If we were to walk into a theatre today and watch a film in which the widescreen image was clearly separated in to thirds, with each third looking different from its neighbour, jumping around and not even marrying up with it, I think that we would be right out the door demanding a refund before the opening credits had even finished! Let alone the aged film and the feedback hiss from the analogue sound system humming away throughout.
But this was not a normal showing. This was piece of cinema history being presented with care and attention as it was and as it should be, warts and all.
This IS Cinerama, a flawed process but an ambitious one. Now, thanks to the work of the likes of David Strohmaier and his tireless restoration of the Cinerama catalogue, beginning back in 2008 with this very film, Cinerama has been significantly cleaned up, with joins between the panels smoothed out as much a possible, the soundtracks cleaned up to near perfection and the colour and contract, especially between the panels, corrected.
But I was so relieved when I learned that this showing of HTWWW was going to be REAL deal. Projected from three separate booths, something is only possible at the Pictureville cinema in Bradford here in the UK, this is how this film was supposed to be presented. The sound, with all its lower fidelity analogue issues was phenomenal. Loud, booming and powerful, delivering all the detail needed harking back to the way that films sounded in the pre-digital era.
The screen also lends itself to a certain amount of criticism, but it is not Pictureville’s fault, but the screens design back in the 1950’s. The screen with a curvature of 146 degrees, it is made up of hundreds of thin, perpendicular strips running from one side to another. They flutter in the breeze and depending on angle, can be quite visible, thereby reducing the sharp clarity of the huge image.
It is authentic but it is just another reason why this process failed. But as a presentation goes, this was a fantastic experience and one which I will not forget in a hurry. Back in 1993, not long after this cinema opened, we watched the first half of This Is Cinerama (1952), all that was available at the time and it was that showing which introduced me to Cinerama in all its glory and now, 22 years later we’re back for the full feature, How The West Was Won and even though I have no problems with the digital version, clean and clear as it is, this is how I want to see this in at the cinema. The real 3 x 35mm Cinerama experience with all its ups and downs.
The following is my review written back in September 2012 for the 60th Anniversary of Cinerama
DIRECTORS: John Ford, Henry Hathaway & George Marshall
May Contain Spoilers!
How The West Won was the first of only two narrative feature films to be filmed in the Cumbersome 3-Strip Cinerama process, the other being The Wonderful Worlds Of The Brothers Grimm, a rarity in its complete form these days. Three director’s were brought on to tackle this epic subject at a time when going to cinema was all about pure escapism and the massive curved screen format of Cinerama, only helped to take the audience away from their humdrum lives and to vast locations around the globe.
IMAX has taken up where Cinerama left off, but the motives of this film are inextricably linked to its success of failures. Overall, the film is decent. It’s not brilliant but as long as you go along with its motivations it can be an enjoyable experience. And that’s the point. This isn’t a master-stroke as where the screenplay is concerned, but it is functional and does what it is supposed to do.
And that is to bring together almost every Hollywood star imaginable and place him or her, in front of a Cinerama camera and tell a contrived story which spans The West from the early days of the pioneers to The Wild West of the post civil war. The set pieces are stunning, though the cinematography is hampered by the camera’s bulk and limitations. For example, with Cinerama being about scale and peripheral vision, the cameras were not able to zoom in too close, leaving everything in wide-angle.
This takes away any sense of intimacy with our characters but it does suit the cameo laden film. This is not about the people, they are merely players and the world, as perceived by Cinerama’s three lenses, is the truly the stage. This is a contrivance to move the format on from its Travelogues of the 1950’s. But it works pretty well. This is an example of cinema trying something new and working hard to make it work.
But in the end, they couldn’t. It would lead to both Widescreen and Imax in various ways and after these two features, Cinerama would move towards a single 70mm strip of film, but How The West Was Won was the best of the era’s attempts to wow the audience with spectacle. As a Western it was above average and as a visual epic it very good, in spite of the technical limitations. But it features scenes of buffalo stampedes, train robberies and white water rafting to name but a few set pieces which are truly dizzying and stunning to watch.
But when all’s said and done, this was an epic attempt to fully realise the doomed format and it was relentlessly contrived to do so. The score was also stand-out for this western, certainly one of the best with the legendary Alfred Newman out doing himself again.
The Smilebox version of the film, which simulates the screen’s curvature was first-rate and along with the brilliant quality of the transfer, minus the vertical lines, and the crisp clear sound makes this a pleasure to watch.
Contains photography by ©nEoPOL 2015 All rights reserved