When THIS IS CINERAMA was released in 1952, critics called it “The answer to television!” Cinerama was a new process in which three camera magazines were mounted as one. The 27-millimeter lenses, which filmed three separate images with a single shutter, together had the same focal length as the human eye and curved at the same radius as the retina. Those three images were then projected onto a mammoth louvered screen that curved to 146 degrees, forming one giant picture.
A Cinerama showing was an event. Each ticket holder was given a specific seat number, audience members dressed up and no concessions were sold. A separate sound mixer ran the seven-track stereo soundboard, adjusting the sound level for each individual audience. The result was an experience that, according to publicity materials, “could literally wrap the world around a theater seat.”
In 1958, Cinerama teamed up with M-G-M to produce four dramatic motion pictures. As part of this unique agreement, both studios would equally share the costs of the production as well as the profits. Though THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM was released first, HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1963) was the first film under the new agreement to go into production.
HTWWW was never great art, but with its all-star cast, it is entertaining. Three segments of interlocking stories, directed by three different directors (John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall), try to tell a sprawling tale of the old West. But one of the major problems watching Cinerama films on a regular TV screen is the lines dividing the three strips of film, not to mention the odd camera angles.
With a new DVD that was released last fall, HTWWW (the film’s common acronym) has been restored to a luster that probably wasn’t even evident on Cinerama screens. The weird angles are still there, but the lines have been erased for the most part and the jiggling of the cameras has been eliminated. What remains is a cinematic experience that almost convinces you that the film is better than it is. One of the film’s most outstanding elements gets even better with the DVD release—Alfred Newman fantastic score, graciously sharing screen credit with vocal and choral director Ken Darby.
Whether or not you choose to sit through the Overture medley, nothing quite prepares you for Newman’s glorious main title in roof-raising Dolby 5.1 audio. The French horns call across the plains with a true classic Western theme. Newman’s music is majestic and masculine, much like the West that is long gone.
If you watch the newest DVD formats, make sure you tune in to David Strohmaier’s excellent 2002 documentary, CINERAMA ADVENTURE, detailing the ups and downs of this unique film process. If you’ve got Blu-ray (which unfortunately I do not), you can even watch the film in a unique “Smile box” version that simulates the Cinerama experience on your flat-screen TV.