Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

How the West Was Won


Before there was IMAX, there was Cinerama. In some ways it was even better than IMAX. It was shot with three cameras, and projected onto a special curved screen only in dedicated Cinerama theaters. The screen took up 146 degrees, which meant that if you sat in the center of the theater, it totally filled your field of vision. There was a seven-channel sound system, this before other theaters had even two channels. The biggest drawback was that it was impossible to seamlessly marry the three images, so that join lines were sometimes visible. The directors were clever, though, arranging the scenes so there were trees or poles or the corners of buildings masking them whenever possible. The massive cameras and considerations of focal lengths and such also made it cumbersome and difficult to shoot. Sets had to be dressed from one side to the other, and often technical people strayed into the shot. Close-ups were well nigh impossible, as were pans and other effects. But who cared? No one had ever seen anything like this before. It was total immersion in the movie experience, and way ahead of its time. Audiences flocked to see This is Cinerama in 1952, a compilation of things like roller coaster rides and aerial photography that could induce motion sickness.

There were six of these demonstration films made before they got around to an actual story film, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. HTWWW was the second one, and sadly, the last to use the three-camera system. With the release of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, they moved to a one-camera format, and though it was still on the wide, wide, wide, wide screen, I don’t think it could really compare to the original.

So one day in 1963 my good friends Calvin Stanley, Phil Richey, and myself piled into Dad’s 1960 Pontiac V8 and blazed down the I-10 to Houston, ninety miles away. After establishing that the car really could reach 120 mph (I was a maniac driver in those days, but I never got a ticket), we settled down to a more sedate 85 or so, and got there in about an hour. (Calvin, Phil, and myself were ¾ of the French horn section of the Nederland High School Bulldog Band, the Golden Pride of the Golden Triangle.)

The Houston Cinerama theater had opened a few months before at the Windsor Plaza, and of course they didn’t have a lot of choice in what they could show. Cinerama was an event. There were reserved seats, there were printed programs, and my memory is that the tickets cost about $5. This, at a time when regular adult admission was between ninety cents and a buck and a quarter. We settled down in the velvet rocking seats (!!!) and the curtain opened and the Overture began. It was really nice, the screen was wide, the sound was great. The Overture drew to a close … and the curtain opened more, and more, and more. We had thought we were seeing it all, but it was only about a third of what was to come. And suddenly the sound began to thunder around us. From each side of the screen, from the center, from the sides of the theater, from the back of the theater! Da da da dat da-DUM! Alfred Newman’s (Randy’s uncle) Oscar-nominated film score. And then … French horns! The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and my arms. It still remains one of my favorite scores of all time.

And then the movie. Stunning vistas. Crazy action. Five segments filmed by three directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall. The Rivers, the Plains, the Civil War, the Railroads, the Outlaws. Starring … well, everybody, it seemed like. It followed the Prescott family and its descendants through the history of the opening of the West. Only Debbie Reynolds was in them all, going from a young woman in 1839 New York and Ohio, to elderly in 1889 California and Arizona.

But, though I was (and still am, viewing it all these years later) caught up in their stories, it all really only exists to give a framework for four of the most spectacular sequences ever filmed. You think you’ve seen it all when the settlers’ log raft drifts into the rapids and is chewed to pieces, but it turns out that’s only the beginning. On the wagon trail to the California gold fields there is a thrilling chase, pursued by Cheyenne.

Then the really big ones. The Arapaho, legitimately pissed off that the railroad broke its promise not to bring in settlers and most of all, buffalo hunters, get some of their own back, not by starting a battle, but by stampeding a huge herd of buffalo through the railroad camp. This is a scene that could, of course, be easily filmed today using CGI. But these were real buffalo, a seething sea of shaggy fur and stony hooves thundering over everything. Nothing can stand against them. The cameras were right in the middle of it all, and I had never seen anything remotely like it.

And now, the real showstopper. It is the most insanely complicated train robbery, gunfight, and train crash I have ever seen. Usual disclaimer: these days it’s easy to make a sequence this spectacular. But this was all real, except, of course, for some rear projection. The stunt men really earned their pay on this shoot. And one, in fact was very badly injured.

Bottom line, even all these years later this movie stands up as one of the most exciting ever made. I’d pay a lot more than $5 to see it again in a three-projector theater, of which there are only three in the world, in Seattle, in Bradford, England, and the Cinerama Dome at the corner of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Maybe one day.

BTW: The version I have is a 3-DVD set. The movie itself has been “cleaned up” by computer to remove the join lines. And, I think, to eliminate some of the distortion that happens when something moves from center screen to one of the sides. I sort of wish they hadn’t done that. I’d prefer the old version. But the third disc contains a full-length documentary called Cinerama Adventure that told me far more about the history and the people involved than I intend to discuss here. Lots of interviews, lots of footage from the travel pictures that preceded HTWWW, lots of surprising history. If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.