,this was it. I'm not a big western gal, but I totally love this film and the experience of watching it in the theater. Great post!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed our article. If HTWWW ever comes back to the big screen, I'm going to rush to see it!

  3. I still can't get over it, but at least it didn't lose to The Irma La Douce... And I may have been wrong about seeing it in a theater, unless they somehow managed to re-release it for a single screen. The only movie theaters in my area were a one screen indoors and two drive-ins.

    1. No, I believe you Quiggy. I think it was re-released "flat" in the late 1960s and 1970s.

  4. The idea behind Cinerama fascinated me as a kid and I still find it interesting. I was fortunate enough to see HOW THE WEST WAS WON at a movie theatre on a return engagement in the early 1970s. Alas, it wasn't in Cinerama, but it was still visually stunning on a big screen.

    1. That must have been something extra special. The film is unforgettable on DVD so I can just imagine how splendid it is seen BIG.

  5. Oh, how I would love to see this on a big screen some day! Such an amazing film. Thanks for highlighting it so thoroughly!

  6. As stated by Debbie Reynolds in the Blu-ray

  7. As stated by Debbie Reynolds on the Blu-ray commentary, the accident involving Bob Morgan during the runaway train sequence tarnished Cinerama's reputation since the ultrawide lenses didn't allow all safety precautions to be taken. This news was apparent to the Hollywood community before Academy voting began, thus the next best photographed picture was voted to be Cleopatra.