Beau L’Amour, Louis son, has started releasing some of his dad’s lost treasures. I picked up one of them, “How the West Was Won.” It’s not one of his original stories, but a novelization of a screenplay written by James R. Webb for M.G.M. and Cinerama Productions.
Author Louis L’Amour
I love the stories of Louis L’Amour and read many of them throughout the 1980s. He was a fantastic storyteller. One of his quotes even applies to my own aim as a writer; “I think of myself… as a troubadour, a village storyteller, the guy in the shadows of the campfire.”
One of many excellent westerns by L’Amour
“How the West Was Won,” is a broad story, perhaps over-ambitious, but improved immensely by L’Amour’s adaption of Webb’s screenplay.
Aside from the enjoyment factor, reading “How the West Was Won,” also awakened some sentimental memories. I saw it at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco when it was originally released in 1962. I was with my parents and a relative from out of town who came specifically to see the film. In those days big budget films had exclusive engagements in select theaters, in what was known then as a roadshow venue. “How the West Was Won” was one of these productions, with the added enticement of the CINERAMA format. For those readers not familiar with CINERAMA, it was a process whereby a film was shot with three synchronized cameras sharing a single shutter. During the showing, the film is presented on a large, curved, screen utilizing three projectors- also carefully synchronized. The effect was awe-inspiring- and with the addition of surrounding stereo, the audience really felt like they were right in the middle of the action. For “How the West Was Won,” this was particularly spectacular. Imagine being in the center of a buffalo stampede, or running the rapids in a raft, or racing along the rails during a train robbery. In this film, CINERAMA also presented breathtaking vistas of vast stretches of an untouched western frontier. Imagine John Ford images on steroids! It was truly a motion picture experience.
“How the West Was Won” follows the story of the Prescott family through several generations and in turn, examines the Westward expansion from the Erie Canal through the Gold Rush, Civil War, and ending in San Francisco of the 1880s. The film was more Hollywood than history, but that was the style of movies during that era. However, what more than compensates for its lack of realism is the pure entertainment value and wonderful performances of actors such as Stewart, Malden, and Fonda, whose likes we will never see again. Yes, its Hollywood’s version of history, but at its very best.
Composer, Alfred Newman’s soundtrack for “How the West Was Won” is phenomenal. It leaves a lump in your throat. Especially the finale when it accompanies images of the present day West- its bridges, cities, and byways (here you’ll notice that the traffic on the LA freeway wasn’t much better- even in 1962 when it was filmed!). There are wonderful songs written for the film by Sammy Cahn and performed by Debbie Reynolds, and The Ken Darby choir also add their voices to several sentimental numbers that you’ll find yourself humming long after the film has ended.
The film won three Oscars: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen by James R.Webb; Best Sound- Franklin Milton; and Best Film Editing, Harold F. Kress. Four directors were hired for the production, each assigned to specific segments: John Ford (Civil War segment), Henry Hathaway (The Rivers, The Plains, The Outlaws), George Marshall (The Railroad), and Richard Thorpe (Transitional historical segments).
“How the West Was Won” boasted a multitude of fine talent: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Carroll Baker, and Debbie Reynolds just to mention a few.
This film was also special to me because of my good friend, Karl Malden. He played Zebulon Prescott in it. As usual, he delivered an outstanding performance alongside Agnes Moorehead, another powerful actor.
Karl Malden as Zeb
Autographed photo of Karl
Another connection was Robert Preston, who portrayed wagonmaster, Roger Morgan. He was a friend of my father, and elsewhere on this website, I tell the tale of how he signed my copy of the “Music Man” novel.
Autographed by Robert Preston
I can’t write about “How the West was Won” without mentioning a well-publicized accident that had occurred during the filming of the train segment. Bob Morgan, the husband of actress Yvonne de Carlo, was doubling George Peppard when the logs on a flatbed car suddenly shifted and dumped him on to the tracks. The axels rolled him under, and he lost a leg, some bones from his spine, and partially disfigured his face.
“How the West Was Won,” certainly opened up a plethora of memories. My thanks to Beau L’Amour for re-releasing his dad’s adaption and reawakening those experiences for me.
Tony Piazza is a Central Coast mystery writer, film historian, presenter, and skilled storyteller well-known for his passion for writing and movies. An author of four mystery novels, and the memoir, “Bullitt Points,” which is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the classic Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt.” He is also a contributing author to two anthologies and has done many interviews for television, radio, and the print and electronic media. Piazza worked regularly on many Hollywood movies and television shows filmed in San Francisco during the 1970’s, including “Magnum Force,” “Towering Inferno,” and “The Streets of San Francisco.” He now blogs regularly about his Hollywood experiences at authortonypiazza.com. Piazza is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and SLO NightWriters. His latest Tom Logan detective mystery, “Murder Will Out,” has just been released. Find it on Amazon website.
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