Each Monday, I am sharing reviews of Westerns I studied to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.


Week Six: How the West Was Won (“The Rivers” Section)

This past week, I started watching How the West Was Won for the first time. I know, how could I have overlooked this Western epic for so long. Well, like most film watchers, some have escaped me for years. I only saw “The Rivers” section directed by Henry Hathaway, not because I didn’t want to watch more but because I ran out of town, whisked away on a film shoot in the Arizona desert for our “wasteland” series.

But “The Rivers” was the perfect section to start with, especially since it covers some of the same ground I’m exploring in the Natchez Trace films. I was fascinated to see the portrayal of the outlaw hideout in the caves, inspired by the real Cave-in-Rock which will be portrayed in my films. It’s also interested to see what they did with the Samuel Mason-like character played by Walter Brennan here. He’ll be quite different when played by Creek Wilson in my two-part story.

Anyway, I didn’t know much about this epic and I honestly hadn’t done my research about Cinerama either. Though the film isn’t presented in its original format, the DVD image is breathtaking. I was immediately taken by the tableau-like widescreen images. The amount of detail in the frame made me pause the film several times just to get a good look at everything that’s going on. I love the DVD aspect ratio and I’m strongly considering something like this for the Natchez Trace films.

The story and acting are a bit cheesy, at least in this section, but the visuals just carry the film along so well. The river rapids scene is intense and surprisingly effective in his use of rear projection. I haven’t studied much of Henry Hathaway’s filmography but I am very curious to see how he handles action in his other motion pictures. Here, I was quite taken aback by the shooting and cutting of violence. I found it thrilling and sometimes disturbing. Here are a few screenshots from the main action set piece from “The Rivers” which features some graphic moments.

I hope to finish How the West Was Won in the near future. Regardless of its weaknesses, this is certainly a must-see Western.

-Travis Mills

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