In the late 1950s, movie studios faced an existential crisis. They needed to find a way to compete with television.
The logical response was to make movies that were fundamentally different than TV: bigger screens, longer running times, bold technicolor, expensive action sequences. The golden age of cinema was over; the era of the Epic Action Spectacle had begun.
Hollywood sent the most talented directors to far-flung locations with huge budgets. The results were consistently mediocre. William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur”: tolerable. Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus”: barely okay.
“How the West Was Won”: unfocused and underwhelming.
“West” is five unrelated episodes from different parts of the 19th Century. The only thing that loosely connects them is that they all feature a member of the Prescott family.
The first episode is the best by far. Karl Malden is fiery and fearsome as family patriarch Zebulon Prescott.
Malden gives us an interesting analysis of the kind of man who voluntarily leaves civilization to settle in the uncharted wilderness. Zebulon is restless and fearless, but also angry and possibly a little mentally ill.
Part 1 also has a sweet love story between Zebulon’s daughter Eve Prescott and a friendly fur trader played by Jimmy Stewart.
Part 2 has a decent but not quite as sweet love story between Eve’s sister Lilith and a riverboat card shark played by Gregory Peck.
If there is any reason to watch “How the West Was Won,” it is the amazing cast. But don’t get too attached to anyone, because the stars leave the story abruptly never to be seen again.
Henry Fonda gives the film’s best performance as a mustachioed mountain man. But soon he’s gone, too. And all we’re left with in the final hour is Eve’s boring son Zeb (George Peppard).
The guys who made “West” aren’t idiots. I assume they knew that George Peppard is not as fun to watch as Malden, Stewart, Peck, and Fonda. But they figured that the expensive train robbery scene in the final act would be enough to keep us happy. They were wrong.
That’s the ultimate sin of the Epic Action Spectacle era in Hollywood: these movies offer jaw-dropping adventure but skimp on the intellectual substance.
Ultimately, Hollywood succeeded in its mission. The movie industry has thrived. Action and spectacle transcend language, so American action flicks are popular all over the world.
What it gained in profit, however, it lost in artistry. Now, the best writers create television shows. The best characters and the most thought-provoking entertainment is streaming in your home. Hollywood is making money. But if I never walk into a movie theater again, I won’t feel like I’m missing anything.