How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review - Home Theater Forum and Systems -

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post #1 of 10 Old 09-09-08, 05:17 PM Thread Starter
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How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review

"How the West Was Won" was released today in both Blu Ray and Standard DVD in
three versions. The Blu Ray contains the feature in high definition in both widescreen
and Smilebox formats. The standard definition version comes in a three disc special
edition and another box set exclusive edition that has the same materials plus miniature
pressbooks and other publicity. The documentary "Cinerama Adventure" is included in
these versions and there is commentary too.

I guess the first question many of you are wondering is 'how does it look'? Not because
it's a 46 year old film shot in Eastmancolor but because it was photographed in three panel Cinerama.
I saw an original Technicolor three panel Cinerama print in Dayton, Ohio in it's revival back
in the late nineties in seven channel magnetic stereophonic sound. It was an entertaining
'show' but a problematical process. As I mentioned in my review of "Around the World in
80 Days", a show is not a mere narrative feature but an event presentation to 'wow' the
audience...away from their television set and back into cinemas. In this respect it worked
although I prefer the Todd-AO process and bug eye lens which generated a comparable
wide aspect ratio with simulated peripheral vision. Three panel Cinerama was certainly
spectacular but there's no question you saw the panel joins, even with the vibrating
'gigolos' in the projectors to blur them.

Warner/MGM spent years devising a method to remove them and in general they
succeeded to a great deal. For most of the long running time you won't see any
panel joins because they've been digitally morphed together to form the illusion of
a seemless widescreen image while still retaining the peripheral optical effect. However,
given the nature of the format there are still some scenes when they were unable to
blend them completely, specifically in sequences with blue skies because each print was
slightly different and the lenses of each camera tended to give a hot spot in the center
of the frame and then drop off. There's only so much you can do in these cases joining
the seams so you'll still see where the image doesn't match in terms of having a consistent
color across the frame. However, this is nitpicking. They still did an extraordinary job trying
to match the panels and I can tell you that even in Techicolor (which never fades), the three
images didn't match when it was first released.

The sound is a mix down of the very directional seven channel version. It sounds quite good
in 5.1 but not as spectacular as the Ohio screening but there simply aren't enough channels
in current DVDs to accomodate the full Cinerama sound field. So as an adaptation,
it works quite good and is impressive.

Now for the film...

Like all "Roadshow" movies intended to impress audiences with the technology they
were promoting, "How the West Was Won" suffers a bit in terms of character development
and nuance. The incredible all star cast basically has each actor playing a variation on
roles they've played before. Audiences were expected to recognise them and their
characters from earlier features which would fill in the gaps. James Stewart plays
the type of role he portrayed in the Anthony Mann Westerns of the fifties. Debbie
Reynolds plays an entertainer as she had in many other movies. Thema Ritter does her sarcastic side kick schtick. Robert Preston plays the Music Man as wagon train leader. Eli Wallach overacts as his sinister bandido. So if you're an afficianado of old movies, you'll enjoy their roles. If not, you might find it a bit disorienting as characters come
and go (or die off screen) with little fanfare. James Stewart is one of the lead characters
that just disappears after the first part. John Wayne pretty much has a cameo for a brief sequence during the Civil War and so forth. The shortest role is Raymond Massey
reprising his famous Lincoln character that is only in one scene. The parade of guest
stars is similar to the Michael Todd epic in that there are many, many famous celebrities but very little screen time for some of them. Still, it's fun to see the "A" player list from the early sixties along with popular character actors like Walter Brennan.

The movie is very episodic which is a format I like (i.e. "Giant", "The Sand Pebbles").
It takes place over a long period of time and each section has a different director. That accounts for the different styles of filmmaking in each part. One element is consistent and that's the use of 'you are there' effects in the process. The enormous three camera rig is placed on wagon trains (including one that flips over and rolls down a hill), on trains, in ground holes during a buffalo stampede, on rafts and every imaginable place to give you motion sickness which is part of the fun for this type of picture so try to watch it projected on the largest screen you can handle. The Smilebox version which is supposed to simulate what a Cinerama screen would look like from
the back of the theater doesn't work at all in my judgment. It's a curio for a few moments and then very distracting so I recommend watching the widescreen image on a flat screen instead. The end of the movie brings us to the 'modern' era by showing footage from "This is Cinerama" (shot 10 years earlier) which offers a swan song for the three panel format itself. After this movie the Cinerama company switched to 70mm on their deeply curved screens proving that Mike Todd has the right idea all along.

The documentary, "Cinerama Adventure", is very entertaining. I met the producers who were already working on it at the Dayton screening of this picture. It was obviously a labor of love for the filmmakers and they tracked down surviving participants, rare clips and other trivia. Everything you wanted to know about Cinerama but were afraid to ask. As good as it is as a chronicle, I still think Todd AO was the better format and I hope someone does a film about that some day which is also an intriguing story. The only disappointing aspect about this documentary are the Cinerama clips themselves some of which look worn, scratchy and flickering. There aren't enough of them
either. I would've preferred longer sequences showing the Cinerama photography with
voice over narration. In this case the Smilebox process is suitable since they're trying to illustrate what the audiences saw in cinemas fifty years ago.

The "How the West Was Won" commentary is informative and fun as a suppliment. I noticed a squib when Walter Brennan shoots a settler so I'll have to amend my previous discussions about the effect which I thought didn't appear until "Major Dundee" in 1965. I would've liked more details on how they were able to blend the join lines and correct the optical artifacts but it's only mentioned briefly.

Now here's some trivia for film buffs who have read my other posts.
This is how much they cared about the release prints back then...

For each three panel Eastmancolor negative, it in turn was A&B rolled for first
generation fades and dissolves. No grainy internegative footage in this movie.
Not only A&B rolled but they made three matrices for each panel for the dye transfer
prints. So that's nine matrices for each reel. There is no distributor or lab that
puts that kind of effort into contemporary release prints which is why they look so
shabby in the megaplexes. But...DVD distributors do care as you can see from the effort put into these three DVD releases of this classic. So Warner/MGM scanned in each negative of the three panels, then created new opticals, then color corrected it, then combined them to blend the panels and eliminate most of the panel joins into the restored wide screen image for blu ray and anamorphically enhanced standard DVD. It took years to pull this off. Showmanship isn't's just been switched from theatrical to home theaters. Now if they put this kind of effort into contemporary exhibition, I'd go to the movies every week (like I used to) rather than screen DVDs for my family in my home screening room. Back in 1962, the Cinerama prints of "How the West Was Won" were works of art. Current release prints are disposable garbage in comparison. Paid advertising for the far superior home video presentations. Tragic, isn't it?

In summary, I highly recommend these versions of "How the West Was Won". If you have
a blu ray player, be sure to get that copy but if not, the standard edition(s) look the same (with less pixels of course) and will still simulate the peripheral illusion. I bought
both Blu Ray and standard edition DVDs for my vault.

In summary picture quality A, sound design A, cinematography A, story and
screenplay B.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 11-25-08 at 12:22 PM.
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post #2 of 10 Old 09-10-08, 07:23 PM Thread Starter
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Re: How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review

I guess I should add that even without the join lines visable in most shots,
this picture has a very funky looking image when you show it on a flat
screen or monitor. The color and sharpness are excellent and the lenses
have an infinite depth of field. You can see characters in the foreground
and miles in the distance. However, whenever a train, wagon or horse
rides by they curve inwards. On a Cinerama screen this corrects itself
and makes it look like a normal horizon but not when you show it flat.
For some viewers, it might take some getting use to. Otherwise, it's
a great 'show'.
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post #3 of 10 Old 09-11-08, 12:36 PM
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Re: How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review


Thanks for the great review! It was a great balance between the technical and content. I'll definately rent it.

It seems that all movies that rely on the technology to attract audiences forget you need a good story and good acting as well. It will be interesting to see if 3-D is the cineplex savior James Cameron thinks it will be. Maybe he should invest a little in learning how to tell a story and get actors to act. Wait, I remember now, money doesn't buy talent!

I've only seen one digital movie at the cineplex (Wall-E). I found the image a big improvement over the 35mm prints, but still not compelling enough to get in the car and drive to town. I much prefer to sit in my newly minted HT, even with its modest 720P projector, and watch a Blu-Ray from Netflix. It arguably looks as good and definately sounds better than the cineplex.

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Re: How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review


You're welcome and thank you for your kind words.

I didn't want to suggest the acting and story wasn't good in "How the West
Was Won". It's fine and better than most of the junk that passes for screenplays
today. However, with so many stars and cameos there wasn't enough time
to fully develop each character as they would have in a conventional feature.

I don't object to making a movie primarily to show off technology. Cinerama
was spectacular and the two narrative films were better than the travelogues.
However, they should've perfected the system as Michael Todd suggested after
the first film rather than continue to shoot with three cameras and put up with
the panel joins. A near identical process called Cinemiracle was used for "Windjammer"
and they were able to blend the join lines better but the Cinerama company bought
them out to get rid of the competition and didn't adopt their technology to improve
the seams. I know they were experimenting with some kind of VistaVision system with a curved gate and the film being shot horizontally for the extreme wide angle
perspective to replace the three cameras but they decided to just go with 70mm
in 1963. I guess you could argue that now the system does work since they are
able to blend the panel joins and make it seem like a single wide screen image.
However, back then they couldn't. Aside from the optical distortion it was also
a very labor intensive process to exhibit requiring three projectionists and a sound
mixer to turn off specific channels when they weren't being used so the speakers
wouldn't hiss. Todd-AO has the widescreen image and six channels of sound
on one 70mm print and only required a single projectionist which was also in
it's favor. Todd solved the hiss problem by having sound coming out of all six
channels throughout the film. No apparent hiss in magnetic sound also long as
there is something coming out of the speaker.

I really hope these discs sell well so MGM is inspired to restore and blend
the join lines of the other narrative feature, "The Wonderful World of the
Brothers Grimm" which was printed in dye transfer Technicolor. It's also an entertaining Cinerama picture but by no means as good as the Western. The fairy tale segments are very good and imaginative and they carry the movie. The live action scenes between are dull.

I know it's a real long shot and would be very expensive but I hope whomever
is the successor owner of the three panel Cinerama travelogues restores and
releases them on DVD some day or year. If nothing else, they have some of the
most spectacular footage of the locations they filmed including the Pyramids,
Indian railway, a live volcano and many other fascinating places. I know they're
all public domain but perhaps by blending the join lines they can obtain a new
copyright of that version so that others won't pirate them. I belive the Library
of Congress will allow you to create a new copyright for a PD film providing it's
been altered in some significant way. Creating a semi-seemless image and
remixing the 7 channels to 5.1 might do the trick.

For the record, the three panel travelogues are:

"This is Cinerama" (re-issued in dye transfer Technicolor)
"Cinerama Holiday" (Eastmancolor)
"Cinerama Seven Wonders of the World" (Eastmancolor)
"Cinerama Search for Paradise" (Eastmancolor)
"Cinerama South Seas Adventure" (Eastmancolor)


"Windjammer" (filmed in the the similar Cinemiracle system but re-issued by Cinerama
and printed in Eastmancolor)
"Cinerama Russian Adventure" (scenes of the Russian three panel system although
I don't know if the footage still exists-printed in
Eastmancolor in the US)


"The Best of Cinerama" (some of the best sequences in a compilation and probably
printed in dye transfer Technicolor)

As I mentioned in another post, there are three panel bootlegs (taped off a
screen and faded) of "This is Cinerama", "Cinerama Holiday" and "Seven Wonders
of the World" on ebay if you just want to see what the content was. Of course
these PD bootlegs don't look good but it's the only reference right now for home

There's also a licensed CD of the score of "This is Cinerama" which has
magestic music by Max ("Gone with the Wind") Steiner. It even has the
stereophonic sound demonstration which was part of the movie and lots of
fun. Lowell Thomas shouts "Quiet" out of the various speakers and then
explains how stereophonic sound works. If you're a stereo buff you should
buy it for that alone. There's also an old Peter Pan label soundtrack album that
has different tracks than the CD.

South Seas Adventure is also released on CD in a licensed album and the other
Cinerama films have vinyl soundtracks which can be found on ebay along with
the souvenir programs. I have some Cinerama memorabilia including a poster
and program of the first travelogue and program from "Windjammer" which my
father gave me since he saw it when it came out.

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Re: How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review

I had a friend look into this for me. Pacific Theaters owns the Cinerama
travelogues. The negatives are in bad shape, probably very faded. However,
they have black and white separations for them so they could be restored
via the Warner's ultra-resolution process. But it would be astronomically
expensive since each reel would have to be transferred three times, then
blend the three separate colors, then blend each panel into a single panel.
Add to that the cost of restoring the seven channel magnetic mixes which
are undoubtedly very deteriorated and probably suffering from vinegar
syndrome like all aging magnetic film.

Some third party would have to pay for the project. So it will probably never happen.
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Thanks for the additional information. It is very informative!

I think we're on the same page, I just didn't do a good job expressing myself. I, too, have no qualms with releases aimed at showing off new technology. I guess the point I'm was trying to make is that you the movie industry can't count on the technology alone to continue to bring customers to the theater. If the technology doesn't add to the movie, it's doomed to failure. I feel sorry for the theater owners who have had to spend money to upgrade on technology that eventually ended up as just a fad. 3D in the 50's comes to mind.

OTOH there's plenty of technology I bemoan that it didn't end up more widely available. There's tons of movies filmed in 70mm that I would love to see properly projected. There are three theaters in Georgia with 5 perf 70mm projectors, but they mostly sit idle. As much as I enjoy my home theater, there's something special about seeing a good print shown with good equipment at a movie theater.

Thank God for DVD and blu ray players! If it wasn't for the home market, I doubt films like HTWWW would have the talent and money lavished on them for preservation and restoration!

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Re: How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review


There's no question that the studios wouldn't have spent the money to
do a full digital restoration if it hadn't been for the widespread popularity
and success of the DVD format. While some took care to put the best
available copy onto the earlier laserdisc format, it was such a small and
limited market the type of cash outlay required to restore HTWWW wouldn't
have been financially viable.
Of course I agree, there's nothing like watching a 70mm print of "Lawrence
of Arabia" on a 40 to 50 foot screen but that's no longer an option for most
cinemas since they phased out that format back in 1997. The same applies
to 35mm "Glorious Technicolor". At least projecting a blu ray, HD DVD or
properly manufactured standard DVD on a DLP home screen can generate very good
results and it's not as depressing as the thought of watching the classics on
the old, fuzzy and substandard VHS format which was the primary home format
for many years.
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Re: How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review

For those who wonder what 'vinegary syndrome' is, it's technically called 'hydrolisis'
and it's when tri-acetate film decomposes. Tri-acetate replaced the highly volatile
nitrate film between 1948-1951. It was thought it would last for 400 years but now
that's been re-evaluated. The tri-acetate is certainly more stable than nitrate but
it is also subject to extreme warpage if it's been processed and stored incorrectly.
Heat and humidty can do damage to all types of plastic and it's only been in the
last ten years or so that the major studios have installed state of the art and
temperature controlled storage vaults. That should make new movies last for
over a hundred years but it's too little, too late for many older classics that
were stored in horrible conditions for many decades. As tri-acetate decomposes
it starts to shrivel up and smell like vinegar, thus the name 'vinegar syndrome'.
Molecular sieves placed in the cans and improved storage can delay or prevent
deterioration of movies not yet subject to hydrolisis. However, once it starts
to go there is a limited window of opportunity to immediately transfer it to the
newer estar base stock which archivists believe is more stable for the long run.
As always, proper processing and storage are the key factors in a films survival.
Technicolor apparently carefully process and stored the original nitrate three
strip negatives of their system and many of them are now stored at the George
Eastman House archive and are still in good shape. The other thing they didn't
know about at first was tri-acetate Eastmancolor fading which is a whole other issue.
Prior to the advent of 'low fade' stock in 1983 (Technicolor dye transfer prints were
always 'no fade'), all filmmakers shot with negative film that would begin to shift
color and evaporate as soon as it was processed, similar to the way nitrate started
to slowly degrade after manufacture. It's really a miracle so much has survived considering the fact that stock manufacturers and labs were so irresponsible about
their product with Technicolor being the notable exception.

In terms of my movies, I don't trust any third party to preserve my negatives
so I do it myself and all of my pre-print is in good shape.
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Since we're discussing film preservation, I'm sure you're familiar with the thoughts found in this article:

If storing digital movies costs so much, will an even smaller percentage of today's films survive 50 years compared to the films made 50 years ago?

I've long been concerned with the problems you've stated and those found in the article in regards to my personal photography. I made sure that I mostly shot B&W of my boys as they grew up. Now that I shoot digital, I'm worried.

I have glass plates taken by my family that date to the 1880's. I can go home tonight, take one out of storage and scan it in. In 10 minutes I can have a print. I wonder if 100 years from now anyone will be able to see the digital photos that I just took of our newborn grandson.

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Re: How the West Was Won Blu Ray and standard DVD review


I'm very familiar with the problems associated with digital imagery and storage.
I've commented about this in some other posts but will restate it here for those
who aren't familiar with the subject.

As I see it, to preserve a movie you need a 'hard copy'. Ideally multiple
hard copies stored in different areas. I tend to go with the 'rule of three'.
Three hard copies of each movie whether it's a feature, short or cartoon.
What that means is a specific element on stable motion picture film. For the
time being let's forget the past where there wasn't stable stock. Today the
most reliable thing to do is to film in 35mm (even if you use some footage
for digital effects and then output those shots back to 35mm negative) and
have a final cut negative of the movie. From that you make a fully timed and
color corrected interpositive for protection. Then you make a set fully timed
black and white separations of each color for the long run. You store the
negative, Interpositive and B&W Seps in three temperature controlled areas
with molecular seives in the cans to absorb any residue moisture or processing
chemicals left on the emulsion. You should replace the seives every two years.
Aside from the optical/digital track 35mm sound mix, you should make a back up
copy on film. That should be good for at least 100 years or longer.

For release printing there will also be a color internegative (or digital internegative
on film) and color positive release prints but they will become very worn and scratchy from use so I don't consider them archival materials. Of course there will be a 2K or 4K digital video master derived from the IP or the camera negative itself and if there's room, the computer hard drive and HD/standard def tape masters can be stored someplace
too but they aren't archival and will eventually degrade so it's the above mentioned
three elements that are vital for permanent preservation. These elements in this
paragraph are just 'release format' items for the short term.

Alas, here's what some producers and distributors are doing instead. They
are filming in 35mm but then scanning in the dailies and making a final digital master
for the current video format(s) only. The negative is never cut to the final version
and remains in the dailies stage. While they're saving them, that's a lot of rolls to
keep track of (could be hundreds as opposed to 5 or 6 reels for a cut feature) which
will cause problems in the long run and each time a new video system is introduced,
every shot will have to be scanned in one at a time which will be much more
expensive than just scanning in the cut negative as I do.

The other foolish thing some are doing is to shoot digitally, make a digital master
from that in the current format and have no back up out-putting 35mm negative from
that for the future. Some day they are going to lose their data and it will become a
'lost movie' the same way the old nitrate negatives decomposed to brown powder
in the cans years after they were made. I mentioned all this in my earlier post
"Pennywise Pound Foolish". I have a difficult time finding a negative matching for
my latest feature, "What Really Frightens You" since many producers in New York
are opting to just scan in the shots they need from the dailies and not create a
final cut negative. I had to hire someone to do my freelance and I might have to
negative match future films personally. Anyway, I already scanned in my cut negative
and am preparing for the 5.1 mix in a few weeks. Afterwards I'll color correct the
digital master, insert edit the sound mix and I'm ready for release. I still have my
cut camera negative and will make the other pre-print for the future whicih puts me
ahead of many other indies who might lose their movies in the long run.

I've discussed this with some others in the indie field but they don't want
to hear about it or pay any attention. Many just go with the current 'buzz'
words like 'digital' or 'HD' and either don't understand the archival implications
or assume 'someone else' is going to preserve their film.
The first movie I worked on back in 1980 was a low budget horror flick.
I was the sound editor on it. I advised the producer and director to make
their own back up elements for preservation and they looked at me like I was
some kind of lunatic. Well the original distributor and lab went bust and the
negative is now 'lost' unless some film collector retreived it from the garbage
can. The current DVDs are from old prints of the film. I know another who
dropped off their negative to a video transfer facility to make a digital master
for DVD and forgot to retrieve it. Now it's several years later and no one knows
where it is. I gave up trying to advise other indie filmmakers and just concentrate
on preserving my pictures.

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