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.”
10. At least he fared better than Hope Lange, who was cast as Fonda’s daughter and George Peppard’s love interest. Her whole performance ended up on the cutting-room floor.
11. Raymond Massey, who had practically made a career of playing Abraham Lincoln on stage and screen, played the 16th president for the last time in this movie.
12. John Wayne, who played General William Tecumseh Sherman, had also played the character before, on an episode of TV’s “Wagon Train.”
13. Stewart was 54 when he played mountain man Linus Rawlings, who starts out as a character two decades younger but matures to about Stewart’s age over the course of the film. Karl Malden, who played Stewart’s father-in-law, was five years his junior in real life. In his memoir, “When Do I Start?”, Malden recalled that he and Stewart used to kid each other about that. “Once I said, ‘Hey, Jimmy, how about trading hairpieces so I can be the hero and you can be the father?’ He said, ‘You give me the 500 bucks I spent on this rug and you got a deal.’”
14. The shoot took a year. The film cost $ 15 million, an enormous budget for a movie at the time.
15. According to the initial publicity, the proverbial cast of thousands included 12,617 extras. Among them were 350 American Indians from five tribes.
16. One of the Indian actors claimed to have fought in the battle of Little Big Horn.
17. Shooting took place all across the United States. Locations included Paducah and Smithland (as Albany, N.Y. in the 1830s) in Kentucky; Battery Rock, on the Ohio River in Illinois; Courthouse Mountain in the Pinnacles National Monument in California; Custer National Park in South Dakota; Colorado’s Uncompaghre National Forest and Chimney Rock peak; Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border (a location where Ford had shot many a western); the Tonto National Forest in Arizona; and the Inyo National Forest on the California-Nevada border.
18. Stuntman Bob Morgan, the husband of actress Yvonne De Carlo, was seriously injured during the shoot. While he was filming a gunfight on a moving train, chains holding a flatcar-load of fake fiberglass logs snapped, and the logs rolled and crushed Morgan’s leg, which had to be amputated. It took him five years to recover enough to walk again, with De Carlo putting her career on hold to nurse him back to health.
19. The film debuted overseas in late 1962 but wasn’t released in America until February 1963.
20. “HTWWW” won Oscars for James R. Webb’s original screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Score.
21. The film ultimately earned some $ 50 million at the box office.
22. Merchandised with the movie was a novelization, written by no less than Louis L’Amour. There was also a comic-book version.
23. Not everyone loved the movie. In Pauline Kael’s oft-quoted, dismissive review, she wrote, “‘How the West Was Lost’ would be a more appropriate title for this dud epic, since, as conceived by the writer, James R. Webb, the pioneers seem to be dimwitted bunglers who can’t do anything right.”
24. Hathaway went on to direct 1969′s “True Grit,” which finally won “HTWWW’”s John Wayne his first and only Oscar. Two years later, Hathaway directed Peck in the western “Shoot Out,” and their feud resumed. According to Peck biographer Lynn Haney, Hathaway said Peck was “the worst son of a bitch in the world for this picture. He is a cold, indifferent actor. He had no love in him.”
25. A TV series loosely based on the film aired on ABC from 1977 to ’79. Starring “Gunsmoke” alumnus James Arness, the series was quickly forgotten in America but became a cult hit throughout Europe.