When The Law Took Over | How the West Was Won 60th Anniversary Review

Much is revealed about How the West Was Won in the title alone. “The West” about which we are concerned is less a place than a way of thinking. With locations in Utah and California, we are geographically in recognisable terrain. What is important is the hagiography of these familiar images. We are in the Western. The crucial distinction is in the implied response to a query regarding the provenance of the West. It is uncritically accepted by the genre that the West was indeed won. That it was won suggests contention, a point illustrated in the peculiar opening sequences.

The film opens with aerial shots of dramatic landscapes. Rather than standing level with the ground, dwarfed by the environment, the spectator is placed above the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. Any doubts as to this majesty will be dispersed by the narration of Spencer Tracy, who goes on to explain that the West “was won from nature and from primitive man.” We are placed within a familiar framework. Indigenous Americans are barely present in the feature, except in a later episode where a tribe of Arapaho are betrayed by Union Pacific. Despite this relative absence in the image, the attitude towards Indigenous Americans is demonstrated by the unbridled joy expressed by white settlers meeting in the wilderness. Adding to this ideological frame is an attribution in the credits: “Suggested by a series of stories that appeared in Life.” To bastardise a verse: Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Life Magazine?

How the West Was Won is part of a series of epics put into production by MGM after the success of Ben-Hur. The proximity of purpose to that religious epic goes a long way in addressing the tone of this later work, but I found myself thinking about John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning… (which came even later, in 1966). Huston’s film opens with an evocation of the void via an unfocused image, over which the director recites the opening passages of Genesis. It is hard not to hear the voice of God in Tracy’s narration – that is, the God of the American popular imagination, the God of Manifest Destiny. He speaks as the camera rushes over pristine terrain, already formed. The West was only later created as an image.

Directors Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall, alongside four credited directors of photography – William Daniels, Milton Krasner, Charles Lang, and Joseph LaShelle – set the images in place. Befitting the Biblical tone, the producers had the film shot on three-strip Cinerama. This required the synchronous recording of three cameras, producing film later projected from three projectors onto a wide, concave screen. The results must have been striking. Compressed onto a home video release, however, the process generates a confusion of eye-lines. The impression is of a bulging frame, a convex image creased at the seams. Consider one of Ingmar Bergman’s close-ups of overlapped faces, where one looks towards the camera and the other is rotated 90°. Now move the figures two metres apart and you will get the idea. More amusing is Henry Fonda, screen left, taking aim not at a buffalo centre-frame, but at something well beyond the frame screen right.


How the West Was Won is organised into discrete chunks of spectacle. The shape of the narrative is set in the opening chapter, directed by Hathaway. The Prescotts (notably the father, played by Karl Malden, and daughters Lilith, played by Debbie Reynolds, and Eve, played Carroll Baker) cast themselves West from the Erie Canal. They sing a song for a Scottish family also setting out and there is general chatter of God and open country. There is something in the Prescotts of the nuclear family casting itself backwards into what the American myth insists were simpler times.

Once on their own in the wilderness, the nerve of the Prescott’s will be tested by the arrival of a mountain man. They fear pirates, but the lone figure reveals himself to be Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart in a hairpiece). Notably, this small enclave in the woods is all blonde hair and blue eyes. Linus is on his way back East to “whoop it up” in Pittsburgh. In this utterance is the lie of the pioneer. The mountain man expresses something akin to shame in his pursuit of cards and liquor and sex, but this activity cannot be named. It is, in the film, sterile, neutered behind the irrepressibly boyish coinage. In whooping it up, Linus does nothing besides set himself apart from acceptable (read: Christian) family life. This is necessary because Eve has romantic ideas about going West, revolving mainly around rough, but tender, trappers. The mountain man cannot yet enter the family, standing outside, as he does, the desire for roots.

The Prescott idyll must come to an end. They will first encounter a group of darkhaired pirates (an uncredited, pre-Dollars Lee Van Cleef among them). These will be readily dispatched by Linus, who survives an earlier, unrelated incident orchestrated by the leader of the thieves (Walter Brennan). As though there could be any doubt in a Hollywood picture, the assorted blondes pull together in overcoming their common foe. However, as the Prescotts again set off West, they run their raft into rapids. This is the first in a series of rear-projected perils. Each chapter, barring John Ford’s “Civil War,” offers one such spectacle. (In lieu of rear projection, the Civil War section re-uses footage from a 1957 MGM picture called Raintree County.) Father and mother are drowned, opening a gap at the head of the family. Into this vacuum returns Linus, who marries Eve, securing the nuclear unit and setting up the remaining chapters.

After a forgettable interlude featuring Gregory Peck as a gambler, the bulk of what remains concerns Eve’s and Linus’ son, Zeb (George Peppard). This narrative strand is picked up in Ford’s chapter on the Civil War. Ford’s is the most distinguished segment, in part for its modulation of tone. Corporal Peterson (Andy Devine), in Union blues, rides onto the Rawlings homestead. Linus has already been commissioned as a Captain in the Union Army; an act Zeb wishes to follow. We do not see Jimmy Stewart again, though his wig reappears on a body being pronounced dead. The father has yet again departed. Where the proceeding chapters (both directed by Hathaway) valorise the heroic struggle of the individual (or, metonymically, the family), the Civil War casts a weary, melancholic eye over the idea of heroism itself.

Zeb, shaken by his experience at the Battle of Shiloh, decides to desert at the suggestion of a wayward Confederate soldier (Russ Tamblyn). In the process, they stumble onto a late-night discussion between Generals Grant (Harry Morgan) and Sherman (John Wayne). Both play the kind of weary soldiers that are Ford’s stock and trade, one wishing Morgan had made more appearances for the director. Grant contemplates stepping down. The newspapers blame his command for the elongation of the war, citing the general’s drinking. Departing would be good politics. There is in the sequence a concern between reputation and reality, between the public’s need for decisive action and the reality of leading a campaign. On that reality, Zeb admits: “Ain’t much glory in looking at a man with his guts hanging out.” The Western, by its nature, cannot act on this. The deserting Confederate soldier takes aim at Grant, the ineluctable logic of conflict, a call towards his own sense of duty, superseding the horror of his previous experience. Zeb kills the soldier and returns home a hero. However, his mother having died during his absence, he quickly sets himself back onto the trail. What makes Zeb to wander is not so much an inability to enter communal life, but rather the insatiable need for adventure, his own contributions to Manifest Destiny.

The West was won, according to Hathaway, “when the law took over.” This is demonstrated in the final chapter. Zeb, now a marshal, is confronted by Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach), whose brother he killed in a gunfight. Hathaway again uses darker complexions to indicate menace. Gant and his “galloping gunshot boys” (one imagines them “whooping it up”) are foils to Zeb, the final obstacle to his settlement in the West. Another local marshal, Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) is eager to prevent further bloodshed. If, however, the marshals can catch Gant committing a crime, any such violence would be justified. “The law,” says Zeb, “I’m gonna use the law.” Zeb can both carry out his office and save his hide by himself employing state-sanctioned violence.

As an example of studio glut, How the West Was Won is laudable. The trio of veteran directors deserve credit for maintaining an overstretched coherence. It is also illustrative of a national imagination at ease with violence as principal mode of articulation. The Western lives by that dictum “to speak softly and carry a big stick.” While the film is more loquacious than many Westerns, it nonetheless organises itself around the gun. Americans continue to live and die by it. In the absence of any robust thinking about freedom, independence is construed as the pursuit of property. Independence as Westward expansion, as the building of homesteads and, in the coda, concrete arteries connecting avenues of commerce. How the West Was Won has more to do with John Wayne playing a Green Beret than it does The Wild Bunch. But these all articulate the American imaginary.

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