Do kids still play Cowboys and Indians today? I’m guessing that game was at it’s peak around the early sixties with the abundance of Westerns in theaters throughout the fifties. From what I remember, the game was basically the Indians making a bunch of noise and throwing pretend arrows or tomahawks at the cowboys who would eventually win by shooting the Indians with their pistols. It was assumed, unless I decided to argue some history and yell, “Custer’s Last Stand!” that the cowboys were the good guys and would always win. There are so many more interesting old west situations for kids to think up, maybe after seeing How the West Was Won kids became a little more creative with their games.
The story, narrated by Spencer Tracy, follows the Prescott family through fifty years in the old west. Around the 1830’s the family sets westward on the Erie Canal and loses the mother and father when their raft gets into rapids. From there, sisters Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lilly (Debbie Reynolds) split. Eve marries Linus (James Stewart), a mountain man who has helped the family along the river, and sets up a farm where their parents are buried. Meanwhile, Lilly continues westward, eventually landing in California to make and lose a fortune during the Gold Rush. The Civil War brings tough choices to Eve and her boys. Later, her son Zeb (George Peppard) becomes a Marshal trying to keep peace between the Indians and the men building a railroad right through their hunting grounds.
This film tries to be as big as all of the old west. There’s pioneers, mountain men, cowboys, Indians, wagon trains, the Civil War, the Gold Rush, train bandits and a buffalo stampede. Problem is it just feels like Hollywood just trying to make the biggest western ever and teach some history. I don’t think they taught it too well, but giving John Wayne the role of General William Tecumseh Sherman will keep the kids from getting bored with their learning.
You might notice that the whole film looks like a panoramic postcard that got folded into thirds. That’s because this is a Cinerama film, which was to be shown specifically at a Cinerama theater. It was where three 35mm reels simultaneously projected onto a curved screen, like a non-digital IMAX of the 50s and 60s. I’m sure it was a sight to see back then, but consequently, on all other mediums save for their specific screens there is that annoying “crease” where the separate films meet. It’s a great idea, I was rather impressed reading about this idea, but the crease does take some getting used to.
I must say that the buffalo stampede is an amazing scene. You will not believe how many buffalo are running around, I was completely gobsmacked. And the angles of this captured on film are so daring, I wondered how many of their cameras were just trampled. If epic westerns or stories of old western history don’t catch your attention, just skip straight to the stampede scene, crank up the stereo and watch it over and over. It’s by far the best part of the film.
“This land has a name today, and is marked on maps. But, the names and the marks and the maps all had to be won, won from nature and from primitive man.”