Book Review: MGM / Cinerama How the West Was Won

Publisher: Random House

Year: 1963

Pages: 40

Type: Hardcover

ISBN: N/A

The climax is the greatest train wreck ever filmed.” – The London Evening News

They didn’t mean that the ending of the film was terrible, but that there was an actual train wreck at end of it! I haven’t seen the film myself, so I can’t agree or disagree either way, but I do have this promotional book that was published in conjunction with the theatrical release. And if it’s any indication, How the West Was Won was definitely a blockbuster event!

I’m not sure how this publication was distributed back in the day. The year was 1963 with the film itself being released in late 1962. It could have been made available at theaters. It may even have been sold at book stores as the movie was a huge success and interest in how it was made would have been high. Also, MGM and Cinerama were looking to promote their new projection system, so this book would have gone a long way in doing that.

The book obviously touts the virtues of both the film and the Cinerama filming process. They used a three-camera set-up designed to provide a 146 degree horizontal coverage and a 55 degree vertical coverage of the subject being filmed. That, accompanied by multiple microphones recording the scenes from many different directions, it was designed to put the viewer smack dab in the middle of the action! The end result was said to approximate how the human eyes and ears perceived things.

Did the film have any well-known names in the starring cast? No. It had everyone who was anyone in 1962! It even had Oscar Winners in the supporting cast!

It took not one, not two, but three directors to pull this epic Western off and get it on to the screen. The problems were many but these men persevered and delivered what has become an iconic piece of cinematic history.

After a bit of preamble the book launches into page after page of pictures from the film with blurbs to describe the scenes. Some production notes are also shared.

And no promotional book would be complete without a page or two of incomprehensible technobabble about the processes used to create the film. This book makes Cinerama sound like the greatest thing to hit movies ever, but other sources I read gave a more realistic view of the process. It was fraught with problems and didn’t last long. Not unlike Walt Disney’s attempt to create a new system for viewing his animated classic Fantasia, and how that failed to catch on, we have a similar situation where MGM boldly said ‘Hold my beer’… and regretted it.

If nothing else, this book has made me want to watch How the West Was Won. If you plan on doing so, apparently there is a version called SmileBox, which simulates the curved-screen effect of the original theatrical release, the hallmark gimmick of Cinerama.

I would give this book a solid 4 out of 5 Stars. It is excellent for any student of film but perhaps a little short (only 40 pages) for the avid researcher.

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