How the West Was Won (1962) (mini-review++)

(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)

(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)

acting 7

directing 6

effects 6

editing 5

writing 5

SW SCORE: 29

3 out of 5 🐙

++

This film is a sprawling multi-generational epic about a family that starts in the eastern region of the United States and follows them across multiple generations, many decades, and finally thousands of miles until they reach the west coast.

With these kinds of movies, it’s hard to jam them into traditional three act structure. Yes, there is a MEGA-climax, but it’s one of many climaxes. Yes, there is a MEGA-protagonist, but there are multiple protagonists. In this case, the mega-protagonist is the Prescott family. The mega-climax is their arrival to THE promised land. 

Along the way, we are treated to a plethora of acting luminaries: Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, John Wayne, Carolyn Jones, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark. Just as formidable icing on this cake, Spencer Tracy served as narrator. 

The whole thing feels disjointed. Each section of the family journal feels like something that could be expanded. But at the same time, the dialogue and plots aren’t something you really want to see more of. They are generic and predictable. It feels like a waste of acting talent.

Another thing that I’ve been noticing about the 60s is that they took the “May-December” romance to a whole new level. In this case, it’s more like “April of the following year-January of the following year”. I mean, did they not have any male leads that were less than 30 years older than their love interest? I get that this wide age range dynamic, even the uber-exaggerated one im describing here, is still alive in Hollywood and the proponents of said dynamic love to produce movies that endorse it. But Jimmy Stewart looks like he is a zombie Ponce de Leon trying to suck youth from Carroll Baker.  

But what bothers me more than patriarchal fantasizing is the effective omission of the genocide of native Americans by the government and citizens of the United States. The only times indigenous people are shown on screen are as violent raiders or train robbers. I get that the 60s were not exactly a bastion of diversity. I get historical context. But maybe it’s the moment we are in.

I am writing this in August 2020 and for the first time that I can remember, Black Lives actually Matter for the majority of the country. The remaining mouth breathers will be racist till they die, but the corporations and people who can read are moving on from the Amerikkkan way. Will it last? I don’t know. But it feels different.

If it was a compelling movie, and that was the only issue, I might be more forgiving. But the very end of the movie ends on this celebratory note where the narrator applauds the brave pioneers that settled the country and created the great cities and wealth in the USA. But they never mention the wholesale slaughter and dislocation of a vibrant collection of important civilizations. 

Was there anything I liked?

(some minor spoilers follow)

It was funny to see a very young George Peppard do a John Wayne impersonation. 

I like that James Stewart was literally stabbed in the back by a female con artist. 

I like that James Stewart’s character went on a Rambo-like revenge mission. 

There were some gems of dialogue in the desert of hack:

“But I still went to see the varmint with that pirate girl. I’ll always be that pirate.”

“From the first moment I saw you, I’ve known that I couldn’t live without you.” “
“Well, I’d hate to be the cause of your death, Mr. Van Valen.”

(minor spoilers over)

That’s it. Some specks in a river of commonplace. No need to rush to watch this joint. 

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(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.

(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)

(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so

(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)

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