Civil War Wiki
How the West Was Won
original film poster by Reynold Brown
Directed by John Ford
Henry Hathaway
George Marshall
Richard Thorpe (uncredited)
Produced by Bernard Smith
Written by James R. Webb
Narrated by Spencer Tracy
Starring Carroll Baker
Gregory Peck
George Peppard
Debbie Reynolds
James Stewart
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Milton Krasner
Charles Lang, Jr.
Joseph LaShelle
Editing by Harold F. Kress
Distributed by MGM / Cinerama
Release date(s) November 1, 1962 (UK)
February 20, 1963 (USA)
Running time 162 min.
Language English
Budget estimated $15,000,000[1]

How the West Was Won is a 1962 epic Western film which follows four generations of a family (starting as the Prescotts) as they move ever westward, from western New York state to the Pacific Ocean. Filmed in, and using pre-existing Cinerama curving widescreen process stock footage, the movie is set between 1839 and 1889.

The fundamental idea behind the film was to provide an episodic retelling of the progress of westward migration and development of America, was inspired by a much longer and more complex series of historical narratives that appeared as a photo essay series (by the same name), three years earlier in Life Magazine, which is acknowledged in the film’s credits.

The all-star cast includes Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. The introductory, intermediate, and closing narration is voiced by Spencer Tracy.

The movie consists of five segments, three directed by Henry Hathaway ("The Rivers", "The Plains" and "The Outlaws"), and one each by John Ford ("The Civil War") and George Marshall ("The Railroad"), with transitional sequences by the uncredited Richard Thorpe. The screenplay was written by John Gay (uncredited) and James R. Webb. Popular western author Louis L'Amour wrote a novelization of the screenplay.[2]

The picture was one of the last "old-fashioned" epic films made by MGM to enjoy great success. In 1997, How the West Was Won was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The film also marked then sixty-six year old Raymond Massey's last appearance as Abraham Lincoln, a role that he had previously played on stage (Abe Lincoln in Illinois and the stage adaptation of John Brown's Body), on screen (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and on television (The Day Lincoln Was Shot, and two more productions of Abe Lincoln in Illinois).

The score was listed at #25 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.

Plot summary[]

The rivers (1830s)[]

File:Westwon trailer rivers.png

The settlers' raft is caught in rapids.

As the story opens an otherwise happy family led by Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) is introduced as having abandoned a comfortable life in the rural, small town, setting of upstate New York; for the alleged greater opportunity awaiting all, in the as yet unsettled west; via the Erie Canal. The “west” of this time is the Illinois country. In the unnaturally peaceful and safe opening of the Prescott's long journey they come to meet a Mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) who is traveling east to Pittsburgh to trade his furs. His daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) and Linus are attracted to each other, but he isn't ready to settle down.

Linus stops at an isolated trading post run by a murderous clan of "river pirates" headed by "Colonel" Hawkins (Walter Brennan). Linus is betrayed when he accompanies pretty Dora Hawkins (Brigid Bazlen) into a cave to see a "varmint". She stabs him in the back and pushes him into a deep hole. Fortunately, Linus is not seriously wounded, and is able to rescue the Prescott party from a similar fate. The bushwhacking thieves (Lee Van Cleef plays one), including Dora, are dispatched with rough frontier justice.

The settlers continue down the river, but their raft is caught in rapids and Zebulon and his wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) drown. Linus, finding that he cannot live without Eve, reappears and marries her, even though she insists on homesteading at the spot where her parents died.

The plains (1850s)[]

File:Westwon trailer plains.png

The wagon train is attacked by Cheyenne Indians.

Eve's sister Lily (Debbie Reynolds) chooses to go to St. Louis, where she finds work performing in a dance hall. She attracts the attention of professional gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). After overhearing that she has just inherited a California gold mine, and to avoid paying his debts to another gambler (John Larch), Cleve joins the wagon train taking her there. He and wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) court her along the way, but she turns them both down, much to the dismay of her new friend and fellow traveler Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter), who is searching for a husband.

Surviving an attack by Cheyenne Indians, Lily and Cleve arrive at the mine, only to find that it is now worthless. Cleve leaves. Lily returns to work in a dance hall in a literal "Camp Town," living out of a covered wagon. Morgan finds her and again proposes marriage in a rather unromantic way. She tells him, "No, not ever."

Later, Lily is singing in the music salon of a riverboat. By chance, Cleve is a passenger. When he hears Lily's voice, he leaves the poker table (and a winning hand) to propose to her, telling her of the opportunities waiting in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. She accepts.

The Civil War (1861-1865)[]

File:Westwon trailer civilwar.png

American Civil War.

Linus joins the Union army as a captain in the American Civil War. Despite Eve's wishes, their son Zeb (George Peppard) eagerly enlists as well, looking for glory and an escape from farming. Corporal Peterson (Andy Devine) assures them the conflict won't last very long. The bloody Battle of Shiloh shows Zeb that war is nothing like he imagined and, unknown to him, his father Linus dies there. He encounters a similarly disillusioned Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who suggests deserting, to which Zeb agrees.

However, by chance, they overhear a private conversation between Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) and William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne). The rebel realizes he has the opportunity to rid the South of two of its greatest enemies and tries to shoot them, leaving Zeb no choice but to kill him. Afterwards, Zeb rejoins the army.

When the war finally ends, he returns home, only to find his mother has died. She had lost the will to live after learning that Linus had been killed. Zeb gives his share of the family farm to his brother, who is more tied to the land, and leaves in search of a more interesting life.

The railroad (1860s)[]

File:Westwon trailer railroad.png

The construction of railroad.

Following the daring riders from the Pony Express and the construction of the transcontinental telegraph line in the early 1860s, two ferociously competing railroad lines, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, one building west and the other east, open up new territory to eager settlers.

Zeb becomes a lieutenant in the U.S. cavalry, trying to maintain peace with the Indians with the help of grizzled buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of Linus. When ruthless railroad man Mike King (Richard Widmark) violates a treaty by building on Indian territory, the Arapaho Indians retaliate by stampeding buffalo through his camp, killing many, including women and children. Disgusted, Zeb resigns and heads to Arizona.

The outlaws (1880s)[]

File:Westwon trailer outlaws.png

The desperadoes who want to rob the train.

In San Francisco, widowed Lily auctions off her possessions (she and Cleve had made and spent several fortunes) to pay her debts. She travels to Arizona, inviting Zeb and his family to oversee her remaining asset, a ranch.

Zeb (now a marshal), his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones) and their children meet Lily at Gold City's train station. However, Zeb also runs into an old enemy there, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). When Gant makes veiled threats against his family, Zeb turns to his friend and Gold City's marshal, Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb), but Gant is not wanted for anything in that territory, so there is little Ramsey can do.

Zeb decides he has to act rather than wait for Gant to make good his threat to show up someday. Suspecting Gant of planning to rob an unusually large gold shipment being transported by train, he prepares an ambush with Ramsey's reluctant help. Gant and his gang (one member played by Harry Dean Stanton) are killed in a shootout. In the end, Lily and the Rawlings travel to their new home.

A short epilogue shows Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1960s, including the famous four-level downtown freeway interchange and Golden Gate Bridge, indicating the growth of the West in 80 years.


Actor Character
Carroll Baker Eve Prescott Rawlings
Lee J. Cobb Marshal Lou Ramsey
Henry Fonda Jethro Stuart
Carolyn Jones Julie Rawlings
Karl Malden Zebulon Prescott
Harry Morgan Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
Gregory Peck Cleve Van Valen
George Peppard Zeb Rawlings
Robert Preston Roger Morgan
Debbie Reynolds Lilith 'Lily' Prescott
James Stewart Linus Rawlings
Eli Wallach Charlie Gant
John Wayne Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
Richard Widmark Mike King
Brigid Bazlen Dora Hawkins
Walter Brennan Col. Jeb Hawkins
David Brian Lilith's attorney
Andy Devine Corporal Peterson
Raymond Massey President Abraham Lincoln (cameo appearance with no dialogue)
Agnes Moorehead Rebecca Prescott
Thelma Ritter Agatha Clegg
Mickey Shaughnessy Deputy Stover
Russ Tamblyn Confederate deserter
Spencer Tracy Narrator

Lee Van Cleef and Harry Dean Stanton play very brief, uncredited roles.

Academy Awards and nominations[]

The movie won three Academy Awards for:[3]

  • Best Writing, Story and Screenplay — Written Directly for the Screen (James R. Webb)
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Sound

It was also nominated for:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Art Direction — Set Decoration, Color (George Davis, William Ferrari, Addison Hehr, Henry Grace, Don Greenwood, Jr., Jack Mills)
  • Best Cinematography, Color
  • Best Costume Design, Color
  • Best Music, Score — Substantially Original (Alfred Newman and Ken Darby)


How the West Was Won is one of only two dramatic feature films (the other being The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) made using the three-strip Cinerama process. Although the picture quality when projected onto curved screens in theatres was stunning, attempts to convert the movie to a smaller screen suffer from that process's technical shortcomings. When seen in letterbox format the actors' faces are nearly indistinguishable in long shots.

John Ford complained about having to dress such huge sets since Cinerama photographed a much wider view than the standard single camera process to which Hollywood directors had become accustomed.

An even more difficult problem was and is that the film had to be shot with the actors artificially positioned out of dramatic and emotional frame and synchronization with one another. As only when the three-print Cinerama process is projected upon a proper Cinerama screen, will the positions and emotions of the actors synchronize into anything like normal eye-contact and emotional harmony of two or more actors in a dramatic sequence. In any flat screen projection of the film, the actors appear to never make eye contact, emote to one another, or to act and react to each other so as to carry a complete scene to emotional or dramatic completion.

Stuntman Bob Morgan, husband of Yvonne De Carlo, was severely injured and lost a leg during an accident while filming.[4]

The film would later inspire an ABC television series of the same name.


It currently holds a 93% approval on Rotten Tomatoes based on 15 reviews with an average rating of 7.1/10.



"SmileBox" version of How the West Was Won, as seen on the Blu-ray release of 2008.

There have been efforts, led by HP[5], to combine the three image portions and make the Cinerama image look more acceptable on a flat screen. This has finally been accomplished on the latest DVD and Blu-ray Disc release. The lines at which the three Cinerama panels joined were formerly glaringly visible (as seen in the stills reproduced on this page), but this has been largely corrected on the Warners DVD and Blu-ray Disc, although the joins can still be seen in places, especially against bright backgrounds. The restoration also corrects some of the geometric distortions inherent in the process; for instance, in the final shot, the Golden Gate Bridge appears to curve in perspective as the camera flies underneath it, whereas in the CinemaScope version, it breaks into three straight sections at different angles.

The Blu-ray also contains a "SmileBox" version, simulating the curved screen effect.

The aspect ratio of Cinerama was 2:59:1. Although Warner's new DVD release of the film states the Ultra Panavision 70 ratio of 2.89:1, which was used in selected shots.

The restored Warners release has been shown on television since October 2008, on the Encore Westerns channel.


See also[]

  • How the West Was Won (TV series)
  • How the Test Was Won
  • How the West Was Fun


External links[]

Template:John Ford

da:Vi vandt vesten (film) de:Das war der Wilde Westen es:La conquista del Oeste fr:La Conquête de l'Ouest (film) it:La conquista del West (film 1962) nl:How the West Was Won ja:西部開拓史 no:Vi vant Vesten pl:Jak zdobywano Dziki Zachód pt:A Conquista do Oeste ru:Как был завоёван Запад sv:Så vanns vilda västern tr:Batının Zaferi zh:西部開拓史