When they say, "They don't make 'em like that anymore," this is what they're talking about. "How the West Was Won," released in America 50 years ago this week (on February 20, 1963) was probably the most ambitious western ever made, an epic saga spanning four generations, 50 years, two-and-a-half hours, five vignettes, three directors (well, actually four), the widest possible screen, and an enormous cast of A-listers, including James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Spencer Tracy. It's hard to imagine any movie, let alone a western, being made on such a grand scale today, when it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Naturally, in a production that massive, there was a lot of chaos behind the scenes. Even fans of the movie may not be aware of the off-camera feud between Peck and his director, the technical challenges imposed by the untried widescreen format, or the freak accident that crippled a stuntman. Read on for a round-up of little-known facts behind the MGM classic.
1. The initial source of the story of "How the West Was Won," which traced one pioneer family's role in the settlement of the West throughout the 19th century, was a photo essay of the same name in Life magazine.
2. Three directors are credited for the movie's five segments -- but there was a fourth, Richard Thorpe, who went uncredited for directing the transitional historical scenes between segments. Thorpe had done similar uncredited duty for the galley-slave scenes in MGM's "Ben-Hur" four years earlier.
3. The main directors were all veteran directors of westerns. Henry Hathaway helmed three of the segments ("The Rivers," "The Plains," and "The Outlaws"). Legendary director of westerns John Ford shot the segment "The Civil War," and George Marshall (who'd directed Stewart a quarter-century earlier in the western "Destry Rides Again") directed "The Railroads."
4. This was one of the first -- and one of the last -- Hollywood drama features shot in Cinerama. The IMAX of its day, Cinerama was an ultra-widescreen format used mostly for documentaries. It required three projectors running simultaneously and a screen that curved at the sides to show the entire image.
5. The three-strip Cinerama process resulted in vertical dividing lines visible in many shots (as generations who've watched the movie on TV can attest). Sometimes the filmmakers were able to hide the lines behind trees or poles, but it wasn't until the recent restoration and Blu-ray release that the lines were erased.
6. Another Cinerama issue: actors who, due to the curvature of the screen, appeared to be making eye contact from opposite sides of the frame seemed to be staring off in odd directions when the film was projected on flat screens. That, too, had to be corrected in the recent restoration.
7. Ford and Hathaway grumbled about shooting in Cinerama, with Ford complaining about the size of the sets they had to fill the frame with and Hathaway grousing that he couldn't get closer to the actors than a waist-up shot. The actors grumbled, too. "I found it impossible to act realistically in front of the giant machine with three lenses," said Gregory Peck, according to Lynn Haney's biography, "Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life."
8. In fact, there was no love lost between Peck and Hathaway. According to Haney, Peck said that, while he found Hathaway "a charming fellow at dinner," he was a tyrant on the set. "He just yelled and screamed and foamed at the mouth and chewed cigars all day long."
9. Henry Fonda said he felt "lost in such an overwhelming epic -- it's like I wasn't there."
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