How the West Was Won, Cinerama, and the future of IMAX.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Nov. 11 2008 9:50 AM

Imagine Seeing John Wayne in IMAX

That's sort of what watching How the West Was Won is like.

Quick: Name the highest-grossing film of 1952. Good guesses would include Singin' in the Rain, The Quiet Man, and High Noon. But they all fell well short of the $15.4 million earned by a movie you couldn't watch today even if you wanted to: This Is Cinerama.

What is Cinerama? It was the first of a wave of widescreen processes that debuted in the early '50s. Cinerama used three projectors to fill a giant screen curved to the contours of the human retina. Using films shot by a three-lens camera—in essence, three cameras in one—it created panoramic imagery that filled even the viewer's peripheral vision. This Is Cinerama showcased the format's capabilities, giving the Cinerama treatment to a water-skiing show, Niagara Falls, and the canals of Venice. (Less thrilling: a demonstration of the system's then-new stereo sound via a static shot of a church choir.)

Cinerama arrived at a moment when movies needed to stir interest. The 11 million televisions then in American homes had begun to eat into theatrical profits. In his introduction to This Is Cinerama, impresario Lowell Thomas promised an "entirely new form of entertainment" with "no plot" and "no stars." In the coming decade, Cinerama movies showed viewers the wonders of the world, from a roller coaster at Rockaway Beach to the white-water rapids of Pakistan—travelogues not unlike the glam documentaries that until recently defined the IMAX experience. It wasn't until 10 years later that the first, and ultimately only, two narrative features shot in three-strip Cinerama made their debut: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won, recently released in a new special-edition DVD and Blu-Ray. The latter is worth revisiting—as a cinematic curio but also as a clue to what the future might hold for IMAX.

Cinerama faded before I was born, but my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, became the unlikely site of a Cinerama revival in the '90s, thanks to the efforts of Dayton projectionist John Harvey. Harvey had previously set up a Cinerama screening room in his ranch home—eliminating two bedrooms in the process—and helped the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, set up Cinerama projection in 1993. In 1996, Harvey moved his home equipment to the Neon Movies, a downtown theater that had served as a pilgrimage site for Daytonians seeking art house fare since the mid-'80s. Harvey's Cinerama setup was supposed to have a one-month stay. Instead, it stuck around for more than three years, attracting widescreen enthusiasts like Quentin Tarantino and Joe Dante.

On trips home to visit my parents, I was able to see both This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won, and the experience has stayed with me. Cinerama does only one type of shot better than other formats—long shots in which the camera proceeds into or retreats from an environment—but it does it spectacularly well. Early in How the West Was Won, there's an uninterrupted shot, slightly more than a minute long, that proceeds through the dirt-road center of a young Albany, N.Y., past carts, tradesmen, crude streetlamps, a hotel, and a ticket office, finally arriving at the banks of the Erie Canal, where laborers are unloading a boat. It's a Hollywood vision of the past, to be sure, but seen in Cinerama it feels vivid and dramatic, immersive in a way it could not have been in a traditional format. Later sequences, in particular a buffalo stampede and a shootout aboard a train, achieve a similarly enthralling effect.

Can such spectacles add up to a movie? In the case of How the West Was Won, they mostly do. The film's interlocked stories are designed to depict the heroic conquest of the American West, "won from nature and primitive Man." It's essentially the story of manifest destiny played without irony—unless a final sequence presenting the Los Angeles freeway system as a symbol of humanity's triumph over adversity counts—by an all-star cast that included James Stewart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and George Peppard, among others. Three directors divvied up the film's five segments: John Ford, George Marshall (best known for directing Destry Rides Again), and the dependable vet Henry Hathaway.

Surprisingly, Ford provides the weakest segment, an inert Civil War vignette about the attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant (played by Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H and Dragnet fame). Hathaway, however, looks almost at home. His three segments move the story along and let Cinerama-friendly action build naturally. In Hathaway's hands, Cinerama's third narrative film might have really been something.

But there never was a third narrative picture. How the West Was Won performed quite well financially, coming in as the year's second highest-grossing film, behind the well-attended but still unprofitable Cleopatra and just ahead of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But making and screening movies in this format proved to be simply too difficult. A lot can go wrong shooting with a three-lens camera. Even more can go wrong in exhibiting films shot that way, especially once the format's then-unfamiliar multitrack sound system entered the equation. (Cinerama malfunctioned so often, in fact, that Thomas provided "breakdown reels": short, single-screen segments that could be played while technicians worked on the equipment.) Then there were the visible seams. No image created by three individual projectors will ever match up perfectly at all times, no matter how much care is taken in the setup.

Even when all went well technically, it was still difficult to tell a story with Cinerama. As one actor after another explains in David Strohmaier's excellent feature-length documentary Cinerama Adventure—included as an extra on the new How The West Was Won discs—Cinerama presented forbidding lighting challenges and made simple elements of film grammar like close-ups impossible. It makes sense for the Great Plains to stretch as far as the eye can see; Debbie Reynolds' face is another story.

Narrative films proved too forbidding, but the best parts of How the West Was Won suggest it wasn't so much a dead end as a film ahead of its time. That's even evident watching it on DVD, which flattens out the action scenes but retains some of their impact, and especially on Blu-Ray, which uses a "Smilebox" process, essentially a curved letterbox, to simulate Cinerama's curved screen.

Maybe it's up to IMAX to finish the job Cinerama began. My experience with Cinerama left me skeptical about IMAX for years. Like Cinerama, IMAX is designed to overwhelm, not necessarily to tell a story. I once asked a veteran of the quadraphonic era why four-channel sound systems never caught on. He replied, "Because humans only have two ears." I used to use a variation on this line to describe my reluctance to embrace IMAX, a format I saw as ideal for many-eyed insects but less than perfect for humans, who can't really take in all the action at once. That my most memorable trip to an IMAX theater involved the 1996 movie Special Effects: Anything Can Happen, which spent a perverse amount of time revealing the secrets behind the Shaquille O'Neal-is-a-rapping-genie movie Kazaam, didn't help.

The Dark Knight changed that in a few oversize frames. Christopher Nolan's movieis the first full-length Hollywood film to be shot in part in the IMAX format. The landscape shots of Chicago (Gotham) and Hong Kong felt vivid and immersive, and the action scenes played out with a focused intensity. Nolan's direction keeps viewers trained on what they should be seeing. The rest isn't so much extraneous as it is ambient.

Is this how all blockbuster films will soon look? Or will The Dark Knight be IMAX's How the West Was Won? The latter possibility seems unlikely, especially given the financial boost Dark Knight gave IMAX theater owners. But IMAX will need to find more directors as comfortable with and enthusiastic about the format as Nolan, maybe even one willing to pick up How the West Was Won's challenge and shoot the whole thing in the format. The shifts in framing can be a bit distracting when watching Dark Knight in IMAX, and the question of whether it can be used to tell stories not involving caped men soaring across skylines remain unanswered. The IMAX format has great potential that The Dark Knight only began to realize. But as TV screens get bigger and home theater systems crisper, the time feels right for movie theaters to restate their claim on images that stretch as far as the eye can see.

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